Material wealth Part 2: Wall covering methods

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As fabric-covered office partitions have become more widespread, special “panel” fabrics have been developed specifically for this use. Typical panel fabrics are lighter in weight and less resistant to abrasion than upholstery fabrics, and are flame retardent. Their color tends to be lighter than middle value (and, of course, colorfast). They have enough texture to provide a restful contrast with hard and smooth work surfaces.

Panel fabrics must resist bruises and soiling and be sufficiently porous to work with the sound-absorbing battings (wadding) that fill the core of the panels. Whereas most furnishing fabrics are 40 to 54 in. wide, panel fabrics may be as wide as 72 in. Although most are distributed through office systems manufacturers, others are offered by fabric houses catering to the office furniture market.

Because the widespread use of wall fabrics is a recent development, fire codes for wall fabric in many regions are more stringent than for upholstery or drapery. There is no good reason for this: fabric applied to a wall is more difficult to ignite than the same fabric hung loosely, and it will also burn more slowly. Still: local codes must be adhered to when selecting the fabric. Some untreated cloths pass the test; others can be treated with a flame-retardant chemical to comply with the codes. If this is necessary, ask to have a sample treated; if the luster or color is too diminished, consider another cloth.

Upholstering walls has become simpler in recent years, as most localities have competent installers. The power staple gun makes the work relatively fast and uniform. There are also several reliable patented devices for clipping fabric onto a metal or plastic strip which has been tacked to the wall. For paddings, battings of various thicknesses and fiber types are readily available. Alternatively, the fabric can simply be pasted to a flat unpadded wall.

The costliest, most luxurious method is to seam the cloth into wallsized panels, then stretch it as a single unit over the batting, previously attached to the wall, and blind tack it into place. This is also the most practical method, as the fabric can easily be moved or temporarily removed for immersion cleaning. This fact was dramatically demonstrated when, just before the opening of a major museum gallery, a furnace exploded, sending black soot over every surface. The costly, hand woven fabric panels were taken down, dry-cleaned and reinstalled within two days. If the fabric had been simply pasted to the walls, it would have needed to be totally replaced:

Wrapping fabric over padded, pre-cut wooden or Homosote panels is, of course, easier than the seamed method and, in some situations, just as suitable. These panels can have an architectonic quality if they are rounded to a slight curve at the corners and hung with a quarter-inch reveal, or shadow-line, between them.

In the best past-up installations, paste is rolled onto the wall, the fabric pressed onto it, and the edges trimmed with a rotary blade. As the fabric, slightly dampened by paste, becomes more resilient, it can be stretched or contracted at the installer’s will — a great advantage in matching patterns.

When installers demand fabrics as easy to put up as wallpaper, a fabric with a paper or resin backing can be used. Backing, however, may be problematic because of the tendency of backed fabrics to end up off-grain. Most often this takes the form of “bowing”: the center of a panel is shorter or longer than the sides. Because there is no way to correct this, it must be avoided. The best prevention is to buy from a responsible supplier. Many fabrics, even seemingly plain ones, have subtle bars or irregulatiries in the weft, which will not match from one panel to another. If there are enough seams, and one has a modicum of tolerance, the repeated “mis-match” effect may be as acceptable as it is in wood or stone.

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Fabric shirred over a rod at top and bottom can (if properly installed) be one of the most luxurious wall treatments. Because triple fullness is required, this effect is not cheap; however, a costly fabric may not be necessary. And where an alternative treatment would entail replastering, the cost of covering the walls with gathered fabrics can be relatively low.

A similar treatment was used to cover the walls of a drawing room in a distinguished old apartment in New York. Panels of heavy, handwoven cotton, with selvages exposed, were loosely hung from the ceiling cove around all four walls. The effect is so striking that no-one would guess that this was also an economy to avoid having to restore the walls themselves. And what marvelous walls these panels create — offering subtle intonations of the fabric structure, superb sound control, and a lively, if neutral, background for the works of art suspended in front of them.

Many fabric collections have coodinating wallpapers, with the same pattern screened on both cloth and paper. This is no mean trick to achieve. The cloth must necessarily be as structureless as the paper; the colorants must be pigment, rather than dyes; and the control from one production lot to another (often in separate plants) must be meticulous. It can be, and is, done successfully — sometimes with charm — and at several price levels. Correlated collections, in which fabric and paper are stylistically related, but not identical, are easier to produce and permit more options.

Another relatively new idea is the use of carpets on walls. A frequent mistake is to cover floors, walls, and occasionally seating, with the same carpet. This may have a dramatic effect when newly installed, but a year later, the varying ravages of dirt and wear will have been disastrous. Flat carpets of sisal and coir (coconut fiber) seem much more appropriate for walls. These carpets, too, need only low maintenance.