Home: Design: Paper Trail

There is something undeniably aristocratic about scenic wallpaper. A grand, floor-to-ceiling, corner-to-corner painted panorama — like the blushing sweep of flowery chinoiserie above—all but demands patrician placement.

Like Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. Queen Elizabeth II’s parlor. Or Tracy Lord’s sitting room. Over-the-top backdrops just befit over-the-top spaces.

Deborah Diament is the fourth-generation owner of A.L. Diament & Co., the country’s eldest extant wallpaper supplier, founded in 1885 by Albert L. Diament, Deborah’s French Huguenot great-grandfather. Born and based in Center City, the company maintained showrooms in New York, Chicago and, until 1976, on the Main Line, naturally. (Deborah’s great-grandparents kept a summer home in Devon.)

For more than a century, A.L. Diament supplied American royalty — the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the White House — with France and Britain’s latest and finest wall coverings and furnishings. These days, Deborah confines her trade to wallpaper only.

Working out of a single studio in Kennett Square, she deals with undisclosed clients via interior designers, doing most of her work online. In some ways, the Diament family business is nothing like it once was. In other ways nothing’s changed.

The wallpapers Deborah sells are the wallpapers her ancestors sold. “All are original, with original design dates. Most were printed in the late-19th to mid-20th century,” she says. The designs themselves date back to the early 1800s. “Each paper is absolutely singular. All are rare. Most are out-of-print, in mint, never-been-hung condition.” Only Zuber, the world-renowned French wallpaper-manufacturer-turned-museum (and longtime supplier to A.L. Diament) has a stash that rivals Deborah’s.

About that stash — at least, those works she’s now revealing for Internet inspection: They have quite some range. There are soft, flowery outdoor scenes: a watery pond with airy blossoms in “Décor Floreal”; climbing rosebushes set against pale blue in “Chalfont”; and a straw hat, string of beads and bathing towel draped on a pruned tree in “Prudence.” Other pieces are downright history-bookish—a Revolutionary War battle scene in “La Guerre d’Indépendance” and troops going through their paces in “Valley Forge.” Some are classical, traditional: Greek muses, a Raphael-esque Virgin Mary, trompe l’oeil ceiling decorations. And then, there are the outrageous: slightly exotic, would-be-kitschy-if-they-weren’t-so-stunning Western imaginings of Eastern scenes; dramatic sunset tones of “Panorama Japonais”; bright, tropical colors of a jaunty “Hindoustan”; and — our favorite — delicately detailed, impeccably pretty chinoiserie.

Such beauty doesn’t come easily — or quickly. “Very few craftsmen could do this,” says Deborah. “Each work can be printed with as many as 2,500, 3,000 wood blocks. They would paint the cartoons on each block, and then master blockers would engrave out the design. It took six to nine months to produce and print a full set [of panels making up a single scene.] The registration is so perfect, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact they’re actually block-printed.

“During World War I and World War II, these papers were hidden in caves. Some of the wood blocks were lost, damaged or destroyed. A few remain today. The majority of our collection are papers that no longer can be printed,” says Deborah.

Surprisingly enough, all that pain-staking care and preservation add up to a relatively modest price tag. A 20th-century print of a three-and-a-half-by-10-foot, double-panel “Les Ibis” by Inaltera, depicting birds and fauna, goes for $900. A wall-ready, perfectly registered replica of a Gobelin tapestry bouquet (measuring three-and-a-quarter by eight feet) costs a mere $1,050. Sure, an extremely rare and large find — Huard et Chasset’s 1924 edition of “Palais Royal,” with its French boulevard scenes viewed through gilt archways, for example — fetches $42,000. But our belovedly girly pink chinoiserie is ours for a truly fair $8,000. (Not too extravagant, when you consider it’s not going to be reproduced — and that you definitely won’t need to purchase art for that wall.)

Another pleasant surprise: The wallpaper is fairly low-maintenance. “Installation has changed very little through the years. We use pretty much the same wheat paste that’s always been used,” she says. Still, it’s important to hire an experienced paper hanger —Deborah’s local recommendation is Media-based Holly Fisher — and to choose a wall with limited or no exposure to sunlight. Other than that, your wall-bound work of art needs only an occasional touch-up with “a light feather duster,” Deborah says.

There are also no hard-and-fast rules on where these pieces can go. Deborah has seen them installed in closets, dining rooms, powder rooms and bathrooms (where the papers require additional sealing). Only one recommendation: “The best place for them,” she says, “is on the wall.”