'What shall we do with our walls?' Wallpaper in America: From the Seventeenth Century to World War I, by Catherine Lynn. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. $45.00.
'What shall we do with our walls?' asked Clarence Cook, a 19th-century art critic. Catherine Lynn's "Wallpaper in America" examines one way people have answered that question.
Written mainly from primary sources, "Wallpaper" provides a well-documented analysis of this largely untapped area of the decorative arts. The abundance of color plates makes it a candidate for the coffee table, but the scholarly text would be most useful to those interested in historic interiors.
The book covers the period from the 17th century through World War I, when clean white walls came into mode. Documentation, Ms. Lynn explains in the book, is not always easy.One problem is that wallpapers are perishable and were not made to last. Pieces before 1750, for example, are extremely rare. And, as in many categories of the decorative arts, it is difficult to pin specific dates to styles and pigeonhole them into a clearcut outline.
Carefully preserved papers from illustrious Americans such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson were a useful source in the research. A manuscript in George Washington's own hand, for example, gives what is probably the most famous set of directions for hanging wallpaper.
Although written from an American perspective, "Wallpaper" devotes large sections to the English, French, and, to a lesser extent, Oriental wallpapers that fashioned the drawing rooms and tastes of Americans through the 19th century.
The 1870s and '80s rank as the high-water mark of interest in wallpapers. A barrage of interior decorating books came out at that time, and the subject of wallpaper, according to Ms. Lynn, was given "an almost unbelievable amount of space."
In typical Victorian style, even wallpaper became a moral issue of "truth" vs. "falsity." Charles Locke Eastlake's landmark work, "Hints on Household Taste ," decreed that wallpaper patterns should be two-dimensional like the surface they covered -- not deceptively three-dimensional.
"Flat should be decorated with flat ornament," said Eastlake. And any shades of color indicating depth or relief "should be strictly avoided."
Eastlake's dictums were so widely accepted that no self-respecting American would succumb to certain French papers, for instance, that indulged in landscapes or luxurious florals.
Although "Wallpaper" concentrates on the Victorian era and the 19th century in general, it gives ample attention to the earlier days and to the development of interest in papers around the turn of the century.
In addition to covering types of papers such as landscape, flocked, French arabesque, floral, architectural, fresco, Japanese leather, and later revivals, the book includes a section on color schemes (with an appendix of color terms) and how wallpapers were used. The production of wallpaper and the influence of technology is explored as well.