Sonic Wallpaper

Quietly in the background, a revolution is taking place in the British wallpaper Industry. Contemporary patterns are no longer the preserve of an elite…

– From Sanderson’s Three Arts Exhibition of wallpaper and fabrics, 1954 – 55, quoted in The Musem of Domestic Design and Architecture’s current exhibition, Designer Style: Home Decorating in the 1950s

Yesterday I was at The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, looking at wallpaper. This was the starting point for a project I’m working on with some students at Middlesex University for the forthcoming Cut and Splice Domestic Soundscape podcast series. We had some great conversations about the idea of sonic wallpaper and about wallpaper in general, and we got to look around the current exhibition, Designer Style: Home Decorating in the 1950s.

The exhibition explains the economic and political history of home decorating in the UK. According to the exhibition post WW2, the property damage and homelessness wrought by the war necessitated a boom in DIY culture, and the construction of two and a quarter million homes between 1945 and 1957. The blank canvas of so many new, empty houses plus the flagging UK economy provided the circumstances for a Govenment-backed initiative focussed around stimulating greater consumption and production of affordable home-decorating products.

Setting up the influential Council of Industrial Design (COID) who proselytised a message of ‘Good Design’ to the nation, the Government hoped to boost our exports and increase the home market for home-decorating wares – notably wallpaper. In the early 1950s the wallpaper market flourished with companies using big-name designers to build impressive product portfolios. There seems to have been an emphasis on excellent design at ‘affordable’ prices so that wallpaper was no longer the luxury preserve of the ultra-rich.

Image © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University

Throughout the 1950s the COID dictated to British tastes via its publication ‘Design Magazine,’ but women’s magazines increasingly covered matters of home decoration. Soon the moral and social imperatives behind the original Government-led, public message of ‘good design’ were abandoned by a market shaped more by independantly-published magazines, corporate advertising and the desires of the masses. There was a trickle-down effect similar to that seen today, where high-end quality and expensive products at the cutting edge of fashion were toned down, mimicked and marketed – at a fraction of the price – to everyone.

I learned all this at the exhibition, and it left me with a deeper sense of wallpaper itself as a context, a conflicted territory drenched in history, economics and politics, difficult matters of gender and class and an interesting relationship to consumption, production and luxury. Wallpaper is difficult.

Image © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University

But meeting with students to discuss the vicissitudes of wallpaper and how we may proceed with this context when developing soundworks, I was struck by our collective and intimate knowledge of the rituals through which one chooses a wallpaper design for a room. We agreed that one ought to start with the room which is going to be ‘papered’ before making any rash decisions, or choosing something horrific that would be difficult to ‘live’ with. We discussed wallpaper designs in terms of their ‘volume’ and ‘ambience’ and we thought about the different resonant qualities of a room before and after its walls have been papered.

Image © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University

By our reckoning this floral motif is visually quite ‘noisy,’ whilst the design below is best described as ‘ambient.’

Image © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University

Editing the conversation we had yesterday, I was struck by how our process of sifting through the leaves of pleasing, vintage designs, bore some similarities to the actual process of choosing wallpaper for a room. The difference was that the ‘room’ we are working with is a vague, idea-shaped space concerning the way we regard our everyday surroundings, and the ‘paper’ we are ultimately selecting will be comprised mainly, I imagine, from invisible sounds.

In many ways MoDA isn’t the most obvious place for a project like this to start. The precious, historic wallpapers from the 1950s housed in MoDA’s collections in beautifully-crafted folio cases have a very different feeling and evoke a very different response to the stuff that many of us have grown up with. There are no £2.99 rolls of textured, polystyrene-enhanced stuff here; no eazy-wipe vinyl surfaces or cheap and cheerful beige motifs among the prints we viewed yesterday. Furthermore, the exhibition at MoDA is exclusively focussed around visual design. Acoustics, the way sounds behave inside a space, the consequence that certain surfaces will have for the way sounds travel in a room etc. are concerns totally absent from the shiny ‘keeping up appearances’ world of 1950s – and to an extent – contemporary, domestic interior design. But since wallpaper and the process of choosing it is a home-improvement process we are all familiar with, perhaps it is also a process that can be revisited, appropriated and adopted to change the way the rooms in which we live sound.

There was something very inspiring about handling wallpapers from the precise point in history when the idea was that wallpaper could become something everyday, ubiquitous and affordable – at least in the UK. We have agreed to each go away and work with a room in our houses and to develop some form of sonic decoration or sonic wallpaper for that room. Having looked through some samples and talked through some ideas, we’re ready to think now about the sound we are going for with the rooms we’ll be working with. This is all about thinking in terms of space in terms of chambers in which sound resonates and the physical size and surfaces of the spaces in which we’ll be working, which reminds me of a work I’m looking at by Alvin Lucier, entitled Chambers. This wallpaper design reminds me of that work with its vessels of many-different shaps and sizes. But I don’t think the designer was imagining how different each one would sound, inside…

Image © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University

One Response to Sonic Wallpaper

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Archive » Sonic Wallpaper

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