Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace

Please Select Search Type:
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Period Design Motifs In Fabrics And Wallpapers

[Using Color]  [Choosing Your Fabrics]  [Period Design Motifs In Fabrics And Wallpapers]  [Wallpaper]  [Decorating And Floor Coverings]  [More Home Decorating Tips] 

( Originally Published 1955 )


In formal rooms of this period, the textiles used were silk damasks, brocades, velvets, and brocatelles. Embroideries and fine leathers were also used extensively.

Motifs consisted of large, bold designs of flowers and leaves in large bouquets, often arranged in low and squat vases, and the pineapple or artichoke motif. Such flower and fruit motifs were usually enclosed by large and sweeping conventionalized leaf forms. These designs originated during the late Italian Renaissance, known as the baroque period (seventeenth century).

A design of a twisting tree with branches, leaves, flowers, and birds, known as the "Tree of Life," originated in ancient Babylonia (3000 B.C.) and was used by the ancient Persians and Indians. The "Tree of Life" design was embroidered on linen in England, where it was called "crewel work," because of the type of embroidery stitch used. "Crewel work" was highly prized in England and used in the finest homes for window draperies and the draperies surrounding the high and important four-poster beds with tester tops. During the William and Mary and the Queen Anne periods, it was also used to cover important chairs and sofas, in conjunction with velvets, fine leathers, and heavy silk fabrics.

England and France, at this time, were busily engaged in trade with the Far East. The result was that beautiful importations were brought into these countries from India and China-porcelains, bronzes, pottery, and lacquered woods (screens, furniture, boxes). The handwoven silks from China and the printed cottons from India were also important. This trade started a great vogue for everything Oriental that continued in Europe until the middle of the eighteenth century.

In the textiles used in the informal rooms of this period, we find the Chinese inspired designs known as "Chinoiserie," representing little Chinese figures against backgrounds of Chinese gardens, pagodas, and other scenic landscapes. There are also designs containing Chinese flowers, dragons, clouds, and ocean waves similar to those on some of the fine Chinese porcelains. These designs, first printed on cotton and popularized in France, also became popular in England.

The India prints consisted of allover patterns of semistylized versions of the type of flowers and foliage that grew in the fertile regions of Persia and India, such as carnations, roses, thistles, and long slender leaves, and sometimes with stylized representations of the tall slender cypress tree. In India these prints on cotton were called chint, meaning "spotted." These became so popular that, in order to protect their own home markets, both the French and, later, the English began to copy them. (Until the nineteenth century all fabric printing was done by the hand blocking method.)

In time, both the French and the English developed their own designs from things more familiar in their own countrysides. In France, the "toile de Jouy" (fabric of the town of Jouy) depicting French pastoral scenes of shepherdesses, farm animals, trees, etc., and printed in one color on a light background, became a great vogue, not only in the provincial homes, but even in the chateaux of the nobility. After the magnificent, extravagant reign of Louis XIV, France went through a period of great financial distress. Even the nobility were obliged to "cut corners." The floral, lace, and ribbon motifs that had been designed for the rich silk brocades were used, toward the middle and end of the eighteenth century, for handblocked prints on fine cottons and linens in the best of homes.

Some of these same French motifs were used in England, but the English preferred designs more indigenous to their own countryside. Less formal designs consisted of garden flowers and simple scenic patterns. Hunting scenes were typical.

After a while, both in France and in England, these printed cottons were given a thin glaze. In those days fabrics were cleaned by either dusting or shaking. When this was no longer effective, cottons and linens were washed. As washing faded the colors, it seems reasonable to suppose that the protective glaze finish was developed so that the fabrics would be spared this ordeal. The glaze also gave the cottons a sheen heretofore found only in silk, and the richer appearance made them increasingly popular. Glazed or unglazed, these fine cottons soon came to be known as "chintz."


With the rediscovery of Pompeii in the middle of the eighteenth century, and as a result of the graceful classic designs of the past brought to light by the excavations, a new interest in classic architecture, furniture forms, and decorative designs captured the imagination of the architects, designers, artists, and craftsmen of Europe. This was particularly true in France and England.

The naturalistic flower motifs, baroque scroll forms, and the Chinese and other Oriental types of design gave way to pure classic design, with the straight line prevailing, actually more Greek than Roman in form.

Thus, in the late eighteenth century, fabric and wall decorations featured tall shapely urns, griffins, human figures in classic garments, laurel wreaths, arabesques, swags and garlands, fluted columns, and other classic motifs, and delicate stripes. Colors were for the most part light and on the pastel side.

This classic influence continued into the beginning of the nineteenth century, up to the early Victorian period. Fabrics and wallpapers of this type are thus associated with the Adam and Sheraton furniture designs, in England and in the Federal American period.


Although the inspiration, for the most part, was still classic, the furniture forms and architectural motifs of the Napoleonic era were bolder, heavier, and more masculine. They were based on the findings and records of the more pretentious and important palaces and public buildings of ancient Rome. The more subtle Greek-inspired lines went out of favor.

Napoleon's conquest of Italy, then Egypt, was responsible for most of the design motifs that prevailed during the Empire period. In England, it found its expression in the Regency period, and in America in the American Empire period. The classic motifs to be found in fabrics and wallpapers consisted of large-scaled medallions, laurel wreaths, diamond shapes, arrows and sheaths for arrows, torches, lyres, eagles; and to these were added broad stripes and marbleized effects. The laurel wreath with a large N in the center and the bee motif were strictly French and always associated with Napoleon and the French Empire. They were rarely, if ever used in England and America. However, in America the spread eagle was substituted for the N in the center of the wreath form.

Egyptian obelisks, sphinxes, vultures and other such Egyptian motifs were used for decorative purposes as furniture supports and accessories, rather than for fabrics and wallpaper designs. Colors, during this decorative phase, were strong and brilliantruby reds, sapphire blues, emerald greens, mustard yellow, golden yellow, or chartreuse.

During the earlier phase of the American Empire period of decoration fabric and wallpaper designs took a purely patriotic turn; stars and stripes, the Cap of Liberty (French inspired) and the spread eagle were rampant.


This period of decoration was almost identical in England and America. Designs for furniture adornment and architectural backgrounds ran the gamut from Gothic pointed arches and Turkish motifs to bad imitations of the curvilinear rococo forms of the Louis XV period in France. Anything was acceptable, so long as it was ornate and gadgety. Colors were either muddy and dull or ran to bright reds and greens, or to mauves (purples), which gave another name to this period-"The Mauve Decade."

Fabric and wallpaper designs were composed of large vases heavy with flowers, large floral bouquets, twisting scroll forms, ribbons and bowknots, lace, shells (the abalone shell being the most popular), and swags. Broad stripes were also popular.

These periods, so much loved in our own country because of their simplicity, homeyness, and unpretentiousness, really should be considered quite apart from the formal styles discussed so far. We must therefore go back a bit in time. These styles developed during the late seventeenth century and continued to develop during all of the eighteenth century. Both styles were somewhat crude and simple expressions of the fine and more delicately executed designs in furniture forms, fabrics, and wallpapers made for the more elaborate homes of the European nobility.

Early American and French Provincial designs are definitely provincial, made by and for the people who lived a more simple life in small country homes. They used less complicated motifs which they could print themselves on cottons or papers, such as small floral bouquets or allover patterns of scattered flowers or of fruits and leaves, small medallions, pastoral scenes (such as the "Toile de Jouy"), small checks and plaids. In many of these simple homes, primitive but charming peasant designs were stenciled. Glazed and unglazed chintzes in plain colors were used, too, and these were often quilted. Other fabrics were the homespuns, in linen or wool, woven by the women of the households.

Not until the middle of the eighteenth century, and even later, do we find many upholstered arm chairs or settees (sofas). Chairs and settees had either hard wooden seats or rush bottom seats and flat cushions, often tied on.

In New England, during the clipper ship days around 1810, fabric and wallpaper motifs depicting sailing ships and scenes along the waterfront found great favor. Often these designs were used by the housewives in making hooked rugs for their wide-planked floors.


Contemporary designs in fabrics and wallpapers can be considered as little more than simplified or more stylized interpretations of the popular motifs of the past, whether of Chinese or classic inspirations, baroque, rococo, or anything else.

Once you know the type of motifs that prevailed during each of the earliest periods, you can go smartly contemporary with your period pieces of furniture and accessories by using suitable wallpaper and fabric motifs copied or adapted from these traditional designs and printed on new and interesting materials and in new and striking color combinations.

Today, many manufacturers are making wallpaper and fabrics identical in design as companion pieces. These are particularly good for rooms that may have too many windows or irregularly spaced openings, and where you want to create an illusion of unity. An unneeded window off by itself could easily be unnoticed if draperies of the same designs as the wallpaper were drawn across-the draperies become a part of the wall background. These companion combinations are worth looking into.


Most characteristic of modern decor is the use of simple forms and color. Large areas of plain-colored walls are featured, possibly with a single impressionistic or abstract painting, a piece of primitive sculpture, an aboriginal mask, or a mobile's pattern reflected against the wall. Color is combined, sometimes, with one wall in one color, the remaining three in another color (or two walls in one color, two in another). Simplicity, large bold forms, low furniture, built-in closets and shelving, interesting color schemes, large windows, and dramatic indoor lighting are all distinguishing features.

Modern design in fabrics and wallpapers run from the geometric to the abstract; from highly stylized and extremely simplified interpretations of flowers, fruit, leaves, and other forms of nature to primitive peasant motifs and African, South American Indian, Polynesian or Chinese motifs. Papers also duplicate brick, wooden shutters, and any number of other structural things. All kinds of materials of interesting texture and color are used for wall coverings and floors-cork, fiber, plastic, etc. All of these have their rightful place in modern decoration.

Bookmark and Share