This swishy trompe l’oeil wallpaper is currently on view in the Cooper Hewitt’s interactive immersion room, which is a wonderful place to visit on a dreary February afternoon.

Block printed in shades of grey and yellow, this grisaille drapery pattern was produced by French manufacturer, Robert Caillard, and distributed in the United States by the firm of Nancy McClelland. McClelland (1877 – 1959) was a prolific interior designer and a tireless advocate for instating professional standards in her chosen field. In 1951 she became the first woman president of the American Institute of Decorators (now the American Society of Interior Designers). Her own tastes ran towards the neoclassical looks of the early nineteenth century, and in 1941 she wrote: “Wall-papers of this type were good in our grandmother’s day, and they will be good enough for generations to come.”

This sidewall in particular can trace its roots back to the French Empire Style as espoused by Napoleon’s famed decorators, Percier & Fontaine. Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine originally teamed up while studying architecture in Paris, after which they spent time observing antiquities together at the French Academy in Rome. By 1801 Percier & Fontaine had been noticed by Napoleon, and were appointed as official government architects. That same year the dynamic duo published Recueil des décorations intérieures, a book that historian Cybel Gontar calls “an essential handbook of the Empire style.” In their publication Percier & Fontaine recommended draping walls with heavy silks—a technique the decorators turned to frequently in their renovations of the French royal residences. Drapery-inspired wallpapers were not far behind, and were much appreciated for those without the budget to match their Napoleonic taste.

Anna Rasche is a student in the History of Decorative Arts & Design graduate Program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.

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