If these walls could talk

How do you recreate a heavy-tooth, multi-toned wallpaper, produced a century ago, by a process no longer practised in North America? Neil Brochu, a museum curator for the city of Toronto, was confronted with this task when the original restoration of the Spadina House museum was recently updated. First built in 1866, the mansion was added to by successive generations of Austins, a wealthy Toronto business family. After being bought by the city from a family heir in 1984, the house opened to the public as a museum.

Spadina House underwent an interior restoration last year to recreate its appearance in the inter-war era. The most important transformation was getting the wallcoverings to accurately depict the period. Brochu chose nine rooms where the wallpaper needed to be recreated. Each room has a separate wallpaper pattern and colour, some simple and others remarkably complex. Eight were recreated by digitally printing reproductions from original wallpaper remnants. For the drawing room – the home’s principal public space – the wallpaper was produced as it would originally have been made, by stamping coloured patterns onto a heavily grained coloured paper.

The original drawing room wallpaper – discovered in a previous renovation behind successive layers of wallcoverings – was originally documented by curators as “flocked,” a process where a paper surface gains texture by adhering wool fibres with glue. Doubting the diagnosis, Brochu checked with powers that be at Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York City. Examining a roll of the original wallpaper in their collection, they agreed with Brochu’s hunch that it was an “ingrain” paper, a process where a fibrous cotton or wool paper is dyed the final background colour and then overprinted in successive layers to build up colour patterns. 

Adelphi Paper Hangings from New York State was the only company among the many Brochu called that was interested in recreating the original production method. Adelphi sourced a neutral-toned custom paper from Saint Armand Papermakers in Montreal; the paper was dyed with four layers of wash to match the original green background. A Toronto graphic designer split the design pattern into its three separate colour components. Each component was then laser cut into an individual wood block. Adelphi placed one block in their press at a time, inked it and stamped the primed paper, leaving slight inconsistencies when the wood pulled away from the paper surface, mimicking the original hand-blocked texture.

The effort taken to get the wallpaper to look true to its time and technique have paid off: when the final product is examined, either mounted on the wall or over a curator’s table, it appears as genuine as the original. 

Photos by Maciek Linowski / Synthescape Inc.