Facebook Twitter



The ancient Romans liked to decorate their rooms with frescos of villas and landscapes. Wallpaper designers in the 19th century depicted Gothic castles.

"Kitsch to Corbusier: Wallpapers From the 1950s," at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, opens with a 1954 design showing modern houses nestled on leafy Californian hillsides: You could enjoy the fantasy of inhabiting a sprawling villa even if you actually lived in a cramped city apartment.Joanne Kosuda-Warner, the curator of "Kitsch to Corbusier," presents the 1950s as a golden age of wallpaper, prompted, paradoxically, by a drastic drop in sales.

Manufacturers strove to make their papers easier to hang, more durable and, above all, more fun. To overcome wallpaper's stodgy image, designers adopted modern motifs like rocket ships and television antennas, ranch houses and electron orbits. What's more, they adopted the visual language of modern art.

In the years after World War II, avant-garde art was transformed from an elite plaything to the lingua franca of mass culture. As the textile designer Jack Lenor Larson wrote: "Design was a cause, allied with the optimism of a world to be made over."

It was a missionary enterprise. Emil Rasch, head of the Association of German Wallpam Manufacturers, commented in 1960 that the designs produced by his industry did NOT conform to what market research showed consumers wanted.

"By far the major part of production ranges above this level," he proclaimed, noting that "based on the architect's earlier stained-glass windows, the design uncannily anticipates the layout of a computer chip.

Le Corbusier is represented by a design of white rectangles alternating with areas of red: the same sheet could be combined in different ways to form different patterns.

Despite the exhibition's title, architects like Corbusier and Wright were less important influences on 1950s design than were painters like Matisse and Miro. A typical 1953 design was the sense of individual forms floating freely in a shallow but open-ended space.

Instead of the precisely ordered repeats of earlier wallpaper, the designs of the 1950s are ordered around a loose-knit mesh capable of absorbing both abstract and realistic motifs. There's a profusion of earth tones - greens and browns mingling with pinks and oranges - but nothing seems quite solid.

It's a weightless world where style counts for everything and substance for nothing. The other distinctive element of this style is the character of the drawn line, trembling with a kind of ecstatic intensity as it slashes and swoops through the field of blurred, glowing colors.

This trembling line, derived from George Grosz and the German Expressionists by way of Ben Shahn, is hardly limited to wallpaper designs: it also appears on the covers of countless jazz albums, in Edward Gorey's early designs for paperback covers and in Andy Warhol's early work as a commercial illustrator.

(Warhol's later Pop paintings employ line and color in a manner much like that of 1950s wallpaper, but silk-screened photographs replace the hand-drawn line.)

Saul Steinberg was (and is) probably the greatest exponent of this calligraphic style, and it is no accident that his two contributions are the only designs from the exhibition still in production. "Views of Paris," from 1946, uses black line on a plain white ground to outline the famous monuments of the City of Light.

"Opera," from 1953, offers alternating color and black-and-white views of Garnier's opera house, its neo-Baroque heaviness magically transformed by Steinberg's elegant curlicues.

(Paris was a favorite subject with American designers of the 1950s, and so were French poodles. The two themes come together in a wallpaper design depicting poodles strolling down boulevards, sitting at cafe tables and so forth. This is the "kitsch" part of the show. Still, in defense of these designs, it should be said that poodle-mania was an important social-historical phenomenon: Ms. Warner, the curator, notes in a wall-label that from 1950 through 1956 the number of registered French poodles in the United States increased from 3,195 to 25,041.

Almost as wonderful as Steinberg's Paris views is a 1958 print entitled "When in Rome," by Clarence Hawking, a designer for the Chicago firm of Denst & Soderlund.

Here, the gray silhouettes of temples and basilicas with impossibly tall columns rise into the dull gold of a Roman dusk; at their bases, black processions of troops and charioteers march to left and right.

A design that might seem overly somber is leavened by the stylized outlines of the soldiers, whose bulging chests taper to pointy feet, like figures from Chuck Jones's later cartoons.

Borrowed from Miro, this image of the human figure as a stylized amoeba with pointy pseudopodia turns up in quite a few American and European wallpapers.

Ultimately, the problem with these wallpaper designs is that they're too good. A single strip is all you want to see: papering a whole room with the same pattern would only diminish its impact. It turns out that the manufacturers knew this.

Referring to such designs as "conversationals," they suggested using them on a single wall, flanked by simpler patterns or textures.

"Modern Wallpaper," a 1948 show sponsored by Katzenbach & Warren, was organized arounder: Wallpapers From the 1950s and two different wallpapers with appropriately modern furniture, painting and sculpture. Odds are, some of the wallpaper designs were better than the paintings hanging on them.

"Kitsch to Corbusier: Wallpapers From the 1950s and frustrating for those trying to reconcile their moral and religious beliefs with the realities of the Bosnian war, Sehested said.

"I find it a little odd, given the long and complex history of the peace movement's involvement - where we've made suggestions, where we've done actions - (that) suddenly . . . we're expected to have a solution," he said.

"If we don't have a solution, then we're accused of being ineffective."

The peace movement's dilemma is reflected in that of the American people as a whole, Sehested said.

"There is a helplessness born of deep confusion," he said. "There is trouble getting reliable information. People have trouble figuring out who the players are.

"And there is, rightly, some reluctance to go in with guns blazing. Any escalation could draw in half a dozen other countries."

Some peace groups have responded to the war not with pronouncements or demonstrations but actions aimed at overcoming ethnic and religious divisions.

The Nyack, N.Y.-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, an umbrella group of denominational peace groups, for example, has for the last two years brought "ethnically cleansed" students - those displaced from their homes and schools - to the United States.

"We absolutely condemn genocide or the creation of any society based on ethnicity or religion," said Doug Hostetter, who directs the Bosnian Student Project.

"But for people of faith, the final word is what you yourself do. The kingdom of God is created in people's hearts and minds and we must use the weapons of love and truth against hate," he said.

The Bosnian Student Program has brought 77 people - most of them Muslim students from Bosnia and Croatia - to the United States, where they can go to school and learn to live in a religiously and ethnically pluralistic society.

Joe Volk, executive director of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Washington-based Quaker lobby, said the international community has failed to resolve the Balkan conflict partly because nations haven't developed alternatives to violence.

"If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, all your problems will look like nails," he said. "For many of these problems, the only tool we've got is the military."

But, he said, the military solution has already failed.

"Americans and Europeans have over the years poured millions and millions of dollars (into) NATO and we were promised peace and human rights," but those haven't materialized, he said.