In the heart of Alsace, the French capital of wallpaper design

Rixheim: a museum and an antique production site for wallpaper.

Perini Journal

In northern Alsace, just a few kilometers from the Swiss city of Basle, on the road toward Strasbourg, is the charming little village of Rixheim. Here, the entire economy rotates around a unique and versatile element of interior decoration: wallpaper.

The foundation year of Zuber & Cie, the oldest producer of wallpaper in France, dates back to 1797. From this date onwards, wallpaper becomes an integral part of the life of this French village uninterruptedly until our modern days. So it is not by chance that the headquarters of Zuber & Cie and the precious Musée du Papier Peint, born in 1983, are both located in the City Hall Square of Rixheim, adjacent to the Municipality.

THE MUSÉE DU PAPIER PEINT IS A SMALL JEWEL that fully answers to the French museum tradition, carrying out a triple function: the conservation and restoration of ancient wallpapers, the diffusion of the history of this material through the permanent exhibition present and – last but not least – the furthering of historical research, study and enhancement of its collections. The basis of the museum is the “Zuber Collection”, which with over 100,000 documents, supplies a complete scenario of the French history of wallpaper starting at the end of the XVII Century.

TWO SECTIONS COMPRISE A MUST-SEE WITHIN THE MUSEUM: the area where the history, the techniques and the printing machines for wallpaper are located, and the halls dedicated to the so-called panoramique wallpapers. The collection of equipment that allows to hand-print the papers and the machines for the production of “industrial”-size rolls embrace a time period that goes from the XVII Century up to the 1930s.

The museum also offers “demonstrations” of the ancient method of hand-printing the wallpaper through wooden planches, or blocks. The earliest types of wallpapers were printed through the use of wooden blocks – a long and complex production process that comprised the following operations: drawing a tempera sketch where the motif is flat, without color tones. Next comes the relief engraving of the wooden block, where each block corresponds to a single color of the motif. A color is spread on for background and then each block – and hence, each color – is printed, one at a time, giving rise to the motif. The outcome is of seductive quality: the thin resulting product vibrates with luminosity, color, reflections. The quality of the printing nearly attains perfection, nearly... And it is this slight imperfection that makes this material even more precious and unique. Printing through the use of wooden blocks will progressively disappear from industrial production during the XIX Century.

GOING BACK IN TIME, we find that printing through relief engraved wooden blocks appeared in the West at the end of the XIV Century for the production of holy images, printed fabrics and playing cards. These same artisans also produced dominos, paper sheets covered with decorative motifs that were used to cover safes, furniture, walls and screen dividers. And the domino is actually the ancestor of printed paper rolls. In 1540, a corporation of “papermakers, paper masters, story-writers” was constituted in Paris. Their activities quickly spread throughout all of France. And in that same period the Germans, English and Italians give life to a similar production, utilizing the same technique of the wooden block to print only black ink, while the other colors are distributed on a mould with fatty inks.

If the domino resisted until the XIX Century, starting in 1760 it was faced with the competition of a new arrival: wallpaper, that is, the tempera colored roll of paper which was printed, using subsequent elaboration phases, using the wooden block. England perfected this new product that we call wallpaper: sheets of paper glued one at the end of another to form 9-meter long rolls.

THIS PRODUCT IMMEDIATELY OPENS UP A NEW RANGE OF POSSIBILITIES for the realization and printing of large graphic motifs and décors that are much more complex and highly artistic. But the main step forward was given by the use of tempera: the mix of glue, resin and color that allows a precise, rich, dense printing. So it is with the début of this English innovation that wallpaper conquers the French salons. These new techniques, procedures and methods become diffused in France around 1760, supported by the exceptional French mastery in the realm of ornamental design, in the presence of a more exigent market. Numerous are the businesses which open up in the large urban centers: Lyon, Bordeaux and, of course, Paris.

THE DEMAND FOR PAPIER PEINT (WALLPAPER) IS INTIMATELY TIED TO URBAN DEVELOPMENT: the general population doubles in the XVII Century, while urban population actually quadruples and buildings become less humid and more intimate. The use of slaked lime and bricks becomes generalized, facilitating the introduction of wallpaper.

Another important element is the consolidation of the ancient bourgeoisie which, socially located just one step below the aristocracy, attributes great importance to its need to appear. Wallpaper satisfies the bourgeois’ need to save money, all the while giving him the satisfaction of having – thanks to the tromp d’oeil effect – home interiors that resemble those of the wealthier homes. A new and always fresh product, wallpaper puts at the bourgeoisie’s disposal something which was originally created for the aristocracy. Now, the prestige of the aristocratic class was at (almost) everyone’s disposal!

AS WITH ALL DECORATIVE ARTS, WALLPAPER, TOO, IS FILLED WITH THE NEOCLASSIC TASTE, where it finds one of its most successful means of expression: the motifs of the arabesques of the XVIII Century, the Etruscan ornaments repeated in the Greek vases and trophies, the candelabras and the ancient-style draperies. The refinement, but also the richness of this style perfectly answers to the aspirations of wallpaper’s clientele. Furthermore, the sobriety of the drawing and the colors that correspond to well-known and published models, all act in favor of the interests of the producers. These wallpapers, “imitations” of the famous ancient and renaissance frescos and décors, through their dynamism and the power of their design, bear wonderful witness to a productive society capable of transforming the world… and capable of putting at many people’s disposal what was once only reserved for the élite.

Mechanical printing, that makes its appearance in England in 1841, quickly becomes the most popular production method. With a machine that runs on steam, about 300 rolls can be printed in one hour, using a minimum of 12 colors and a maximum of 26!

This technological innovation revolutionizes the world of wallpaper. But, instead of renewing or inspiring new creations, it concentrates mainly on motifs and documents which were previously printed using the wooden block, making them available to everyone. Wallpaper enters even the most modern and modest urban homes – suffice it to say that even Emile Zola’s Gervaise can use it to decorate her blue and white laundry room. Indeed, mechanical production allows very low prices – even just a few cents per roll – where block printing offered rolls at over a couple of Francs each.

BUT THE TECHNICAL-ARTISTIC PRIZE FOR ABSOLUTE ORIGINALITY IN THE WORLD OF WALLPAPER CERTAINLY GOES TO A PRODUCT THAT WAS BORN EXCLUSIVELY IN FRANCE and later spread through the whole of Europe and also America: panoramic wallpaper, or just simply called the panoramiques. From the end of the XVIII Century to the 1860s, about 100 different types of panoramique wallpapers were produced, above all by the large Zuber & Cie factory. What is meant by panoramique wallpapers are those which feature broad landscapes printed on a series of different rolls in such a way as to completely cover the walls of a whole room, thus creating a totally “external” effect. With time, these landscapes took on two fundamental forms: initially they depicted historical scenario featuring mythological, fictional, military scenes or scenes from worldwide travels in the different continents, or picturesque or anecdotic scenery within landscapes offering an idealized nature.

From the 1840s onward, the characters disappear and only the representation of nature remains, intense and fertile, that reproduces on the walls of the salons or of dining rooms a Paradise, an El Dorado where Man, at the center of the room, is King.

Still today, the Zuber & Cie factory produces these splendid panoramiques using the original wooden blocks and the ancient tempera preparation techniques. Zuber & Cie’s is a veritable collection of blocks, décors and images that continues to be in use and to uninterruptedly produce works of art for the past two hundred years.•

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