This Global Expert Raises Wallpapers from Their Everyday Anonymity

Handcraft is the New Sexy is an original series for THE PLUS exploring the role of traditional techniques in the digital age. Explore with us the irreplaceable tactile experiences you’d never get from factory production.

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Wallpapers are something so ubiquitous that we have a tendency to forget about them in our everyday life. British artist Allyson McDermott wants to change this mind-set.

We visited Allyson in Bath to talk about the historic past, creative present and digital future of wallpapers:

Having spent decades designing wallpapers for homes and recreating the interiors of historic buildings such as The Palace of Westminster, Allyson has become one of the world’s leading wallpaper experts.

She knows how to astonish people with her craft: “Many of my clients have come into my showroom and just gone ‘wow!’. I think it inspires them to be much braver than they would normally be.”

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We asked Allyson some questions to find out more about her craft.

THE PLUS: You’re a wallpaper expert. What does your day-to-day work look like?
Allyson McDermott: My days are never the same, that’s what’s partially so exciting about this job. One day I could be visiting a palace to look at a wonderful, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper. Another day I may be on a building site in a hard hat with steel cap boots up a scaffold trying to find tiny fragments hidden away behind walls or underneath floorboards. Or I may be in the studio mixing paints or looking down my microscope to try and identify original colours.

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TP: On many occasions you worked in historical buildings, such as The Palace of Westminster. How do you approach a wallpaper conservation project?
AM: When we’re asked to go and undertake a conservation project it’s usually because a house has been damaged by fire or by flood. It could also be because of its particular association with somebody important, or that the wallpaper itself is of great importance. It’s our task to take care of it and make sure it lasts for the future. So, it’s a huge privilege but also a great responsibility.

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TP: How much time of your work do you spend on researching historical wallpapers?
AM: Research is a huge part of this job. I have to understand how an old wallpaper was made. One has to really get the feeling for the building, the wallpaper and the people who lived there. Also, my team and I have to do a lot of microscopic tests. We try to identify colour in order to understand how the wallpaper was made at that time.

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TP: How do you recreate colours?
AM: When we are recreating colour we have to keep in mind that we’re often in historic buildings. In many cases the colours are very faded or they have changed a lot over time. Originally though, the colours were very vibrant, bright and alive. That was the way that people used to show their wealth. I think we tend to forget that when we try and reproduce interiors that look sort of faded and elegant. They never were! They were shiny and really ‘in your face’.

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TP: What is memorable about recreating and designing wallpapers?
AM: The whole process is wonderful, immersive and enjoyable. Still, you have no concept of what it’s going to look like until it goes up on the wall. That experience can be extraordinary. You’ve been working on it very closely, trying to get it absolutely right by looking at every little piece. Then it’s taken away and hung on the wall. You walk into the room, look up and you go: ‘Wow! Did I do that?’

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TP: Is there any particular wallpaper pattern you like to work with?
AM: I love working on Chinese wallpapers because they’re so beautifully painted and the materials are so fantastic. They are one of my greatest inspirations. The pigments are amazing. In the 18th century, they used to call it ‘Oriental Spring’. You feel like you are surrounded by birds and butterflies. It’s as if you are visiting a magical kingdom – which of course is how we used to see China.

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TP: What attracts people to historical wallpapers and how does that play into your design for clients?
AM: Many people have come into my showroom here in Bath and just gone ‘wow!’. I think it inspires them to be much braver than they would normally be. They start thinking ‘maybe that would work in our house’, instead of just going for modern greys and pale colours. I have a very good relationship with my clients, we do it together. I prepare a selection of five or six wallpaper designs for them. They can then choose which one they think is the most appropriate.

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TP: The world is becoming more and more digital. What influence does that have on the evolution of wallpaper?
AM: Looking into the future, I think digital printing is incredible. Digital printing enables us to take a tiny fragment of a historic wallpaper, work it up on the computer and print it off digitally. Also, we are working with other designers now to see if we can introduce things like LEDs and moving elements within those wallpapers.

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TP: How will you pass on your knowledge and the traditions of wallpaper-making to the next generation of designers?
AM: We want to encourage and showcase young creatives to help them start a completely new generation of wallpaper designers. We use the techniques that we’ve learnt and try to introduce them into the digital age. We want to encourage young designers to realise that you can be creative and play with it in order to make your mark on the design. Wallpaper is an extraordinary medium with which one can reach out to people.

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