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Frieze (USA)

This is a Frieze. It was manufactured by M.H. Birge & Sons Co.. It is dated 1905 and we acquired it in 2012. Its medium is block-printed, glazed, embossed paper. It is a part of the Wallcoverings department.

Imitation leather papers are meticulous reproductions of the grain, patterns, and coloring of antique leathers. Although this sample was produced by M. H. Birge & Sons around 1910, high-end leather papers had been popular since the late 19th century, with a renewed interest during the Colonial Revival movement of the early 20th century.
Birge received many accolades for their imitation leather papers, and produced these papers in both historic and contemporary styling. They also worked in actual leather if requested by a client. Leather papers were expensive because they were a labor-intensive product. The papers were block printed, embossed, and then antiqued or glazed by hand with an oil color. The paper support required substantial weight to withstand the embossing process.
Along with imitation leathers, a wide variety of relief papers came into vogue in the late 19th century, including: Lincrusta-Walton, a heavy, sanitary, embossed paper; Anaglypta, a lighter and more flexible version of Lincrusta; Tynecastle Canvas, canvas pressed by hand onto wooden molds; and grasscloth, a paper of woven grasses. It was very fashionable at the time for walls to have a sense of depth. Relief wallcovering or ingrain papers were used instead of flat painted walls. Leather papers were produced in Japan, across Europe, and in the United States.
This frieze is an excellent example of the genre. It follows in the tradition of printed landscape friezes, but offers greater richness through the effect of block printing on an imitation leather paper. The central motif is a Renaissance castle set high upon a hilltop with a wide road drawn in a strong perspective that leads the viewer up to the castle. A horse-drawn cart and guard stand on the road. The surrounding countryside is dotted with hills, trees, and little cottages. This paper would be the first example of a wide frieze printed on imitation leather in the museum’s collection.
At the time of proposed acquisition, the museum’s collection includes over 90 samples of imitation leather papers produced in Japan, France, England, Germany, and the United States, with the majority of samples from Japan. There are currently more than 160 papers produced by Birge in the museum’s collection, many of which are printed designs produced during the Colonial Revival period.
This paper is part of a larger gift of four pieces of imitation leather paper produced by M. H. Birge & Sons. Founded in 1834, Birge was the major manufacturer of imitation leather papers in the United States in the early 20th century. It was also the oldest continuously-operating wallpaper company in the United States when it was sold to a Canadian concern in 1959. This proposed gift of four sample papers would be an asset to the collection by building upon the existing holdings of Birge production, American wallpapers (especially papers inspired by the Colonial Revival movement), and faux papers in general.

This object was featured in our Object of the Week series in a post titled Imitation leather paper.

This object was donated by Mary Kate Conrad. It is credited Gift of Mary Kate Conrad.

  • Sidewall (France)
  • block-printed on machine-made paper.
  • Gift of Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt.
  • 1931-45-59

Its dimensions are

L x W: 190.5 x 55.9 cm (6 ft. 3 in. x 22 in.)

Cite this object as

Frieze (USA); Manufactured by M.H. Birge & Sons Co. (United States); block-printed, glazed, embossed paper; L x W: 190.5 x 55.9 cm (6 ft. 3 in. x 22 in.); Gift of Mary Kate Conrad; 2012-14-2

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<ref name=CH>{{cite web |url= |title=Frieze (USA) |author=Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum |accessdate=20 March 2023 |publisher=Smithsonian Institution}}</ref>