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Decoupage Then and Now

by Linda Ferguson

A StudySphere Award of Excellence winning article!


Breakfast tray with handpainting and decoupage lilacs, auctioned on eBay June 2000 by

Though the word "decoupage" is derived from the French word decouper (to cut), the art had its beginnings in Italy in the mid 18th century. According to some sources, decoupage was a substitute for the time-consuming and expensive lacquer work (also called chinoiserie) that was popular at the time. In these early days of decoupage, printed engravings were pasted onto furniture and varnished to resemble lacquered work. Because of the beauty of the finished products and the relative ease of the work, the art became popular throughout Europe. It has been said that both Marie Antoinette and Queen Victoria both collected and produced decoupage.

Decoupage's popularity widened in the late 19th century when "scraps" -- ready-made colored prints -- were mass-produced. Scraps, also called chromolithographs, or "chromos", were machine-produced and often embossed to bring out the details in the print. Prior to scraps, engravings had to be tinted or colored by hand. In addition to decoupage, scraps were used to make Christmas decorations and valentine cards. Today, scraps are very collectible in their own right. The most desirable scraps are those with detailed color and embossing, or those of a certain theme, such as holiday or character scraps.

Decoupage Purses
Price trends for decoupage purses auctioned on eBayTM from July 1999 to mid-June 2000 (227 items). Spikes in graph indicate auction in Nov. 1999 for a Anton Pieck decoupage purse with Village Scene with $90.89 bid, and an auction in April 2000 for an Annie Laurie decoupage purse with a $90 bid.

Decoupage is done by first selecting and preparing a surface. Almost anything can be covered by decoupage: wood, metals, ceramics are perhaps the most common surfaces. Next, scraps are selected for the design. Though ready-made scraps are available, any paper item can be used, though it must first be specially prepared before cutting. The arrangement is laid out and the scraps are glued to the surface and varnished. Finish coats of either wax or specialty varnishes are often used to produce different effects.

Basket purse with lemons, auctioned June 2000 on eBay by trmpterswan

In Italy and throughout Europe in the 18th century decoupage was mostly limited to application on furniture and screens. As the art gained popularity in the 19th century, other household items received the treatment. Trays, plates, boxes, vases, purses and other smaller decorative items were decoupaged. The art to waned in the early to mid 20th century, except for a resurgence in the United States in the early part of the century. This was partially due to the regulation of the production of paper products during World War II. In the 1960s and early 1970s, arts and crafts of many types enjoyed widespread popularity, and decoupage again was "in". In addition to traditional items, modern artists also produced decoupage collages -- pictures made with a number of overlaid scraps to create an abstract design. Some artists produced Warholesque pieces using soup can labels and the like.

Vintage wooden decoupage purse with lucite handles, auctioned June 2000 on eBay by hares2u

Decoupage can be useful to cover defects on damaged thrift-store finds. Objects such as lamps, trays, old picture frames, planters, and furniture can be given new life with decoupage applications. Because it is versatile, requires few materials, and can be done by beginners, decoupage is enjoyed by many people today.

Related links:

The National Guild of Decoupeurs. Organization supporting the art of decoupage. Check out the gallery for beautiful examples of decoupage projects by members.
The Decoupage Studio Sources for books and supplies.
New Decoupage Sources, giftshop, chatroom... a decoupage community.
Brief article on Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist who used decoupage in addition to other media.


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