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Issue Four: 18th Century French Wallpapers

Today's collection is a series of printed wallpapers ("papier peints") from the online archive of the French National Library, Gallica. The wallpapers were primarily created between 1790 and 1805, and showcase a variety of styles from trompe l'oeil architecture to bold geometry. The particularly large collection of over 3,000 samples is an unexpected result of a 1793 law requiring all wallpaper manufacturers to deposit a sample of any new designs at the National Library—a process meant to limit French producers from copying each other's designs at a time when counterfeiting was rampant.

The surge in popularity of wallpaper during this period, like many trends of the 18th and early 19th Centuries, was catalyzed by an increase in trade between Europe and China. The West was enamored with the works on paper being imported from abroad, and British and French companies soon began to create block printed reproductions, and original patterns, to meet the vast demand for new designs. The enthusiasm for wallpaper was so great in France at the time that it actually led to a shift in interior design; domestic spaces were restructured to reduce humidity and heat, making it possible for wallpapers to stay glued to the walls, and design features like inset door and wall panels were introduced to provide more substrates for wallpaper application. 

What I find most exciting about this collection, as both a practicing designer and wannabe design historian, is how readily it breaks my assumptions about what certain time periods really looked like. Before encountering these, if you had pressed me to describe wallpaper in the 1700’s, I’d probably have imagined lots of florals and pastel pinks (thanks Sofia Coppola). Instead, the designs here range wildly in color and form, even resembling other, much later, movements like Art Deco or Art Nouveau. New technologies have taught us that even the the idealized white marble of Roman sculpture is a
myth—it's about time we take a second look at more of art history to see how much is assumed or simplified.

Want to try hunting yourself? The Casual Archivist database and archive resource list here has some great places to start.

Looking for something specific? I might be able to help. 
Email me!


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Elizabeth Goodspeed
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Providence, RI 02909

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