Sonic Wallpaper

It is possible to buy every conceivable kind of visual distraction or design feature when putting a room together by sight, but we rarely consider the acoustics, sonic properties, or sound-qualities of the spaces that we live in. How would it be if one could design domestic spaces sonically, selecting soundscapes for spaces in the same ways that one picks out wallpaper designs?


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

Some of you may remember the Sonic Wallpaper project* which I instigated a couple of years ago at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture. A group of artists then studying at Middlesex University – Martin Thompson, Lucia Chung, Simon James French and James Finn – participated in that project, and together we explored and developed sound pieces in response to MoDA’s collection of wallpapers. We began by studying samples and discussing how the process and ritual of decorating living spaces might be translated into a sonic project; we then developed different project ideas and created a range of works.


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

Lucia Chung and Martin Thompson found the resonant frequencies of their living room and then played those frequencies back into the space as sine tones; James Finn had the lovely idea of producing a mobile kit for reproducing one’s domestic space sonically in foreign environments; and I wrote a score which I pinned onto my bathroom mirror which instructed me to find the pitches within the noisy drone of the extractor fan in my bedsit shower room**.

That short series of workshops and study sessions was characterised by a wonderfully experimental approach. There was great willingness to explore amongst all participants and support from the staff for this unusual use of the wallpaper collection. However in the time that has passed, I have come to think that perhaps the most interesting thing about Sonic Wallpaper was the home-based creativity which emerged from mixing ideas from the world of Soundart with the everyday practice of home-decorating. Everyone participating in the workshop began to play in and experiment with domestic space in a very affirmative way in order to explore the ideas we discussed at MoDA. I am interested in how that process – of taking art ideas into domestic contexts – can be continued. I am also interested in refining my own process of working with sounds, and in the idea of developing further Sonic Wallpapers which reflect some of the same wishes, desires, subjectivities and creativity which are inherent in how people decorate their home spaces.

I am not as interested in the resonant characteristics of spaces in a scientific way as much as I am in opening that secret door to the sound situation that you experience in a room.

– Alvin Lucier


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

I am pleased to say that there will be a new Sonic Wallpaper project taking place over coming months at MoDA; one which will allow me to further develop these ideas. There will be interviews, there will be wallpaper, there will be sounds… there will be Sonic Wallpaper! I have the sense of being at the start of something wonderful, and have ordered some books to help me think and work through a new series of ideas. On Tuesday, I went to MoDA to begin shortlisting the papers that will be involved in this second round of the project.

There is nothing quite like actually going through the boxes of paper at MoDA and seeing wallpaper samples from the end of the 1800s right through to the 1970s and 80s to get you excited about wallpaper. Some papers seem so fantastical to modern tastes that it is almost impossible to imagine putting them onto a wall, let alone to imagine a sonic equivalent.


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

Other papers in the collection are instantly recognisable and provoke an immediate feeling of nostalgia and longing for the cherished environments of childhood; relatives whose homes we remember; or designs which we inherited when we moved somewhere.


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

I initially noted that we needed abstract, floral, figurative, textural, garish, neutral and dull papers, thinking that this would be a good starting point for a nice range covering the many eras represented by the collection and providing an excellent stimulus for discussion. However, I found my mind straying from this list as we looked, and thinking instead about desire and memory.


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

This 1930s paper seems exotic and glamorous to my eyes. It makes me think of movie sets. It relates less to the daily ritual of papering walls, and more to the whole aspirational/fantasy side to home decorating, and I love it for that.


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

Similarly, this design makes me think about Victorian illustrations as though you get caught up in Johnny Carrera’s world just to look at it.

However, this last print – by Edward Bawden – is my favourite amongst all of the papers that we looked at. I love the way the ink lies on the page, the colours and geometry of the cows against the curiously-shaped fields, and the crooked, romantic way in which it suggests the rambling English countryside. A sonic equivalent could be created by placing tiny speakers spread out over the walls and periodically releasing the munching, mooing sounds of cattle through them. Such cows could be recorded from a near or close position, to recreate the playful scales evidenced in the design. Barley could be planted outside the room housing this particular Sonic Wallpaper and a window could be situated to allow the sounds of the wind ruffling through it to pour into the room. Especially creaky oak flooring could be fitted into the room in order to bring the woody sounds suggested by the inky trees in Bawden’s design… Unfortunately for the MoDA project there is not enough time or money to floor such a room or plant/harvest a field of Barley outside its window etc., but dreaming about it and recording the sounds from similar things will celebrate and promote the possibilities of sonic home decorating – a concept to which I am firmly committed!

It is no surprise to me to discover that my favourite wallpaper from Tuesday’s shortlisting process relates immediately to some of my favourite sounds. This just goes to show how personal tastes and subjectivity play an enormous role in how we think of wallpapers and home décor. I think it will be amazing to see how the individual visions, tastes and preferences of people who participate in this project will shape it.

I hope that everyone involved in the project will feel strongly drawn to certain papers in the collection, and that our discussions will develop into the rich basis for new sound works… but with papers like these, how can they not?


Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

*Clips from that project and the works that we created were included in the podcast series that I produced for Sound and Music’s Cut & Splice Festival 2009 and can be heard here.

**The idea here was that this act would involve “redecorating” the unpleasing sound as I brushed my hair or did my make up. Singing and finding the pitches in the fan’s noise became a pleasure which I looked forward to, thus sonically transforming an unpleasant acoustic area in the way that one might redecorate an ugly wall.

***Sarah Pink is a Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, and her book Home Truths: gender, domestic objects and everyday life, is one of my favourite studies of domestic practices and objects

5 Responses to Sonic Wallpaper

  1. tomofholland says:

    What a magical collection of papers. I’m especially drawn to the second one, as there’s so much to guess on what the complete pattern repeat might look like. It leaves lots of room for sounds. Having grown up in a house without wallpaper (we had plain painted walls, brickwork (!) or textured plaster – just on the right side of artex) I wonder if you could come up with a sonic equivalent?

    • A sonic equivalent for artex/textured plaster/bricks would have to be based I think on your memories and associations of those kinds of walls.

      Brick walls inadvertently make me think of walking, and of the sounds of wandering around Reading taking a million photographs of Victorian brick, but that is obviously different to your associations of brickwork inside the house.

      With this project I really want to understand what effect wallpaper has on a room; the atmosphere or emotional consequence of its presence… and then to try and find a sonic equivalent. So if the plasterwork makes the room feel bigger and roomier, maybe the sounds are more echoey and resonant… if the plaster is warm and clean and bright, maybe the sound of an open window in a small, airy room would be a kind of sonic equivalent… do you know what I mean?

  2. Nancy says:

    I always love your posts; they are a real treat. Thank you!

  3. Wendolene says:

    What a fascinating project; Thank you for including so many pictures of the lovely wallpaper! Sounds really do define a space; when the noisy air vent in my office goes off, the bliss of quiet is very quickly replaced by a creeping sense that _something is not right_.

  4. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Archive » Sonic Wallpapers and subjectivity

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