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The hunt for vintage wallpaper: Where to find and how to decorate with it

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From scenic panoramas to chinoiseries panels

A dining room by Ashley Whittaker that features scenic wallpaper.
Courtesy of Ashley Whittaker.

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2016 and has been updated.

Whether you live in an old house or not, an easy way to bring historic flair into your home is through the use of scenic wallpaper—from grand panoramas to delicate chinoiserie designs. And unlike grand Beaux-Arts mansions and genteel Georgian brick houses, though, these wallpapers are elements of the past that are still being produced and incorporated into design schemes today.

If you want to get in on the panoramic action, how should you best go about doing that?

If you’re in the market to buy antique wallpaper, be prepared to search high and low. “All the early wallpapers are gone—they’ve completely disappeared,” says Suzanne Lipschutz, founder of vintage wallpaper purveyor Secondhand Rose. “I have some wallpaper from 1880 and 1910. I keep them humidified, but many [rolls] have disintegrated.”

Lipschutz, whose customers range from private clients to the set designers of American Hustle, got her start in the wallpaper business after falling in love with old paper designs that she uncovered while renovating a house in upstate New York.

She went on to explain that while she still finds European wallpaper from the 1960s and 1970s, she most often comes across papers printed in the 1990s that recall the patterns of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

”Cases of vintage wallpaper being found and reinstalled in a new room usually come with a rather extraordinary story,” says Max Sinsteden, partner at interior design firm Olasky & Sinsteden (and a former Curbed Young Gun). “But the patina of age that comes along with the antique papers is simply magical.”

If you keep an eye out, it’s not uncommon to find a house on the market today with vintage wallpaper already in place. Case-in-point: A house currently on the market in Natchez, Mississippi with a central hall covered in Zuber’s Scenes of North America wallpaper, one of the most popular Zuber prints.

Not in the market for wallpaper that comes with an entire house attached? You can also scour eBay, 1stdibs, and online auction houses. A heads up: often what you’ll find will be specific scenes and incomplete sets. On eBay, a nearly complete set of Zuber’s “El Dorado” scene is currently up for grabs. Don’t be deterred if the set is missing a panel or two—if brand that produced the scene is still in business, like Zuber, it can be contacted to help complete the set.

An entry hall by Ashley Whittaker.
Courtesy of Ashley Whittaker.

The tradition of scenic and chinoiserie wallpaper has also spawned modern wallpaper companies that carry on the craft of hand-painted scenics. After a frustrating attempt to restore hand-painted Chinese antique wallpaper in his house, Claud Cecil Gurney founded de Gournay in 1986, which has since become known for its chinoiserie and panoramic wallpaper designs that can be customized in every way possible.

”I absolutely love using these fabulous papers—it gives a wonderful starting point for the entire color palette of a house,” says interior designer Ashley Whittaker. “We often use these impactful wallpapers to set the tone of a house. You don’t want them hidden in a back room. It’s something you want to see immediately in a foyer or dining room.”

A panel of de Gournay wallpaper.
Courtesy of de Gournay.

Whittaker said that you shouldn’t be afraid of layering mirrors and artwork over the wallpaper: “Don’t treat it like it’s so precious. The more it acts like a layer, a backdrop, the better.”

And while it’s impressive—even a status symbol—to have showstopper wallpaper in a public room of your house, Sinsteden told us chinoiserie wallpaper has been “highly regarded in the decorating context from Elsie de Wolfe onwards,” there’s something to be said about the luxury of having these special papers in a more private area of your house.

”We are trying to encourage a client to use chinoiserie wallpaper by Gracie in her bedroom instead of her dining room,” says Catherine Olasky of Olasky & Sinsteden. “At the end of the day, she’ll see it and enjoy it so much more!”

The one bit of advice universal to using these wallpapers? Make sure they are installed with a muslin backing. In a previous piece, we spoke to master paperhanger Jim Yates, who described a three-part installation process for high-quality wallpapers. The result of such an intensive process is a paper that can actually be taken off the wall and moved if you ever move from your home. One of the more famous examples is when Jackie Kennedy Onassis moved Zuber wallpaper—Scenes of North America, yet again—into The White House in the 1960s from a house that was slated for demolition.

These wallpapers ultimately become heirloom objects, something that can stay with a family from generation to generation, a concept not usually associated with wallpaper. And if you are lucky enough to come across vintage wallpaper? Don’t worry if it has a few imperfections. “Watermarks and staining actually help to make the paper even more beautiful,” says Whittaker. “Embrace the imperfections!”