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The Fabric of Art

(June 2010) posted on Mon May 24, 2010

Find out how Rusty Arena applies his passion for art to a long-running career of creating unique, screen-printed home décor.

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By Andy MacDougall

A short history of wallcoverings
Screen-printed wallcoverings are nothing new. Like many of the range of products made with the screen process, this industry sector existed in Japan and China long before it made an appearance in Europe. Originally handpainted, wallpaper manufacturers tried to imitate fabric coverings by offering an economical alternative that was printed using wood blocks and hand coloring. English wallpaper dates back to at least 1509, where a remnant discovered in 1911 was printed on the back of a proclamation by Henry VIII. Examples from the following centuries are found in England, France, and other European countries, where it became popular among the rising merchant class and grew more ornate and colorful over time.

Innovations in production brought stenciling into the mix, used to apply repeated color areas and shapes. Flocking also appeared in the 1600s, and colored papers were introduced from China by the beginning of the 1700s. Multi-panel designs became more common. Governments jumped on wallpaper as a tax source in 1712, nailing domestic producers as well as imports. This didn’t slow down the industry, but it did result in a law making falsification of a government wallpaper stamp a death penalty offence in 1806. The English took their wallpaper seriously back in the day.

Finely detailed wallpaper was imported from France and England into colonial America, and a home-grown industry sprang up during this time period. Producers kept adding new elements and design motifs, in-cluding borders and large panoramic scenes made from 20-30 intersecting 10-ft x 20-in. panels. The repeal of the wallpaper tax in 1836 led to an explosion in demand and the patent for the first wallpaper-printing machine in 1839. Screen printing became widespread as a production method in the 1920s, and designs changed to suit the tastes of the times. Vinyl wallpaper was introduced in 1947, pre-pasted papers in the 1950s, and high-speed rotary screen-printing presses in the 1960s. This transformed the long, hor-izontal step-and-repeat systems that were the standard in decorating fabric and wallcovering for centuries into a high-speed, high-output roll-to-roll operation.


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