Paper trail – Imaginative, bold wall coverings evoke historic Saratoga homes

The walls of the Saratoga Springs History Museum are now decorated with more than 30 different varie

The walls of the Saratoga Springs History Museum are now decorated with more than 30 different varieties of wallpaper: a whimsical landscape neighbors a bold geometric print; fair maidens share a wall with pensive cherubs. A vine of periwinkle posies climbs alongside a dazzling damask design. Is this curious assemblage the brainchild of some off-the-wall interior designer? Absolutely.

Meet guest curator Michael Levinson, a fun-loving decorator who is currently displaying a small portion of his amazing historic wallpaper collection at the museum, in the exhibit “Papering the Town: Architecture, Interior Design and History.”

The exhibit pairs 20 of Saratoga’s historic homes with wallpaper samples from the time period in which they were built.

“We’re looking at Saratoga starting with the Olde Bryan Inn, one of the earliest buildings in the city, going all the way up to a modern 21st-century building,” explains James Parillo, executive director of the museum.

Paper with personality

If you could have been a fly on the wall, way-back-when, in one of Saratoga’s historic homes, what would you have learned? You could have surmised a lot just from checking out the wallpaper, believes Levinson.

“Papering the Town: Architecture, Interior Design and History”

WHERE: The Saratoga Springs History Museum, in the Canfield Casino in Congress Park

WHEN: Through the end of 2008

HOURS: Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

COST: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students. Children under 12 are free

Levinson’s paper trail

Levinson’s wondrous wall coverings will also be on display at 15 mini-exhibits throughout Saratoga Springs, including The Children’s Museum at Saratoga, The National Museum of Dance, the Saratoga Springs Visitor’s Center, Adirondack Trust Company, Mrs. London’s, Hidden Gardens, Saratoga Trunk and the Saratoga Springs Post Office.

“Wallpaper is the personality of the home,” he says.

Each design has its own story to tell.

If the paper alone isn’t enough to stoke the imagination, every grouping in the “Papering the Town” exhibit also includes the architectural history of the featured residence and details on the historical happenings in Saratoga at the time it was built. Artifacts from the homes add further dimension to many of the displays.

Nearly two years ago, Levinson began planning this exhibit in conjunction with the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation and the history museum.

“I have two ways of approaching exhibits,” Levinson says. “One is that you must tell the story with history, as well as tell the story of the people. And then you have to play a little P.T. Barnum, because that’s what’s fun.”

It’s clear he had a circus-worth of fun pasting his exuberant creativity and design talents all over this exhibit. Not one to be labeled a wallflower, he dived head-first into the construction process in January.

“I pulled up the carpeting, tore down walls, plastered, painted,” he says. He even custom-created “floor-paper” in the museum’s changing gallery, by laying down a wall-to-wall, foot-traffic-friendly photo-collage of Saratoga’s historic homes.

Paper boy

Levinson, who owns and operates Gray Fish Furniture and Design in Hudson, began collecting wallpaper at the age of 19 and has been at it for 28 years. His first find, a vintage sage-green paper patterned with muted-gold roses, was uncovered at a flea market in New York City; it cost him $5.

“I immediately recognized the hand that was in this, from silk-screening and wood-block classes I had taken, and I was blown away,” he recounts. “These [historic wallpapers] are made out of individual handmade sheets of paper that were hand-joined, then hand-blocked. Each color was applied separately. The registration to get everything lined up is really tough,” he explains.

Over the years, Levinson’s collection has ballooned to include more than 800 custom-created wallpaper samples; the earliest date back to 1765. He is now considered a leading authority on historic wallpapers by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian.

“These papers are from 1812,” Levinson says, pointing to a stately duo currently hanging in the Saratoga Springs History Museum’s Belter Room. The vibrant papers, which look brand-new, are adorned with designs that mimic life-size white satin drapes. “The only other examples of this paper are in the Louvre Museum,” he notes.

Sizing it up

Levinson likes to share his historic papers with the public because he feels wallpaper is an accessible form of artistic expression.

“When it comes to art, people will not feel comfortable critiquing this painting,” he says, pointing to a portrait of the original owner of Saratoga’s Milligan Mansion. “They just feel that they don’t have the art education to sit there and do it. Yet without that art education, they will talk about wallpaper and feel comfortable about that conversation.”

Without a doubt, “Papering the Town” offers plenty to talk about. “It’s one of the classiest temporary exhibitions we’ve done in years,” says Parillo. “Michael’s brought this gallery and other galleries in the museum up to a real professional level.”

However it’s perceived, Levinson hopes people will have a good time at the exhibit. And who knows? There might be some interesting design ideas to be found there too. “Wallpaper is back in fashion,” he quips. “Custom finishes are out. Paper’s back!”

Categories: Life and Arts

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