Consider the plain white wall as a canvas. In a milieu obsessed with personalization, treating those walls with color, pattern and texture is happening in a dynamic way, with amazing options that are unprecedented.
The worlds of art and decor are merging, with hand-painting, textures, the look of stones and gems available in a variety of materials, along with mosaics, sequins, glass beads and shards, patchwork fabrics. All of these may be embraced on today's wall cladding, which may be a covering of wood, porcelain, glass or mosaic, as well as what we consider traditional wallcovering -- although these days, it may be paper, vinyl or a hybrid.
Some of what is available today is truly extraordinary. And it's reminiscent of what craftspeople and artisans delivered to aristocrats and royalty centuries ago. Inspirations still come largely from nature, and the interpretations by the artists are what can be so arresting.
The influence of maximalism in home decor cannot be denied. Some patterns are expressed through layering, which leads to new forms, the likes of which we haven't seen before. This is what makes the best of the new wallcoverings so fresh.
Case in point: A new design by artist Elena Carozzi depicts brilliant orange koi fish in a rhythmic pattern, made more intense because they're presented on a charcoal ground. The ground itself is a traditional damask, and the juxtaposition is almost startling.
And wallcovering itself has become a barometer for style trends -- or at least a reflection of what currently is resonating in home decor. Because of the range in scale and subject matter, geometry and stylization, there's an appeal even to modernists that wasn't there a few years back.
The maximalism movement has been nurturing an appetite for pattern. And "customizable" has been a key buzzword. There are companies where you can download your own art -- photos from travels, favorite dishes in restaurants, your children -- and turn them into wallpaper. Self-adhesive, peel-off papers have made installations a little less scary. And the patterns offered at companies like Tempaper (www.tempaper.com) are stylish and come in a range of colors suitable for many kinds of decor.
Murals continue to be popular, and digital printing has made large-scale designs more like works of art. Fidelity to imagery from nature, for example, has resulted in incredibly realistic subjects. As in fabric design, scale has ramped up. Besides bold looks, color also has become richer, with more depth, shadings and mixes.
"The biggest change is the explosion in scale," says Atlanta based interior designer Melissa Galt. "We're no longer thinking wallpaper. It's wall art or wall murals -- and not just scenic."
Texture continues to evolve. Last year, Elitis introduced an incredible mosaic handcrafted from mother of pearl, sea shells and recycled teak in a beautiful range of peach and lavender tones. In Paris, the Dutch Walltextile Co. attracted attention with a covering that teamed an olive velvet in a burnished metallic weave.
Metallic accents warm surfaces, while embroidery adds another decorative touch. Some of the embroidery feels more modern, like topstitching as opposed to a fancier stitch.
And applique is employed in a most dramatic form at Kinland Decor, with a leather covering that features leather floral appliques that pop, with embroidery to flesh out the flowers' leaves.
Charlotte designer Lisa Mende was especially blown away by this wallcovering, which she saw at Heimtextil, the massive international textile show held each year at Messe Frankfurt in Germany.
"The leather applique flowers, along with the embroidery, add such a soft, sophisticated accent to the leather wall," says Mende. "The tension of using a product that is typically so masculine and adding a feminine touch creates a yin and yang we all crave in design."
Pasadena, California, designer Jeanne Chung of Jeanne K. Chung Inc., says she likes her wallcovering designs "the bigger the better. Bold, bold bold."
"Nonrepeating murals and photorealistic collages are great," she adds. Chung does sketches and renderings for her clients, so they can see just how her large-scale designs occupy a space. She looks to art, wallcoverings and rugs for cues to pull together a palette for a room.
At Heimtextil and Paris Deco Off, both this past January, several trends were dominant:
-- Bird motifs. Avian imagery always has a following, but this year, there were more birds than usual. From songbirds to pelicans to cranes, with the latter part of a growing trend for Japanese themes.
-- Japanese artistry, like printmaking, also was celebrated in collections like Mizumi by Black Edition.
-- Art Deco. Coinciding with furniture and lighting directions, the distinctive stylized shapes that make up this look, most popular in the '30s, has settled in. At Ancien and Moderne, a charming pop-up during Maison and Objet in Paris in January, one wall showed off fabulous pattern that was inspired by the eggshell inlay work of Jean Dunand and Gaston Suisse -- on a rich ruby-red waxed ground.
-- Geometrics. Scaled up, with more open fields, these patterns are especially appealing to those seeking an appropriate backdrop for mid-century modern styles.
-- Foliage and nature. Palm prints have enjoyed popularity for some time. Now the prints are denser and include other types of foliage, even grasses, ferns and trees. In a collaboration with Moooi, the firm launched by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, one captivatingly dense pattern shows 10 extinct animals, buried in the greenery. And the stylized painting of rows of trees in a Cole and Son paper is utterly enchanting.
-- Bold florals. The dark-ground Dutch masters look has retreated somewhat, but not the florals. Now they may be a bit brighter, but the big blooms endure.
-- Overscale textures like grass cloth and jute, including those from the Belgian brand O.
-- Rich velvet and metallic weaves made one collection called Caribou by the Dutch Walltextile Co. a standout.
"Grass cloths in luscious bright fresh colors like cobalt blue and emerald green are giving new life to spaces in texture and color," says Wichita, Kansas, interior designer Mitzi Beach.
"Wallpaper is not back," says Beach. "It never left."
-- Arte, 866-943-2783, www.arte-international.com
-- Anthology, 201-399-0500, www.stylelibrary.com
-- Black Edition, 800-338-2783, blackedition.com
-- Cole and Son, email@example.com, cole-and-son.com
-- Dutch Walltextile Co., firstname.lastname@example.org, www.dwc-amsterdam.com
-- Elitis, 917-472-7482, www.elitis.fr/en
-- Fromental, 347-625-1838, www.fromental.co.uk
-- Kit Kemp for Andrew Martin, email@example.com, www.kitkemp.com, also through www.kravet.com
-- Elena Carozzi for Lizzo, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.lizzo.co.uk,
-- Omexco, email@example.com, www.omexco.com
-- ZR, Zimmer and Rohde Ltd., 212-758-7925, www.zimmer-rohde.com