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!

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