The 11 Most Iconic Wallpaper Prints (And The History Behind Them)

by | Dec 3, 2021 | Signature Kitchen & Bath Blog | 0 comments

Shivani Vyas for Better Homes & Gardens on the most iconic wallpaper prints.

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Wallpaper styles fluctuate over time, based on popular culture, fashion, and global events. For centuries, designers and homeowners have rediscovered its versatility—but only a few prints have proven to be truly timeless.

According to The Atlantic, in 105 B.C.E., a Chinese court official named Tsai Lun created wallpaper as a mixture of linen, hemp, mulberry bark, and bamboo fibers. Soon, scenes of genealogy, gods, and natural paradises were hand-painted on this new material and displayed on walls.

Eventually, softer linens, like cut velvet, silk, and tooled leather, replaced this new material—a transition that made printing and painting easier. Wallpaper was also an economical alternative to tapestries, improving insulation and concealing cracks. Many early wallpapers mimicked more expensive materials, including brocade and wood. Flock wallpaper, made to resemble cut velvet, also gained popularity in the early 1600s.

As wallpaper became more affordable, colorway, pattern, and material options greatly expanded. But a few prints have proven to be truly timeless.

1. Damask

The earliest surviving piece of European wallpaper was created by Hugo Goes of York in 1509. It showcased a damask-style conventional pomegranate design derived from Islamic prototypes and later imitated in Italian and Spanish textiles.

Damask is a heritage design most recognizable for its symmetrical medallions. Heavy, rich fabrics, like silk and linen, were used to weave early damask ornaments on handlooms. Metal or gold threads were also woven in, making damask wallpaper a luxurious statement piece only the wealthy and noble could afford.

Damask Wallpaper Today

Damask prints form the ultimate sophistication for antique, vintage, and glam homes. The pattern is typically used in formal living spaces, dining areas, and powder rooms, but modern applications extend to kitchens, hallways, and bedrooms as well.

2. Chinoiserie

Despite its name, chinoiserie did not come directly from Asia. Chinoiserie first appeared in the palaces of Louis XV of France and King George IV of England, amongst other monarchs and aristocrats. The term chinoiserie comes from the French word chinois, or “Chinese.” Chinoiserie became a European imitation of East Asian artifacts and art, often displaying fu dogs, birds, flowers, landscapes, pagodas, or dragons.

Chinoiserie Wallpaper Today

Chinoiserie is a decorating classic most often paired with traditional interiors. When ginger jars (containers originally used to store spices in ancient China) were imported to Europe, they took on the purely aesthetic purpose often seen today. Along with wallpaper, this design can be found on lacquered wood and porcelain or ceramic jars.

3. Toile

A French classic in the 1700s, the term toile comes from the French word meaning “canvas” or “linen cloth,” which entered the English language around the 12th century. Toile can refer to the fabric itself—a test garment typically sewn from the same material—or a repeated surface decoration customarily printed on the same fabric. Its full name is Toile de Jouy, and the wallpaper pattern features a repeating motif with a pastoral theme of water scenes and country living.

Toile Wallpaper Today

Toile wallpaper continues to charm in country, farmhouse, and rustic-style homes. Sheila Bridges’s Harlem Toile de Jouy is a contemporary version of the wall covering, exhibiting typical pastoral scenes intertwined with satirized depictions of modern-day African American life. The pattern is housed in the Smithsonian Design Museum’s permanent wallpaper collection.

4. Floral

Originating in China, floral wallpaper patterns became a staple to the British aesthetic, rising in popularity in England during the Rococo and Victorian eras of the 18th and 19th centuries. With the arrival of color printing in the late 17th century and the ability to join several sheets of paper together in a roll, the market for creating larger, more complex wallpaper designs expanded.

Upon the Industrial Revolution, machines started producing designs at a faster and cheaper rate, no longer making wallpaper exclusively affordable to aristocratic society. In the 20th century, modernism took hold in homes (think: stark white walls and geometric shapes), causing floral prints to fall out of favor.

Floral Wallpaper Today

Flowers symbolize natural beauty and freshness. With brightly-colored and muted tones available, and styles ranging from abstract to vintage, this wallpaper pattern caters to nearly every aesthetic.

5. Strawberry Thief

William Morris was a British textile designer, poet, artist, conservationist, and socialist. He encouraged his contemporaries to follow the one golden rule that fits everything: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Strawberry Thief was produced in 1883 and is one of Morris’s most popular repeating textile designs. It was inspired by the birds that stole fruit from his kitchen garden at his countryside home in Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire. Indigo-discharged and block-printed cotton were used to create this design, which was originally intended for curtains or drapes around walls.

Strawberry Thief Wallpaper Today

This pattern inspires many forms today, including wallpaper, tablecloths, and pillow coverings. With two thrushes facing each other, strawberries, leaves, and rich doses of color, this print pops in any space.

 6. Plaid

Plaid emerged in Scotland in the 16th century and was used to describe Celtic skirts worn to protect people against brutal winter weather. Plaid’s original name was “tartan,” which consisted of various materials of different colors woven together in a striped pattern. Loggers are partly to thank for plaid becoming popular in America. Classic red-and-black buffalo plaid was introduced by a mill in the 1850s, and the first flannels launched in 1936. The 1990s grunge movement also influenced today’s plaid.

Plaid Wallpaper Today

Whether blown-up buffalo check or small-scale tartan, plaid forms a classic backdrop for a rustic-style ranch, cabin, or country home. Plaid’s multi-dimensional look also transitions perfectly to throw pillows, bedding, drapery, and wall coverings.

7. Stripes

According to The Inside, stripes were historically only worn by those considered outside the social order, including prostitutes, criminals, and servants. This connotation ended in the 1800s when Queen Victoria dressed her son in a sailor suit for a royal event and the marine motif took off. While on holiday on the French Riviera, Coco Chanel was also influenced by sailor uniforms and created her 1917 nautical collection, which launched the cabana stripe into fashion and design.

Striped Wallpaper Today

Striped wallpaper runs the gamut from contemporary to traditional, with a wide variety of widths and color schemes. Stripes expand living spaces visually, reshaping and elongating their height or width; try them in a small space, like a powder room or mudroom.

8. Zebras

The House of Scalamandré’s playful leaping zebra wallpaper was originally designed in the 1940s for the Gino of Capri restaurant. Flora Scalamandré, wife of Franco Scalamandré, free-handed this signature design, which has been featured in films such as Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite.

Zebra Wallpaper Today

This print is still showcased in fabrics and wall coverings and was recently introduced in Williams-Sonoma’s organic duvet cover and shams collection. The iconic zebra pattern has also made guest appearances on paper products, footwear, face masks, and more.

9. Trellis

Trellis (also known as treillage) is an architectural structure made from an interwoven framework typically used for holding up and displaying climbing foliage. Countryside gardeners first invented these structures to support growing vines. According to The Design Pool, King Louis XIV hired an architect to build trellises in his garden at Versailles.

William Morris is believed to be the first to create a printed trellis wallpaper, inspired by his Arts and Crafts style home, The Red House, in Kent. Morris borrowed the trellis pattern from his garden and created the illusion of three-dimensionality.

Trellis Wallpaper Today

The idea of bringing nature indoors isn’t new to interior design. Trellis wallpaper is a no-fail option for any style and space, and modern patterns range from more traditional, curvy looks to more straight-lined modern choices.

10. Banana Leaf

This vibrant green wallpaper motif was designed in 1941 when Lucille and Remy Chatain Sr. of CW Stockwell textiles asked illustrator Albert Stockdale to design a wallpaper that exuded the jungle landscapes of the South Pacific. The banana leaf Martinique pattern launched in 1942, and it was featured as the trademark of the remodeled Beverly Hills Hotel in 1949.

Banana Leaf Wallpaper Today

This tropical pattern is ideal for a regency look or as an accent to pair with stripes and solids.

11. Hexagon

Hexagons have a long history in the design world. Often viewed as nature’s perfect shape, thanks to its appearance in honeycomb, among other natural elements, hexagons are prominent in architecture, including tile, accessories, and lighting.

However, the pattern grew to prominence as wallpaper when English interior decorator David Hicks started designing vibrant geometric prints for aristocratic clients in the 1960s. Hexagon is one of his most in-demand designs and is still available through Cole & Son.

Hexagon Wallpaper Today

Hexagon prints bring a polished geometric background for a contemporary interior. Opt for a large-scale pattern for a modern application.