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State of the Arts: Book Documents Akron's Love Affair with Wallpaper

For some people, when they think of wallpaper they may think of garish prints from the '60s and '70s. Or maybe even their childhood bedroom.

Two Akron wallpaper lovers got together to write a book about the Rubber City’s love affair with wallcoverings. On this week’s State of the Arts, we peel back the pages of the new book "If This Wallpaper Could Talk" by Karen Starr and Shane Wynn.

If you’re going to put out a book about wallpaper, there’s no better place for a release party than January Paint and Wallpaper in Akron. It's an institution of interior design that’s been open since 1956. 

That's where I meet homeowner Bill Foster whose lavish, subtly patterned wallpaper has its own chapter in the book. "I have yellows and greens, just different shades because I think it’s kind of good to the soul to go from one space to another and feel a different personality," Foster said as he opened the book for the first time. 

He thinks wallpaper is great in old houses like his, which was built in 1883.

"Sometimes you have to cover up the cracks and wallpaper is pretty forgiving."

Meet the authors

Wallpaper? Why would anybody decide to write a book about wallpaper?

Co-author and photographer Shane Wynn says it was as easy as stepping into a wallpaper junkie's house.

She recalls one photoshoot where the wallpaper echoed the homeowner's personality. "The style of her wallpaper is swirly and it’s sparkly and so it really is sexy wallpaper, frankly,” Wynn said with a laugh. 

Coauthor Karen Starr said as an interior designer who has installed some interesting wallpaper over the years, she turned to her client list. "And then we asked around. We had a lot of fun. It was kind of a scavenger hunt to find some of the most interesting wallpapers that we could find and then decide which 15 would be included in the book," Starr said. 

Wynn said they may have stalked people's wallpaper through social media, too. "When you take selfies we see where you are, we see your wallpaper.”

When the paper speaks for itself

It’s not just individual homeowners, many Akron landmarks have wallpaper that tells a story.

"We have Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. We have the Hower House. We have Perkins Stone Mansion. We have The I Promise School and Bounce Innovation Hub," Starr said. 

Akron's Diamond Grille and Fred's Diner are represented as well. 

Wynn said Fred’s in particular has some spectacular paper. "Because he has a very high percentage of male clientele, police officers, lots of men. They tend to go in there and order a plate of bacon. But the ambiance doesn’t quite match that machismo. It’s like grandma Rose's against like a mustard backdrop," she said. 

But no matter the wallpaper, Starr thinks everyone has an experience with it. The wallpaper always tells a story. "Some people have a visceral reaction to it. They bought a home and they had to take wallpaper down in every single room and it was a horrible experience. So everyone has this connection to wallpaper," Starr said. 

"And when you start talking to people about it, it really does become apparent that it is something that is woven throughout our lives as Americans and here in Akron there are some really interesting wallpapers."

Wallpaper junkie Bill Foster has some advice for anyone afraid to paper their own walls. "Experiment, find your personality. And if your personality changes in 10 years, put up another personality."

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

Homeowner Bill Foster holds up his copy of the book. He says his wallpaper is part of his home's personality.
Mark Arehart / WKSU
Homeowner Bill Foster holds up his copy of the book. He says his wallpaper is part of his home's personality.
Copies of Starr and Wynn's love letter to Akron wallpaper, 'If This Wallpaper Could Talk.'
Mark Arehart / WKSU
Copies of Starr and Wynn's love letter to Akron wallpaper, 'If This Wallpaper Could Talk.'

Mark has been a host, reporter and producer at several NPR member stations in Delaware, Alaska, Washington and Kansas. His reporting has taken him everywhere from remote islands in the Bering Sea to the tops of skyscrapers overlooking Puget Sound. He is a diehard college basketball fan who enjoys taking walks with his dog, Otis.