Thursday, 17 November 2011

A wallpaper memory

Do you have a memory of a specific, childhood wallpaper?

I have been thinking about childhood memories of wallpaper ever since I started working on this project at MoDA.

My most detailed memory concerns a design my Mother chose for our bathroom when we got it redone.

This happened just before or after my Mum was expecting my youngest brother. Anticipating what it would be like to have four small children under the age of nine, my parents decided we would need a much bigger bath for bath times, and so we got a massive corner bath into which we would all fit. From the 'mushroom' colour of this key piece, my Mum extrapolated a vision for the rest of the décor. She was focused and excited about her plans for the room in a way that was infectious; I too happily anticipated how the room would turn out; and I too felt proud of the sophisticated new bathroom we were to enjoy. We were to have tiles in a beige/white combination up to the dado rail height, and upwards of this, a vinyl wallpaper featuring flocks of grey/blue birds flying over pastel beige/peach/cream sunsets would adorn the walls.

This image (licensed under Wiki Commons license) shows the division of the wall into above and below dado rail height; you just have to imagine the bottom half being covered in fadey, wishy-washy white and beige tiles, and the top half covered in seagull sunsets.

Looking back with adult eyes, the wallpaper I recall had a decidedly 1980s flavour; it was sheeny, with a not entirely smooth surface; and the flocks of seagulls in their pastel sunset were slightly embossed and a bit on the silver side of grey/blue. The shades of beige/peach/cream were restrained for a 1980s palette, but may seem garish to modern eyes.

Still, I feel my Mum had a vision for how the bathroom would feel once embellished with her selection of tiles and paper, and I understood - even though I was only about eight years old - that she was doing something significant in designing our living space and giving the bathroom a deliberate aesthetic. I am sure I would not have phrased it like that at the time, but I knew she wanted to make the bathroom into a calm, relaxing, neutral place.

However as I am learning, there is nothing neutral about the potent desires and impulses which lie behind wallpaper - and other home-decorating - choices. Rather wallpaper is connected with deep feelings concerning social standing; public image; one's tastefulness (or lack thereof); and the emotional requirements of domestic space and the effect of design thereon.

My Mother's discussions with me about the decoration of the bathroom impacted on my eight year old imagination to the extent that when we moved on from that house into another house, I felt deeply sad for the loss of that room, in particular. I was regretful that we would no longer be able to enjoy the balmy, pastel-y, 1980s vision for bathing restfulness that my Mum had so conscientiously established, and anxious that the new residents of our house might not appreciate the lovely job she had done with the colours.

What are your wallpaper memories?


  1. We had this amazing wallpaper in our bathroom in the 70s. It was pretty psychedelic - not the colours fortunately, but there were swirls of blues, greens silver and gold. Appropriately watery.

  2. In the late 1950s, I remember wallpaper being put on the fireplace wall of our sitting room in a very ordinary semi. There was a vogue for "contemporary" design (ie modernist but not necessarily destined to be retro in the future) & this wallpaper fitted into that aesthetic. It was black with big amoeba-ish white blobs. In the white blobs were overlapping stylised shapes of fruit & veg in bright colours. We had to cover our schoolbooks in paper in those days, & I thought this wallpaper would make a nice change from the usual brown wrapping paper. It attracted a good deal of comment, much of it verging on ridicule, from my classmates.

  3. @Mikal - I love the idea of watery, psychedelic wallpaper in a bathroom...

    and @Moira - thank you for reminding me of the custom of covering schoolbooks in paper. I remember doing that at school, too. I remember one student covered his geography book with an old OS map and I thought it was an amazing idea. Love the sound of the stylised fruit and veg on black and white blobs... very 1950s.