Some notes on decorated papers

A small book of libretto of opera covered by paste paper (source)

Lately I’m working on a study about decorated papers used for covers of XVIIIth century librettos of opera. This slow work is mainly dedicated to the description of decorating techniques with some intention to propose a sort of taxonomy of decorated papers, that actually reminds some kind of botanical or zoological classification of immense variety and families of “species” of the decoration.

It seems that the oldest european decorated paper is dated on the second half of XVth century. The monochrome red decoration was applied by simple brush to the back of the playing cards in Stuttgart city.

Another old technique is woodcut printing that was used not only for artwork or illustration, but as well for decoration of fabrics and playing cards.

Meanwhile likely most exotic technique, the marbling, was introduced step by step by travelers to and from the Middle East and it was only around XVIth century when europeans finally learned secrets about the peculiar ingredients and achieved required technical skills.

An example of a french type of “domino” paper decorated by woodcut print and painted by hand (source)

However the true golden age of decorated papers in Europe was the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries, when new techniques such as precious embossed and gilt paper was introduced in  to the market.

In any case, it seems that originally decorated papers were introduced into the european everyday’s life as a replacement of precious oriental fabrics and tissues. Very often the same old masters of old textile industry were involved into the decoration of paper. It was a much cheaper material of the lining of big and small boxes, inside of the wardrobes, drawers or chests,  it was used for endsheets of the bigger books or for covers of the smaller ones, even just for wrapping of goods and presents, and finally it became a material to decorate the walls.

Phenomenologically speaking, we have a material that had so much to do with interiority, even if you see these papers not only inside, but on top as well. As a decoration of enclosed, intimate and even occult spaces these papers presented the same qualities as a mother-of-pearl inside the shell.

Marbled paper (source)

In this way the flatness and superficiality that traditionally were attributed to the decoration get a sort of deeper layer of significance. What is more, with their repetitive tiny patterns these lining materials even extends these enclosed and bounded spaces into something much wider and more abstract.

Gilt brocade paper (source)
Reiseapotheke GNM
Travel pharmacy box of XVIII century with lining of gilt brocade paper (source)
XIX century poison cabinet with marbled edges and shaped as book (source)
My own paste paper notebooks

The pleasant part of the study includes a contemplation of these irregular prints and color patterns, so often too naive for our contemporary eyes and taste. Probably the great majority of contemporary designers delighted by these smooth perfect and delicately shaded products couldn’t easily appreciate, for example, these paste paper patterns, too irregular, too baroque, too picturesque for our nowadays lineal (in Wölfflin’s sense) taste, which is still so rooted in the functionalist esthetics.

The study of decorated papers provokes a natural wish to understand how exactly these paper decorators and bookbinders worked on these designs and what kind of techniques they applied. This inspires to try to recreate or improvise with some patterns by myself. Just like these two old style notebooks.

For a label for the title I used this brilliant old idea of labels cut of paper that could be shaped in very sophisticated ways.

A book with oval label (source)
A book cover with Morvian paste paper of XVIIIth century and complicated shape of label of (source)

Apart of these questions, the contemplation of these prints also makes me think about that sort of ephemeral craft, that was meant to be used not as the Art in the first place, but as an applied art and decoration. It is a strange transformation when the beautiful and banal surprisingly overcomes its own ephemerality and becomes a part of humankind history.