At least as early as the Renaissance, we find evidence that people were strongly aware of, or even anxious about, the expanding material world of household goods and the proliferation of objects that served various roles within the domestic interior, whether functional, decorative, or somewhere in between. Five hundred years hence, we feel a common bond with our ancestors about the clutter of our daily existence in the homes we have made. Amongst the stuff that surrounds us--now as then--certain items might contain or become powerful focuses for our remembrances, both negative and positive. And the walls these objects live against and within are not exempt from such considerations.

While it has had a mixed reputation as a form of interior decoration, wallpaper has sometimes been a site for such associations. While its ordinary mass-produced forms have become a byword for banality of design and the apparent worthlessness of the material, the ephemeral nature of wallpaper and the fascination of repeated patterns might convey a poignant feeling, or be redolent with deeper personal meaning. Such encounters can be extraordinary: for example, a dense, Victorian-style flocked wallpaper might convey the feeling of being frozen in time like a fly in amber, and recall the sensibilities of a bygone age, heavy with repressed emotion and strange intensities. These qualities are found, inevitably, in Charlotte Perkins Gilmore’s maddening Yellow Wallpaper, and perhaps in the pattern that killed Oscar Wilde. Queen Victoria herself was only content with wallpaper in the same patterns, colors and materials because of “the sad and fond memories associated with them”.(1) Contemporary artists, especially Philadelphia’s Virgil Marti, have explored the poetic potential of meaning in wallpaper, its historical precedents, and the inherent tensions in its uneasy status as a sometime decorative backdrop and sometime form of fine art.

On the wall, wallpaper defines a space and creates an environment reflective of the purpose of a room. With a new occupant, these purposes might change and likewise the meanings attached to its decoration. The wallpaper can be stripped off, or if the house is demolished, might remain in peeling strips, leaving a tangible, curious and faintly melancholic impression of what might have occurred in that space, and the people that once lived there.

With the installation “Home That Was”, Benjamin Volta and his group of eleven students from Philadelphia, supported by Mural Arts Program, have chosen the side wall of a condemned row house at 1011 Vine St as the canvas for an exploration of the themes of place, memory and domesticity. The work is composed by twelve discrete wallpapers pasted to the exposed interior walls of the house, maintaining the shadowy outlines of walls, ceilings and stairs that previously contained the objects, activities, sounds and smells that define the daily routines of a home. A wallpaper for each space allows the careful observer a guided tour, for the function and contents of the room that was merged into each pattern. On the ground floor at lower left, the light yellow, green and blue pattern recalls one of the geometric wallpaper designs of Owen Jones (1809-1874), but on closer inspection we see the televisions, sofas and lamps of what once was a living room--likewise the playful arrangement of bathroom fixtures and toilet roll on the space in the right-hand side of the middle floor reveals its purpose. Everything can be found in the attic (although the lights are off), while the toys are ready for action in the huge turquoise playroom on the third floor, upper left. Nothing is left out, as we imagine the portraits of the home’s occupants and their family contained within the frames incorporated into the rococo wallpaper repeating up the stairs.

As we delve beyond mere pattern, these beautiful wallpapers convey an imagined microcosm of the domestic sphere. In the novel Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, the artist Serge Valène has conceived of a painting of his apartment block seen in elevation, revealing all the occupants and the exact details of their lives. Following the painting, the narrative offers formal patterns of rooms and characters akin to the complexity of an intricate wallpaper.

“Home That Was” suggests similarly rich possibilities, as a non-existent space is transformed and given back the lives and memories it once held.

Jack Hinton
Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts & Sculpture
Philadelphia Museum of Art

(1) Quoted in Marilyn Oliver Hapgood, Wallpaper and the Artist, New York, 1992, p. 8.