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It's an undeniable truth that wallpaper borders are back. We're seeing them everywhere: in throwback images from the 80s on Instagram, to new collections launched by the best contemporary designers. It makes sense: the border is a relatively inexpensive and hugely versatile option for interior decoration. It can provide a pop of colour or motifs without great commitment, and it can ease the more minimalist homeowner into the world of pattern. Originally used to hide unsightly edges and the old-fashioned copper tacks used to hang drops of wallpaper, borders can now be employed to highlight a room's joinery and architectural features, to both complement and contrast with paintwork and wallpaper, or they can be used on their own as a definitive feature to a room. Where borders were once considered to be a little bit twee, they are now intriguing and intelligent.
The cyclical nature of art is something CommonRoom has forever been focused on. We love nothing more than delving into the V&A archives, seeking out old prints that hold an unexpected contemporary significance, and thus prove the timelessness of classic artists' craftsmanship. Recently, we launched our Silk Stripe collection: a wallpaper based on a 1918 design by C.F.A Voysey for a striped woven silk. From this, we were able to extract four border designs, each in rich jewel tones and with the authentic Arts & Crafts feel which has lived on since Voysey's day.
In this vein, we wanted to take a look back into the history of the wallpaper border, to detail its development through centuries of interior design, and ask why the border has become significant again.
Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868
The first borders were arguably the Greco-Roman friezes, the most famous of which was found in the Parthenon. Traditionally, a frieze was defined as a broad horizontal strip of sculpted, painted or calligraphic decoration, usually found at the top of a wall where it meets the ceiling. Later, this definition was expanded to include any long, narrow band used for decorative purposes, such as on pottery or clothing. In the Parthenon, the frieze works almost like a comic-book strip, telling the story of the Panathenaic festival procession in celebration of the goddess Athena's birthday. The frieze is, in essence, a myth relayed through high-relief sculpture; its beauty lies in the skill required to cut the figures into the marble. It is one of the first examples of how total precision results in something magnificent.
The Morris & Co. frieze in the Green Dining Room at the V&A
Morris and Co's 1868 Green Dining Room in the Victoria & Albert Museum features many of his iconic wallpapers, as well as a colourful frieze around the edge of the ceiling with egg-and-dart moulding and a series of framed blue panels. Like the Parthenon frieze, it tells a story: golden hounds chase hares, oak trees spread their branches. A gilded sun shines down on the scene. There is magic to be found in the smallest details: all the room asks is that you look up to find it.
Kitchen at La Casa Azul, Mexico City
Meanwhile, similarly intricate patterning and ornate trims can be found in traditional Mayan and Aztec design. In Mexico City, Frida Kahlo's 1904 Blue House (La Casa Azul) exemplifies the culture's vibrant, sun-drenched aesthetic. Tiles are commonly used in Mexico for decorative fireplace or wall murals, to embellish sinks, and as borders for mirrors, windows, doorways and fountains. These ubiquitous tiles have been used as a trim in Kahlo's kitchen in contrasting shades of yellow and blue. It is a blend of Spanish colonial architectural ideas with native tribal motifs. 'Beyond the façade of a Mexican house or hacienda is a world of unusual beauty and character, the result of Old World tradition and a Spanish and indigenous culture,' writes Susanna Ordovás in Cabana Magazine. In other words, Mexican design is inextricably intwined with the country's history and landscape.
The Charleston Farmhouse dining room, photographed by Penelope Fewster
Back in the UK, in East Sussex we find Charleston Farmhouse: the modernist home and studio of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. It was a hub for the early 20th century Bloomsbury set, a radical group of writers, makers and thinkers whose ideology of experimentation permeated both their works and the farmhouse. This was a group whose spirit was about existing on the fringes of society, railing against traditional ideologies. The whole farmhouse is a work of art: doors, fireplaces, bed-frames, the bathtub and the tiniest strips of wall have been used as a canvas, inspired by Italian fresco painting. The dining room's hand-stencilled border feels delightfully rustic: the motifs are rendered in bold colours which were unusual for the period - a palette of rich blues and golds. And elsewhere trims, frames and friezes were painted on and around any untouched architectural details in the house. All very much pushing boundaries.
David Hicks' St. Leonard's Terrace dining room, Veranda Magazine
We turn now to David Hicks, notorious English interior decorator of the 1960s and 70s, who was similarly noted for using daring colours as well as mixing modern and antique furnishings. Hicks took the potential of a wallpaper border to its limit in his St. Leonard's Terrace dining room, by creating the appearance of panelling with black borders dividing up the burnt orange walls. The result is a space that feels somewhat neo-Classical, and yet its colour palette is wholly innovative. 'Too little real consideration is given to good detailing,' Hicks said - one of his many famously opinionated statements on interior design. We could not agree more; what better way to add detail than a border?
Laura Ashley’s 1985 home catalogue of a bedroom featuring the brand’s Country Roses pattern, New York Times
Skipping on to the 1980s, we find the iconic countryside aesthetic of Laura Ashley, beloved the world over. Many today can recall childhood bedrooms adorned with floral wallpaper borders - and many are now wishing to achieve this cottagecore style once again. Whilst is is certainly chintzy and in some cases possibly a little saccharine, this style does provide a certain homeliness, a sense of cosy peace and quiet, and a heavy lean into florals which brings the beauty and brightness of a wildflower field into the home.
Bedroom at the Hampshire Hunting Lodge, Veranda Magazine
The Hunting Lodge in Hampshire is a property that has been passed down through time. First, it was home to Henry VII in the fifteenth century, then the haunt of legendary designer John Fowler in 1947. Nicky Haslam moved in in 1977, and in 2021 the house was sold to interior designer Francis Sultana. What has lived on is Fowler's country-house bedroom here, which utilises the border vertically, proving that the simple combination of paintwork with a border is sometimes all you need to make a room sing. It's quite remarkable to know that this quintessentially British space has endured through generations of interiors masters.
A House for Essex, designed by FAT Architecture and Grayson Perry, Manningtree, Essex
Another space that has become a modern icon of the British landscape is Grayson Perry's 'A House for Essex' (completed in 2015). Designed in the tradition of the wayside chapel, it features two thousand handmade tiles cladding the exterior, a white frieze highlighting the architectural structure and adding a geometric uniformity to an otherwise ornate appearance. This house holds a special place in CommonRoom's heart, as it exemplifies our ethos of 'bringing art home'. Perry has achieved an ode to his Essex heritage, and a unique living opportunity for those art lovers lucky enough to get to stay.
In the spirit of looking back to the past for contemporary inspiration, Kate Hawkins took influence from Ancient Greece when designing our Ivy Chaplet Border - a design that harks back to the ancient Ivy Meander Border. Hand-painted using wine-coloured ink, it is influenced by ivy’s association with Dionysus, the Greek God of revelry. It is a modern-day mini frieze for your walls.
Borders define the very edge of things. They represent a jumping-off point, a framing device, a highlighter. They have historically provided the opportunity for experimentation, for conveying a story, and for reinvigorating a space. We hope you feel inspired to try this out for yourself.
Words by Alice Hodgson.