My earliest recollection of using wall upholstery goes back to a time well before I ever thought of becoming a professional designer. I was studying at Oxford University in England and was the grateful recipient of a rather oversized room at Manchester College complete with central heating (definitely a luxury at the time), double-glazed windows (to keep the street noise below to a barely audible level), and a large and elaborately carved armoire with no less than a full-length mirror.
Though thrilled with my good fortune to have found myself such comfortable lodgings , it bothered me that it lacked character and any kind of warmth – that it was just nondescript and big. I longed for some color, some character or at least some kind of definition around my sleeping area. Something. And then it hit me like some kind of divine inspiration: I decided to upholster the walls of at least a portion of that large space in red.
I knew instinctively, even at that time, that fabric was just the thing to add coziness and warmth to a room. Later, I became aware of its ability to improve acoustics as well. And, after becoming a professional designer, I went on to use wall upholstery in homes of all different sizes and styles, most often in powder rooms, bedrooms, and, of course, in home theaters. I realized way back then, as a student, that fabric-covered walls can work their magic from the very large and grand to smaller and more intimate spaces with equal aplomb.
Looking back, it seems only right that I discovered the merits of using wall upholstery while residing in a 400-year-old building in England since the castles of the Old World are where it all began. Long before paint and plaster were used, the stone walls of these ancient structures were covered with fabric, which made very good sense because the large, thick wall coverings, tapestries and draped walls were used for soundproofing, warmth and, then later on, for interior design.
I’m not so sure about the installation methods used in the castles of old, but I’ve learned through experience that to have a room look as beautiful as it possibly can with fabric-covered walls it absolutely requires the right professional installer and much more than just a staple gun. (Which was my only tool as a student.) With a professional’s knowledge and talent and, of course, the right fabric, magic can be created by actually changing the visual perception of the room while at the same time enhancing its architectural details. Wall upholstery can create illusions of another era, change a dark room to light or add excitement to an otherwise dull and featureless room – just like I did back in my room at Oxford.
In my design work I’ve utilized upholstered walls in bedrooms and entry halls (where many of the faux leather fabrics have worked to great success), powder rooms (but not bathrooms where there is just too much residual moisture that can harm most fabrics) and cloak rooms (no problem there).
But, it’s home theaters that account for most of the spaces in today’s homes that call for upholstered walls. It’s not a new concept by any means because fabric-covered acoustical walls have been used for a long time by radio and television stations in order to enhance the sound of speaking voices. In order to accomplish this kind of “dead” sound, wall upholstery is characterized by thick layers of underpadding, which not only helps with sound quality, but at the same time allows for a homeowner to easily hide any construction flaws in walls and ceilings without having to undergo any costly and extensive repairs. A perfect, if rare example, of beauty and practicality working hand-in-hand.
Other benefits of wall upholstery include greater durability than many other finishes, such as paint and wallpaper, as well as the ability of fabric to be installed directly over irregular surfaces without the need to remove prior treatments or having to go to the expense of prepping walls. And aesthetically speaking, upholstered walls allow for the addition of special decorative details such as metal nailheads and/or trim, which, as a designer, I love.
And finally, in a nod to the environment, wall upholstery is a natural process where none of the harmful chemicals often found in paint, stain or wallpaper application need ever be used. Furthermore, choosing a sustainable fabric (of which there are more available than ever before), guarantees that a project will be green from start to finish.
The alchemy of wall upholstery works equally well in any kind of home whether traditional or contemporary. You don’t need to own a castle or a museum to consider using this time-honored process. Simply choose a room where texture, color and a degree of softness is desired, and then leave the rest to a talented professional installer.
Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design International; he has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers and is a certified professional in green residential design. Questions can be sent to stephen@soleildesigninter