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Hang sculptures on the wall

Wallcoverings lend rooms a hip look. Paper tiles are easy to install; wood panels are long-lasting.

January 11, 2007|Jake Townsend | Special to The Times

FORGET the stiff family portrait, the black-and-white nature photography, the tasteful print so carefully framed. Why hang art when the wall itself can be sculpture?

New panels and wallpaper tiles aim to transform boring blank rooms into textured, three-dimensional canvases. These products range in size from 12-inch squares made of recycled paper to 4-foot-by-8-foot panels made of medium density fiberboard. Originally designed for restaurants, hotels and other commercial spaces, many of these wall coverings have begun turning up in the home.

Designer Annette English used the Iconic line of panels from B+N Industries for the guest bedroom in Esquire magazine's recent Los Angeles show house. She chose Helsinki, one of 10 Iconic patterns, a ghostly silhouette of twigs and branches. The effect was something akin to a wall dipped in white chocolate -- at once whimsical and rich.

"The panels are actually really easy to install, and now that I have used them, I would definitely use them again," English says. "The response and drama were really amazing."

Other Iconic patterns include mod fleur de lis, an elegant tangle of stylized vines and vertical rows of Helvetica numbers -- all available in a choice of colors.

The black panels look a bit like piano tops because they're made from the same process. Vinyl laminate is heat-sealed over patterned wood cores. Though they look like high-gloss lacquer, "they don't scuff or ding," says B+N design director Kevin McPhee. "Because the panels have a wood core, it can support woodwork or actual cabinetry. You can actually screw cabinets into the panels just as you would with plywood."

It's important to remember that Iconic panels are nearly as heavy and large as standard pieces of plywood. They usually are installed using cleats that fasten into studs or dry wall. Most customers call upon a contractor who can cut panels to size, accommodate electrical outlets and add molding to cover the gap between the panels and the ceiling. (An inch or so of space must be left at the top so panels can be removed later, if desired.)

"They are actually really hard to damage, and if you need to clean them, the manufacturer recommends using Simple Green and water," English says.

The 4-by-8-foot panels cost about $750 apiece.

A less expensive and less permanent choice is a smaller tile made of recycled paper. Mio, a Philadelphia company specializing in sustainable design, first gained notoriety by making paper mulch dorm furniture that could be thrown into the recycling bin after a year's worth of abuse. Now the firm makes the Flow 3D, V2 and Acoustic Wave wall tiles, all of 100% recycled paper mulch formed into durable 12-inch-square tiles. They can be installed with wallpaper glue or double-sided adhesive tape, depending on how permanent one wants to be.

Mio's tiles can be ordered in stock colors or painted to suit. The patterns have an Op Art feel to them, and tiles can be rotated for variations on a look. For the less brave, Mio's website (see box) has an interactive tool that enables customers to visualize walls before installation.

Because the tiles are paper, cleaning them is a major concern among prospective buyers, says company founder and designer Jaime Salm. "I tell people that you clean them as you would any wall: Dust them off or maybe use a damp cloth," he says. "Remember, wallpaper is paper too."

A pack of 12 Mio tiles starts at $28, available through Mio's website as well as at (V2 only) and catalog and online retailer Chiasso.

Chiasso sells other types of paper-mulch tiles, Dimension and Links too, both a bit more subdued in form and color than Mio's lines. They cost $98 for a set of 10 tiles, enough to cover 22 1/2 square feet. Peel-and-stick glue strips are included.

A Seattle company called ModularArts designs mineral composite panels that usually require installation by a carpenter or millworker, but a spokeswoman says a new line suitable for do-it-yourselfers will be released this year.

For Salm, beauty lies in the tiles' flexibility.

"They can cover a whole room or they can be used like a small piece of artwork," he says of the Mio line. "You can install it on a board and mount it. It doesn't have to be on your wall forever."



Take your pick

Sculptural wall panels and tiles come in different sizes, shapes, prices and materials. Some options:

B+N Industries: The Burlingame, Calif., company designs the Iconic line of panels, 4-foot-by-8-foot pieces of sculpted wood that retail for about $750 each. (650) 593-4127,

Mio: The Philadelphia firm makes 12-inch-square tiles made of recycled paper. A 12-pack of tiles is $28 and up. (215) 925-9359,

Chiasso: The catalog retailer sells some Mio tiles as well as Dimension and Links, 18-inch-square peel-and-stick tiles that go for $98 per pack of 10. (877) 244-2776,

ModularArts: The Seattle firm designs 32-inch-square panels of a mineral composite. Panels are about $130. (206) 788-4210;

-- Jake Townsend

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