Washington — IMAGINE looking beyond a marble balustrade into a luxuriant garden, or gazing through classical stone arches framing a limitless cerulean sky. One does not have to sit on the terrace of a French country house or an Italian palazzo to savor these views. Using large-scale scenic wallpapers, a variety of romantic vistas can be enjoyed from a Manhattan studio or a traditional suburban home.
As Americans continue to look to Europe for design inspiration, scenics covering entire walls and other trompe l'oeil wallpapers are as successful now in creating an Old World aura as they were when first introduced to this country in the early 1800s. To judge from the myriad of trompe l'oeil papers available on the market today, using fool-the-eye techniques to add charm and character to otherwise nondescript rooms has not lost its appeal.
``The market for scenics is expanding everywhere,'' says Bernard Gelbert, president of Robert Crowder & Co., a Los Angeles-based firm that produces both hand-printed and painted scenics. ``People are interested in using them in small apartments. Scenics give perspective and open up the whole space.''
Under the guise of an Italian landscape or a Japanese garden, walls hung with scenic wallpaper panels literally seem to melt into the distance. Unlike the sometimes disconcerting trickery of mirrors often used to expand space, panoramic wallpapers achieve a similar effect with a more relaxed, soothing touch.
The French, who perfected the art of trompe l'oeil, are masters at creating high-quality ``panoramiques'' and papers that imitate costly materials and soften hard-edged modern interiors.
Zuber & Cie, based in Alsace, France, is one of the oldest companies still producing scenics and other trompe l'oeil papers using traditional hand-blocked methods. In an effort to expand its American market, the Zuber company is currently introducing several new designs for export.
Using the original woodblocks carved in the 1800s, the Zuber company is able to achieve a degree of detail and depth of color difficult to match with modern methods. The more complex scenics can require up to 2,000 woodblocks to produce the full mural. One such scenic, ``Les Vues de l'Am'erique du Nord,'' hangs in the diplomatic reception room at the White House.
Each of the Zuber scenics, sold through S. M. Hexter Company in the United States, consists of nonrepeating panels about 24 to 28 inches wide, which are applied to the wall much like ordinary wallpaper. Scenics do require a careful eye to match the panels so the landscape flows smoothly in sequence from one panel to the next. Since the panels are nonrepeating, they can be fitted to most wall lengths.
Prudence Carter Fuller, an Atlanta interior designer, has worked with new and antique Zuber papers for the past nine years throughout the Southeast. They go with both antique and contemporary furniture, she says, and ``they wear well. People never get tired of them.''
Zuber papers produced today are chosen from among 130,000 document papers in the factory's archives. The choices range from classical scenes, exotic landscapes, and chinoiserie to ornamental borders, specialty wall-papers, and a host of architectural moldings. There are, for example, seven versions of dado moldings -- four simulating marble in various colors and three imitating different kinds of wood. Used with real chair rail and baseboard moldings stained to match the papers, explains Gilles Humbertclaude, Zuber & Cie's US representative, they create an illusion of expensive wainscoting.
Architectural papers are often used to frame the scenics. They can also be combined with other ornamental designs such as flowers in vases for a small vignette above doors or at the end of a hall. Two of the new specialty papers imitating loosely draped tulle lace and a rich forested tapestry can be used for dramatic effects in small dressing rooms or alcoves.
The more contemporary Zuber designs include a fresh series of atmospheric background papers produced by subtle gradations of color. These washes of color are designed to be used in combination with architectural columns, balustrades, or friezes. A clean-lined scenic called ``La Mer'' suggests a succession of waves that diminish to a minimalist horizon.
Brunschwig & Fils is another company noted for its trompe l'oeil papers. One nostalgic wallpaper called ``Mignonne,'' a documentary design from the Mus'ee Des Arts D'ecoratifs in Paris, simulates folds of flowered fabric rippling along the wall. A more opulent version of the draped-fabric theme is ``Tenture Flottante,'' which creates the effect of walls hung with sumptuous swagged panels of shimmering moir'e.
On a more rustic level, another Brunschwig design called ``Adirondack'' imitates the walls of a log cabin. One paper and coordinating Gothic border capture the look of a stone wall from an English castle. A Greek frieze depicts Empire motifs and figures imitating relief sculpture.
The oldest, and most expensive, form of wall mural is the hand-painted scenic.
``A room of hand-painted wallpaper is expensive, but the people who choose it would probably spend more on art if they chose to decorate that way instead,'' says Brian Gracie, president of Gracie Inc., which specializes in hand-painted Oriental scenics. The Far Eastern designs depicting blossoming trees, birds, rockery, and other ancient motifs offer lively color and a bold scale.
To meet the demand for these papers, even at their high cost, the Gracie company is expanding its studios both here and abroad. Robert Crowder & Co., which has produced only hand-painted designs since 1948, is now adapting some of the designs for printing on paper-backed vinyl to reach a larger market.