Sonic Wallpapers – The Book

A couple of weeks before WOVEMBER began, I was at the UK Knitting and Stitching Show presenting Sonic Wallpapers to the public at the exhibition stand of MoDA – The Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture.

For this exhibition we had framed some of the original wallpaper samples used for the project. Each framed sample had a list of the sounds recorded, and a QR code in the label, which provided instant access to the relevant sound piece for anyone with a smartphone and barcode scanner.

BADDA 2298, image © MoDA Museum and used with their kind permission

Sounds recorded: church organ, indoor swimming pool, the ocean, seagulls

We also had a stack of books on display for people to browse through;

BADDA 2298 inside the Sonic Wallpapers book

…and a laptop set up with headphones, so that people could listen to the sound pieces for any of the wallpapers presented.

For anyone unfamiliar with this project, I was commissioned last winter to produce a project for the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture exploring their historic wallpaper collection through sound. Since we normally think of wallpaper as being both silent and entirely visual, you might wonder how I went about doing this…

I began by exploring the historic wallpapers at the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture. There were certain restrictions on which papers could be used; designs in sample books would be harder to frame, and so all of these were ruled out. I spent some days absorbed in contemplating several boxes’ worth of loose papers, and wondering how people might respond to them.

From the beginning, my selection was informed by sound.

With each design, I asked myself whether people might remember anything similar, and what kinds of associations each design might evoke. I was also aware that MoDA had previously done an exhibition called ‘Outrageous Wallpapers’ and I didn’t want Sonic Wallpapers to recycle too many of the designs publicised by that exhibition.

I also didn’t want to confront participants with wallpapers so outlandish that they would have no idea how to respond to them beyond ‘WOW THAT’S MENTAL’ or wallpapers designed for non-domestic settings. From the outset this was to be a project focussed on the domestic soundscape, and so the focus lay on wallpapers which might easily be envisaged in homes of now or homes recalled from the past.

This meant we came up with a very different selection of designs than if some visual factor had been the leading factor for the short-listing process. I am pretty sure that one of my favourites for the project (BADDA 4384) would never have been selected were it not for my focus on sounds.

BADDA 4384, image © MoDA and used with their kind permission

At some point I chanced on a tiny selection of very fragile and tiny wallpaper samples. They are too delicate to use in the framed version of Sonic Wallpapers, but one of them has made it into the book we have produced.

SW 1029, image © MoDA and used with their kind permission

These fragments seemed so much to be artefacts from the past that I suspected they would evoke memories for everyone who saw them; that the patina of age on them would remind people of long-gone loved ones and houses which hadn’t been redecorated in many years. I think most people can think of a house like that.

After short-listing a selection of wallpapers, I asked willing volunteers to come and share their responses and opinions on what I had pulled out of the MoDA collection. After conducting interviews, I took away and edited all the discussions, and created long lists of sounds to record for each wallpaper design based on that audio.

My intention was to use field-recordings to expand on the fantasies and memories evoked by each design.

BADDA 2301, image © MoDA and used with their kind permission

For instance this flock wallpaper fascinated people, who wondered how on earth it had been made. It also reminded folks of fuzzy felt, childhood memories of going to Indian restaurants in the 1970s, and cosy candlelit parlours with big open fires. I created field recordings in a wallpaper factory, at our local curry house, in my kitchen, and beside my fire and mixed them with the interview material, to create a little mix of ideas about this wallpaper, in sound.

Each of the 18 designs that have ended up in the Sonic Wallpapers book has formed the basis for a similar sound-recording/editing process.

As you can see, this was always an exploratory, questioning project, involving multiple subjectivities. The wallpaper collection was first of all edited through a mix of practical considerations and my own aesthetic and focus on sounds; then the way those papers have been interpreted is informed by the individual sensibilities of the people I interviewed. But this was never an exercise in creating definitive statements on the meaning of these wallpapers; rather, it was an enquiry into exploring something familiar in a new way, and an investigation into whether or not thinking in sound can give us new impressions or ways of understanding or encountering something as humble and as everyday as wallpaper.

An interesting thing occurs when you interview people about something we have in common – washing up; brushing your teeth; how to make a great cup of tea; – the resulting audio creates an agree/disagree response in a listener who eventually hears it. At Alexandra Palace, the most frequent feedback I got from listeners was that they either agreed or disagreed with what other people had said about the wallpapers. This is brilliant, because the whole point of Sonic Wallpapers is to open up how we can think about wallpaper!

I gave Mark a CD of all the soundpieces I created for this project, and he enjoyed driving to work and listening to it, trying to imagine what all of the pieces being discussed actually looked like. He likes the book and all the designs, but he was most interested in trying to imagine all the different places referred to sonically in the sound-pieces.

Not everyone likes the way I have edited the Sonic Wallpaper pieces…

…but I also got some other feedback, sadly not documented in writing, (people seem much happier to complain in writing and to compliment in person) in the form of people smiling and nodding as they listened to Sonic Wallpapers; talking to me for a while about wallpapers from their own lives; asking me about the project; or just quietly walking around the framed samples of wallpaper and listening to the accompanying sound-pieces on their smartphones.

Some people were anxious because they felt they couldn’t give the project the attention they felt it deserved in the busy environment of the Alexandra Palace UK Knitting & Stitching Show. I was happy to reassure everyone of this view that the UK Knitting & Stitching Show is an extremely challenging listening environment; that it was never our intention that people should listen to all the pieces in the hubbub of the show; and that – rather – we just wanted to give everyone the chance to see the actual physical pieces of wallpaper that the project was based on, and to alert folks to the existence of Sonic Wallpapers! I explained to quite a few people that in my view the best way to enjoy Sonic Wallpapers is to stick the CD on, lie down on the sofa with a cup of tea, and briefly dip into a world of imagining DIY as you never have before.

If you are interested in hearing the pieces, all the sounds are all available to hear online here. I am interested in where listeners are when they listen; if I have something I really want to hear which requires careful listening, I put it onto my iPod and take it for a walk. I also sit in my bed and knit as I am listening. For work which is about the domestic soundscape, I think these personal settings are much more apposite than a big concert hall, or the austere white walls of a gallery space.

I am happy therefore to announce that I have one copy of the Sonic Wallpapers book to give to someone who would like to have a domestic listening experience for themselves! The book has all 18 wallpaper designs from the MoDA collection used in this project, and a CD in the back which contains all the soundpieces. There are introductions both by myself and Zoe Hendon who is the curator of MoDA, and notes on what people said, and what sounds were recorded, for each wallpaper included in the project.

Sonic Wallpapers book

Sonic Wallpapers CD

To win a copy of the book, you just need to leave a comment here about a wallpaper that you remember from your life, and one sound you recall from the room where that wallpaper was. If you cannot think of a wallpaper design and a sound, you could also leave one thought/response you have to this project. On 24th December, I will draw a number at random and post out a copy of the book to the winner!

Many thanks to all the supportive people who helped this project to come about, and especially to all the folks who trudged out to MoDA in November last year, to look at old wallpaper with me and share your feelings and thoughts on it! Tom, Anthony, Colleen, Annie, Joceline, Jo, Mel, Helen & others, this project just wouldn’t have happened without you. If you haven’t already got one, a signed copy of the book is on its way to you!

Tom and Anthony with their favourites from the shortlisted MoDA wallpapers!

10 Responses to Sonic Wallpapers – The Book

  1. Jo Ford says:

    Fantastic Fliss 🙂
    It was a very interesting way of thinking and feeling about wallpaper.

  2. colleen says:

    I very much enjoyed being part of this project and cannot recommend too highly setting aside some time to look at the wallpapers and listen to the sounds. I tuned in, and giggled, in bed.

    I don’t want to be entered for a win, but I will share with you my wallpaper. When I was small, five maybe, I had Noddy Wallpaper AND Noddy curtains in pink in my bedroom. It was a small flat but I did not have to share with any siblings as there were none at the time. However, I did have to share it with too much bedroom furniture and my mum’s Singer sewing machine, one of those that fits in a cabinet. It was also the room where the ironing was piled up and done. I hated the noise of that machine and the mess that my room was turned into when my mum was working there. I’m sure I must have made a grizzling fuss about it. Looking back, I think maybe the Noddiness turned me a bit berserk.

  3. I love this project so very very much! Anything patterned just warms my heart?

    I remember very distinctly my Grandmother’s front room. The wallpaper was a pale beige with little bumps in it. Goodness knows how the had been made? The one sound I can hear to date is that of the door dragging on the the amazing carpet. It was extemely soft and extremely patterned! I can also feel the carpet and the wallpaper in my mind. I miss the house an awful lot….


  4. Quinn says:

    A very interesting multidimensional project! An exhibition that will likely continue to resonate with those fortunate enough to experience it firsthand.

  5. Janet says:

    Very interesting – I am sorry I am not in a position to see/hear it in person.
    (And, as a side note – I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your work about sound over the last several years- it has certainly changed the way I think about sound and its relationship with the overall experience of a place and the effect on memory).

    A house I lived in a few years ago had a peeling, sun marked, fake brick wall paper in the entrance hall.
    The (slightly unfortunate) aural memories I have in conjunction with coming home to that house is unlocking the front door and hearing the incredibly nasal tones of my house mate bellowing inanities down the phone. She had a habit of saying “aw, but” at least once every couple of sentences, but in her mouth/nose it sounded “awwww-awng barht”.
    I am sure that wasn’t the case every day, but somehow, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it was …

  6. Jen says:

    Okay, I finally remembered a wallpaper ! So it was the year 1989, August, and I had just moved in with a housemate-potential-boyfriend and well, he was much older than I (about 12 years) and able to afford things like repapering the new house he just bought, while I was my usual provincial Bohemian self. It was an odd arrangement, with unclear boundaries, as I wasn’t sure whether or not to act as emotionally distant house-mate or as a girlfriend who’s every opinion mattered because I might live there permanantly at one point. He was renovating the house as we were moving in, and though we agreed on most things, we argued over the wallpaper. He wanted big bold blossoms and maybe like Fifties style, (French?) with light blue and flashy pinks, and well, I never lived with wallpaper and chose a smaller, more modest print. He was a NewYorker, me a Californian, maybe that was the difference a lot in our tastes, aside from our half generation of age. He had just retiled the kitchen in aqua Fifties style look, and I guess at the time I was having ambivolence about it all, the look. He pulled up the linoleum and redid the original wood pine floor, which I was actually drooling over, except that he cut himself badly on the planer and bled all over it.

    At the time when we moved in and the kitchen was finished, I remember was sitting at the table in the breakfast nook the day after the kitchen was papered and feeling profound regret. Regret about how I may have pushed my opinion as important , perhaps during a delirious moment envisioning myself ever as his wife, when I knew already that the relationship was showing signs of being doomed. I felt out of place, in the kitchen, in his house, in my life, in that neck of the woods. My mother had just died the year before, and I was undoubtedly still a mess emotionally. So, the sounds around this wallpaper would be the sounds I remember hearing whenever this person — my already enstranged ‘boyfriend’ — was home– which were mostly happy and yet sad. Well he listened to near constant bluegrass on the radio , records, reel-to-reel probably, and cassette (this was just as cd’s were starting up and I don’t think he had one of those players yet). If it wasn’t bluegrass it was some kind of NewYork Folkish Singer-Songwriter of his Hay Day. I also recall sounds of kitchen appliances; spendy renovated Forties/Fifties gas stove/oven being used, we bought in Berkeley, and its particular sounds the thicker metal makes on old and well-insulated appliances of the sort, are definately a different sound when moving pots and pans around on the range and in the opening the door to the oven , than the more modern ones. I remember sounds of things getting blended in his Fifties Osterizer blender… seems he was obsessed with making concoctions. I recall his slightly complaining personality, his near high-pitched voice and particular shy but sweet face, and somehow I’m remembering the sound of maple cutting board. Oh yes, I remember since I was fond of this kind of counter top, we decided on it and he had the whole kitchen counter done in laminated maple. So I remember the sound of big slightly rusty steel chef’s knives chopping. Um, did I just remember maybe a fight where one of us drove the knife nose-down into the maple counter, while chopping, maybe in an argument? Was it him, or perhaps another fight , with another boyfriend/housemate? (there were a flurrry of them in my twenties) . Well, so thats about it ; the first sounds of the loud power tools scraping, planing and sanding the pine floor before the wallpaper, then after it, the sound of music I barely liked, discomfort of feeling at home in a new and strange place that wasn’t really my own, and old stereo systems with radio shows blaring , like “Prairie Home Companion”, “Panhandle Swing” , “Pig-in-a-Pen”, and ” Car Talk “, all of them very entertaining, though I was in agitation somehow. So add the sound of my own emotional confusion as backdrop of the sounds and the wallpaper. I was already thinking of newer and brighter future elsewhere … and the wallpaper was all wrong… too subtle…too pale… too meek. I ought to have agreed with him on the bold colorful Frenchy style.

    • Jen says:

      Oh wait, it was 1990, I remember clear as a bell, because I recalled the year being significant as the turn of the decade. Like it really matters… lol 🙂

      • Jen says:

        Hi Felix ~ I have enjoyed your book very much and feel quite priveleged to have won it. By the way, I made you a batch of shortbread from my own secret recipe and sent it…I think you should be getting it very soon. xJen

  7. Chris says:

    This project is the best at rubbing the visual environment against a sound to find a memory.

    Once there was some greenish flock on a pale cream paper. It was Georgian, in a 1970s way, and lived in a sitting room that remembered being a kitchen to a darker, more Victorian house.

    For a long time the range had been silent but after noise, dust and general upheaval there was again a fire in the grate of an evening which every morning needed to be renewed.

    The old range had the sharp ring of cast iron moving over ash. The new fireplace with its chrome surround had a deep ash bucket which could be removed with a muffled, replete thud.

    A fresh fire would arrive soon.

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