Wallpaper 101: Types, Removal & When to Call an Expert

Wallpaper design — and its application — has come a long way since its earliest days in the 3rd century BC. Although many argue that it never really left, there has been a clear ebb and flow in collective interest and attitudes toward wallpaper in residential design. 

For our clients, wallpaper — more broadly referred to as wallcoverings — is the perfect way to add visual interest to a space. Perhaps it’s with a bold pattern applied in measured doses, or a broader application of a monochromatic, woven wallcovering for a warm, textured look. Whatever your intended use, there’s the perfect wallcovering for the placement.

The Origin of Wallpaper Design 

Grasscloth wallpaper in dining room
Grasscloth wallpaper installed in the dining room of Acampora Interiors’ Cozy New England Colonial project. Photo: Jessica Delaney.

First, let’s start with a brief but fascinating history of wallcoverings. Wallpaper originated in China during the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC), making its way west centuries later. The earliest surviving example of European wallpaper resides at the University of Cambridge and dates to 1509 AD.

Throughout the years, wallpaper has fallen in and out of favor. First considered a luxury item in Europe, it was highly sought-after. But, as printing capabilities improved and the product became more accessible to the masses, it lost cachet. It was maligned as a poor imitation of the fabrics used in the homes of the wealthy. In the 1700s, a tax on wallpaper in England once again made it an upmarket good, and further advances in printing during the Victorian Era fueled its popular revival when the tax ended 124 years later.

Today, wallpaper is seeing its latest renaissance. While modernist design of the late 20th century emphasized monochromatic spaces with bare walls, the maximalism of the 21st century has paved the way for a resurgence of wallcoverings.

Wallpaper Installation

Ceiling wallpaper
Ceiling wallpaper in the powder room of Acampora Interiors’ Watch Hill Coastal Retreat.
Ceiling wallpaper
Ceiling wallpaper in the powder room of Acampora Interiors’ Watch Hill Coastal Retreat.

Wallcoverings aren’t for everyone; at the end of the day its use comes down to personal preference. But there are certain rooms where the right application of the right wallcovering can completely transform a space, or bring a room together. “Two of the most popular spaces in which paper is installed are powder rooms and dining rooms,” says expert Sarah Smyth. “It’s easier to splurge on a powder room because of the limited wall space.” 

Smyth is a true wallpaper veteran, having installed countless wallcoverings for interior design firms in and around New England. She says another popular application is in bedrooms, where accent walls are particularly in-demand. When creating a bedroom accent wall, first choose a focal point for the room. While this tends to be the wall that anchors the headboard, it doesn’t have to be. Once you’ve installed your wallcovering on your accent wall, choose a paint color that supports the room’s overarching palette for the remaining walls. 

Another application, perhaps more surprising, is installing wallpaper on ceilings. “It’s the ‘fifth wall’ for many rooms,” Smyth says. “A papered ceiling can work as a nice complement for a room with painted walls, or it can add more warmth and interest to a room with wallpapered walls.”

Types of Wallpaper

There are many types of wallpaper available in the market today, in various styles, prints, and materials. And for each available wallpaper material, there are permutations that come pre-pasted, non-pasted, or even DIY-friendly peel-and-stick wallpaper. So what type of wallcovering is right for your space? Let’s start with the different wallpaper materials available.

1. Fabric

Schumacher embroidered fabric wallpaper
Schumacher Cynthia Embroidered Print in Blue. Construction: Embroidered fabric.

In the world of 2021 wallcoverings, one thing is certain: fabric wallpaper is in demand. “Textiles are very popular right now,” says Smyth. “They add depth and texture to walls. The color variations in any textile make for a richer tone than plain paint can offer.” Fabric wallcoverings are applied by cutting the material into panels that fit the height of your walls. Then, the panels are attached with a liquid starch solution, typically comprised of cornstarch, baking soda and water. Fabric wallpaper is not recommended for spaces that generally attract moisture, such as bathrooms or kitchens.

2. Flock

What is flocked wallpaper? Flock wallpaper features a raised pattern on the surface of the wallpaper that resembles cut velvet. This look is achieved by applying many tiny fabric particles known as “flock” to the surface of the wallpaper. The resulting application offers a velvet-like feel to the touch. This is a wonderful choice for those looking to create a warm, textured feel to their space. 

Flock wallpaper was originally created to mimic the look and feel of cut-velvet tapestries, emerging sometime between the mid- to late-18th century. Flock wallpaper was originally composed of a woolen byproduct, though modern flock wallpaper is made of synthetic materials like rayon, nylon or polyester.

3. Grasscloth

Grasscloth wallpaper
Annie Selke Home Fiji Wallpaper. Construction: Grasscloth.

Grasscloth wallpaper, or natural wallpaper, is woven from completely natural fibers such as hemp, jute, reed, arrowroot, or yes — grasscloth. Because it lacks a synthetic covering, these wallpapers require more careful cleaning (often best left to professional stain removal services). But the effect achieved is a warm, textured look that works beautifully in most any space.

4. Non-Woven

Non woven wallpaper
Ballard Designs Tiny Leaf Wallpaper. Construction: Non-Woven.

Non-woven wallpaper is a newer invention. These wallcoverings are made from a combination of natural and synthetic fibers. While they match vinyl wallpaper in durability, they’re plastic-free. That makes them an environmentally-friendly option and sensible for homeowners who wish to avoid PVC.

5. Paper

Paper wallpaper
Graham & Brown Anthriscus Dusk Wallpaper. Construction: Paper.

Paper-based wallpaper is a beautiful medium for printing vivid color and patterns. While typically more affordable, paper wallpaper is far less durable in nature than other materials and types and is prone to tearing and scratches. These more delicate wallpapers are best left for low-traffic spaces, like a bedroom accent wall.

6. Paper-Backed

Paper backed wallpaper
Ballard Designs Chinoiserie Floral Wallpaper. Construction: Heavyweight Acrylic Coated Paper.

Paper-backed vinyl wallpaper is exactly what it sounds like. The wallcovering starts with a paper base material, to which a liquid vinyl coating is applied, upon which the wallpaper design is ultimately printed. This results in a more durable wallcovering that is moisture-wicking and can generally be wiped clean.

7. Vinyl

Vinyl wallpaper
Abel Light Blue Textured Wallpaper from the Radiance Collection by Brewster Home Fashions. Material: Vinyl.

What is vinyl wallpaper? Vinyl wallpaper typically contains polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or acrylic type vinyl coating, synthetic materials that are designed to enhance the performance of the wallcovering. Vinyl wallpaper is most popular due to its versatility and relative ease of installation, cleaning, and removal. Because it meets specific performance requirements, it is a perfect choice for high traffic areas that endure more daily rigor. Options range from solid sheet vinyl wallcoverings to vinyl-coated fabric or paper options.

Different Styles of Wallpaper

Grasscloth wallpaper installed in entryway
Grasscloth wallpaper installed in the entryway of Acampora Interiors’ Cozy New England Colonial Project. Photo: Jessica Delaney.
Powder room wallpaper
Bold print wallpaper installed in the powder room of Acampora Interiors’ Cozy New England Colonial Project. Photo: Jessica Delaney.

Beyond materials, a range of wallpaper styles abound. From toile and damask, meant to mimic their namesake fabrics, to modern abstract and geometric patterns to traditional murals or florals, there is a style of wallpaper to suit any room or design aesthetic.

“Classics, like stripes and small prints, will always be on the list because they complement so many types of decor without overwhelming the space,” Smyth says. Patterns can also perform double-duty, adding beauty and dimension to a room while masking any imperfections on the wall below.” Other popular wallpaper trends that clients are loving include mural wallpaper and metallics.

Mural Wallpaper

Mural wallpaper
Thibaut Villa Garden Mural in Robin’s Egg.

One of the most popular of-the-moment movements is undoubtedly mural wallpaper. The distinction between mural wallpaper and traditional wallpaper is the nature of the pattern itself. While traditional designs typically feature a single pattern that seamlessly repeats, mural wallpaper is more in line with installing a work of art. Designs often feature a scene or narrative such as a landscape or mountain view. Its most popular application is in dining rooms, but the right mural wallpaper can find a home almost anywhere.

While mural styles may be different today, the history of wall murals is a tale as old as time. Their earliest roots can be found in prehistoric cave paintings, ancient Greek and Roman tapestries, and later, Asian wall panels and painted screens that depicted narratives. One wallpaper mural design dating to the 1830s is currently featured in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House.

Metallic Wallpaper

Metallic wallpaper
Graham & Brown Sashiko Wallpaper.

Another wallpaper trend that’s catching fire in 2021? Smyth says the industry is currently gravitating to metals. “Metallic wallcoverings are popular right now,” she explains. “Metallic backgrounds with an ink print, metallic prints on a matte ground, or a wallcovering with metallic highlights—these are all examples of how to infuse a little ‘bling’ into your decor.”

How to Remove Wallpaper

How to remove wallpaper

If you choose to replace previously installed wallcoverings, the first task is to remove the existing paper. Can you paint over wallpaper? The short answer is yes, you can, although Smyth advises against it. This makes the removal process more difficult in the future and sometimes causes bubbling when the moisture from the paint seeps into the paper underneath.

An industrious homeowner can attempt wallpaper removal on their own, but Smyth says, “it’s a game of patience.” If the wallcovering begins flaking off in little pieces or the painting or sheetrock comes off with the paper, it’s time to call in a professional.

Following the initial removal, it’s crucial to clean any glue residue off the walls. “If glue is left on the walls, it will create a texture under whatever coating (paint or wallpaper) is applied to the wall,” Smyth says. There are some instances, however, where the best way to remove wallpaper is simply to call the professionals.

How to Hang Wallpaper

Wallpaper installation

Likewise, hanging wallpaper requires diligence and persistence. Professional installers may make the process look easy, but that is because they possess an arsenal of tools and expertise.

If you opt for a DIY wallpaper installation, Smyth says the most essential tool to invest in is a straightedge. “That’s how we make corners look sharp,” she explains. The other essential is an open calendar. Even a small, simple room requires deep focus and attention to detail, and for novice installers, that requires time.

“If you’re having consistent trouble lining up a pattern, are having to work really hard at getting the seams to butt, or are growing really frustrated, that’s probably the time to stop and make the call to an expert,” says Smyth.

Setting a Budget

Grasscloth wallpaper installed in a dining room
Grasscloth wallpaper installed in the dining room of Acampora Interiors’ Cozy New England Colonial project. Photo: Jessica Delaney.
Powder room wallpaper
Partial installation of a powder room in Acampora Interiors’ Cape Cod Antique House project.

Whether you wish to hire a professional or install the wallpaper on your own, it’s crucial to set a realistic wallpaper budget from the start. This begins with purchasing the proper amount of paper.

How to Measure for Wallpaper

As far as how to measure a wall for wallpaper goes, there are three factors to consider:

  1. The width of your paper
  2. The pattern repeat and repeat type (drop, half-drop, random, etc.)
  3. How the wallpaper is packaged

Wallpaper packaging can be confusing. Smyth says, “Often wallcovering is sold in ‘x’-yard increments but packaged in ‘2x’ or ‘3x’ or ‘10x’ increments. Wallcovering can be packaged in many more different lengths. It’s very important to know how many continuous yards of paper are provided in order to figure how many lengths can be cut from a package.” If this math is already making you dizzy, consulting a professional from the start is likely your best option.

Beyond the cost of raw materials, contractors consider several factors when quoting the cost of installing wallpaper, including the size of the room, how much furniture must be removed, and ease of access to the space. Smyth recommends that you ask any contractors you interview about their wallpaper hanging experience and request that they submit quotes in writing.

Transforming Your Space

Wallcoverings have the power to add dimension, depth, and attitude to any room in your home. From traditional stripes to metallic geometrics, the versatility of the medium means there is a style to suit any taste.

If you are interested in exploring the world of wallpaper, consider beginning with a small space, like a powder room or accent wall. If you are fully ready to implement it in your home, there’s no limit to how you can express your personality and creativity with wallcoverings throughout your home.