Floating trees with foliage like red clouds form the dominant motifs of this unusual, slightly psychedelic early twentieth-century sidewall. This excellent example of an Art Nouveau-style paper was made by Benton, Heath, & Co. of Hoboken, New Jersey. American wallpaper producers first started making papers in the Art Nouveau style in the mid-1890s, after examples made in London by such designers as CFA Voysey and Walter Crane were exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The influence of their particularly British version of Art Nouveau can be seen in this sidewall in its fluid forms and sense of flatness. However, its design is unique, bearing little similarity with the swirling floral patterns often seen in those designers’ work.

Interestingly, this paper was illustrated in a contemporary publication, “Building a Home” by H.W. Desmond and Henry Frohne, editors of the magazine “The Architectural Record”. The publication was a guide to prospective home owners and included directions on how to create well-designed interiors. The sidewall appears in the book in a photograph of an incredibly plain interior with the caption “A good example of excellent simple furniture, woodwork, and wall treatment.” The exuberant paper stands out against the rigid furniture and barrenness of the upper wall space. In the accompanying text, the author’s rail against modern wallpapers that they called “L’Art Nouveau freaks” and declare that plain or burlap single-color wallpapers were the ideal for new home decoration. The authors, in their advocacy for plainness and rejection of historical imitation, seemed to follow the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. The presence, then, of this Art Nouveau paper in their example of ideal wall treatment is quite interesting and demonstrates how the seemingly contrastive nature of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts style could nevertheless be synthesized in one interior. The illustration also demonstrates the shift in wall division in the 1890s from the early Victorian tripartite arrangement of frieze-sidewall-dado to dual arrangements like frieze-sidewall. Thus, we see how this paper was part of larger turn-of-the-century shifts in taste.

Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.

The book is fully digitized and can be found here:

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