As your gaze gently sinks into the shimmering abyss of this composition, you notice a flurry of well-coordinated activity as fish flit across the inky black ground, with some moving so rapidly that all you catch is the golden gleam of their scales as they zip along. After a moment of being mesmerized by their dance, you begin to notice slower moving fish drifting along with the current through the tangle of aquatic vegetation. At first glance, it is difficult to determine which design movement inspired this paper but upon further inspection we can see that its composition is set within the popular trend of organic design albeit with a retro twist. Striking the eye first is the paper’s nod to art deco with its metallic details and repeating geometric shapes, but then we come to notice the curves of the fish bodies, small, round bubbles floating up, and the seemingly suspended foliage, which are all indicative motifs of organic design. As design movements, art deco and organic design are often not thought of together, since art deco often focuses on highly stylized, non-natural patterns while organic design is all about nature, so seeing them work together harmoniously in this paper is a treat.

As for more technical details on this wallpaper, it is a sidewall that was screen printed and manufactured in 1954. Besides its glimmering aquatic imagery, its special feature is that it is washable making it perfect as a bathroom paper. In America, washable wallpaper was introduced by the Imperial Paper and Color Corporation in 1934 and perfected by United Wallpaper in 1947. The paper created by United was called “Varlar” and was washable due to its use of vinyl. Previously, so called washable papers were still susceptible to damage but the introduction of vinyl as a material allowed for the papers to be safely scrubbed without risking the integrity of the colors. (1)

Emily Ewen 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.

1.) Hoskins, Lesley. The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns, and Techniques of Wallpaper. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. 2005.

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