Imitation leather papers meticulously reproduce the grain, patterns, and coloring of antique leathers. While these wallpapers were expensive to produce due to all the handwork necessary to capture the embossed leathers, they were much less costly, and quicker to produce, than actual leathers. This sample was produced by M. H. Birge & Sons around 1910, but high-end leather papers had been popular since the late 19th century, witnessing a renewed interest during the Colonial Revival movement of the early 20th century. During the height of its popularity, leather papers were being produced in Japan, all across Europe, and the United States.
Birge received many accolades for their imitation leather papers, and produced these papers in both historic and contemporary styling. They also worked in actual leather if requested by a client. Leather papers were expensive because they were a labor-intensive product. The papers were woodblock printed, embossed, and then antiqued or glazed by hand with an oil color. The paper support required substantial weight to withstand the embossing process.
This paper was designed in a contemporary style which is seen in the more open nature of the design and the lighter ground color. The design is also more delicately rendered than traditional leather panels but still copies the multitude of textures embossed in the surface. While this paper still carries the look of the antique leather panels it is styled and colored to appeal to modern Mission or Arts and Crafts interiors.
If leather wasn’t your thing, there were a number of other relief wallcoverings that all came into vogue in the late 19th century. These include: Lincrusta-Walton, a heavy, washable, linoleum-like product; Anaglypta, a light and flexible embossed paper; Tynecastle Canvas, canvas pressed by hand onto wooden molds; and grass cloth, made from woven plant fibers.
Gregory Herringshaw is the head of the Wallcoverings Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.