Bold Blues and Patterned Wallpaper Make This 19th-Century House Feel Like Home
Wallpaper entrepreneur Elizabeth Rees updated a 19th-century Victorian in her hometown with lots of paint and, yes, a few sheets of wallpaper, proving you can go home again—no ruby slippers required.
"People always assume that my house must be covered in wallpaper," says Elizabeth Rees, founder of Chasing Paper. "But I've tried to be restrained." True to her word, Elizabeth has used her company's signature removable wallpapers sparingly and strategically in her 1870s home.
She and husband Brian Leadley moved back to their hometown of Milwaukee three years ago after more than a decade in New York City, where Elizabeth started Chasing Paper as something of a happy accident. Looking for a temporary but impactful way to decorate her rental apartment, she tapped her family's 94-year-old printing company to create removable wallpaper from designs she collaborated on with artists and illustrators. Friends asked where they could buy the paper, and Elizabeth's experiment grew to become one of the company’s biggest customers. Moving home felt like the natural next step.
Located in one of the oldest neighborhoods in town, their blond Cream City brick home has a layout typical of the Brooklyn brownstones Elizabeth had long admired. "Every person who owned this home took incredible care of it," she says. But the couple didn't want to live in a time capsule. "I wanted modern touches juxtaposed against the old features of the home," Elizabeth says. Enter the geometric paper that counters the Victorian moldings of the original entryway. In the living room, Rees embraced the times with a TV over the ornate fireplace. But she balanced it by adding period-appropriate built-in shelves. And in the kitchen, a "terrazzo" papered backsplash is an of-the-moment flourish the couple can replace as their style evolves—or when Elizabeth's company rolls out a new design.
Elizabeth worried that her first-choice paint, Farrow & Ball's Oval Room Blue, would be too bold. So she hedged and picked a lighter paint. But, she says, "It looked like a baby's room." For round two, she went with her gut. "As soon as we got one wall done, I knew it was the right choice." Painting the new built-in shelves the same rich blue helps them blend seamlessly so they look like they've been there forever.
For the walls, they chose a gray with a hint of lavender to play off the blue living room and the red undertone of the floors. (It's Whirlpool by Benjamin Moore.) "I bought a lot of samples to get that color right," Elizabeth says. The overhead light is one of many modern chandeliers the couple installed. They saved the original fixtures though. "We wanted to make sure they stay with the home."
The original floor tiles were keepers. The 1970s wallpaper, however, was decidedly less timeless. "It was really hard to remove, which gave me some newfound excitement for my own product," she says. The blue Starburst Tile pattern ties the room to the rest of the home.
The compact kitchen had an efficient layout and quality cabinets but was too dark. So Elizabeth hired pros to putty, sand, and paint the cabinetry and attach simple black hardware. The wallpaper backsplash and a new overhead light fixture are trendy touches that can easily be updated later. "[The makeover] cost about $3,500, but the transformation was like night and day," she says.
Blue reappears in a pattern meant to mimic cement tile (Italian Tile, Chasing Paper). Throughout the home, Elizabeth relies on blue as the star of the tight palette. The color continuity is a smart designers' tactic to create a high-end look.
In the nursery, Elizabeth papered all four walls in Spotted, one of her quiet neutral patterns that, along with woven and carved pieces, lends the space texture. "You notice it, but it's not hit-you-over-the-head," she says. The daybed doubles as a spot for overnight guests and tired parents. (The couple is expecting another baby this year.)
Peel-and-stick papers are a low-committal way to add zip. Elizabeth Rees says to only apply to smooth surfaces. Skip textured walls, matte paint finishes, and walls painted in the previous four weeks. Go slow. Start at the top of the wall. Peel the back off the top of the panel, press it to the wall, then peel off small sections as you work your way down. When you reach a tricky spot like a window, use a ruler and a crafts knife to cut clean lines. Smooth paper with a flat object like a ruler. Prick any remaining bubbles with a pin to release the air.