Arts & Tradition

If Walls Could Dream: How de Gournay’s Whimsical Wallpapers Are Keeping a Nearly Lost Art Alive—One Brushstroke at a Time

Each of the luxury interiors company's bespoke wallpapers is painted by hand, with care and exquisite artistry
BY Hazel Atkins TIMEJune 7, 2022 PRINT

With the right decor, a room can be an experience, breathtaking and transportive. The master artisans at de Gournay, the world-famous British luxury interiors company, delight in curating these experiences. Delivering exquisitely hand-painted, custom-made wallpapers that fit a room like a couture dress, they’re reviving a pre-industrial Chinese art form—the laborious process that produces the world’s most beautiful and evocative wallpapers.

"Adam Grey" Dyed Silk.
“Erdem” on Adam Grey dyed silk. (Courtesy of de Gournay)

It began in the early 1980s, when Claud Cecil Gurney wanted to restore some antique Chinoiserie wallpaper in his family home in London. To his surprise, it wasn’t easy. Overtaken by industrialized mass production, the technique of painting Chinoiserie by hand was dying out in China, where he was only able to locate a single supplier. Alarmed that the art form was disappearing, Gurney sought out artists whose parents and grandparents had been trained in the ancient Chinese brush stroke techniques essential to Chinoiserie watercolor painting. He formed a small team of five artists, and in 1986, de Gournay was born.

Epoch Times Photo
De Gournay artists paint each design by hand with a two-brush technique: one brush for pigment, the other for water. The technique takes hours to execute—and years to master. (Courtesy of de Gournay)

Today, this family-run business is known the world over, and has branched out to include other historic and contemporary styles of hand-painted and hand-embroidered wall coverings, as well as fine porcelain and hand-carved furniture. But its sumptuous Chinoiserie collection remains its crown jewel.

Chinoiserie is an 18th-century European phenomenon, the result of a fascination with the East kindled by the Silk Road and maritime trade bringing spices, fine porcelain, intriguing images of exotic creatures, architecture, and clothing to Europe. In a time when travel was limited, the imagination allowed glimpses of other worlds. Chinoiserie is profoundly fantastical, depicting captivating landscapes and lush gardens full of fanciful flora and fauna, from peonies to peacocks.

Detail on Golden Yellow Dyed Silk.
Detail of ‘Erdem’ on Golden Yellow Dyed Silk. (Courtesy of de Gournay)

When he created the company, Gurney’s hope was twofold: to bring Chinoiserie wallpapers back into European decor, and to produce them using authentic 18th-century Chinese techniques. Just as those antique wallpapers of Europe have stood the test of time, de Gournay’s wallpapers are made using durable materials and techniques that will last for centuries.

"Erdem" on Adam Grey dyed silk, a collaboration between de Gournay and fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu. The capsule collection depicts sparrows, warblers, pheasants, and egrets among hydrangeas, hollyhocks, irises, chrysanthemums, and morning glories.
“Erdem” on Adam Grey dyed silk, a collaboration between de Gournay and fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu. The capsule collection depicts sparrows, warblers, pheasants, and egrets among hydrangeas, hollyhocks, irises, chrysanthemums, and morning glories. (Courtesy of de Gournay)

A typical panel is made of two layers of handmade Xuan paper—traditional Chinese rice paper—laminated together and backed with silk. Large brushes apply washes of watercolor for the background. While still wet, the paper and silk layers are creased, pulled flat, and allowed to dry, allowing for distinctive marks and blotches of paint in the paper.

“The Colony” on Pink edo paper, designed exclusively for the lobby of the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla.
“The Colony” on Pink edo paper, designed exclusively for the lobby of the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. Inspired by the original mural in the hotel lobby when it first opened in 1947, the design features flora and fauna indigenous to South Florida. (Courtesy of de Gournay)

Hand-drawn in miniature first to get the proportions exact, every wallpaper is tailored to the dimensions of a specific room. Artists work in teams to first outline the designs in pencil, then paint them in watercolor using a two-brush technique perfected in the 12th century. One brush is used for pigment and the other for water; together, they create amazing gradients of color. Later, fine details are added with a third brush. One panel takes about 80 hours to complete.

"Portobello" on Blue Grey India tea paper, with interior design by Brittany Bromley.
“Portobello” on Blue Grey India tea paper, with interior design by Brittany Bromley. (Carmel Brantley)

In Chinese brush painting, each stroke is deliberate and left unchanged. It takes years of training and practice to become confident in this technique. The master artisans at de Gournay train and nurture apprentices. Less experienced artists begin by painting simple design elements, such as branches and leaves, and as they gain confidence, they learn to paint more complex elements, such as birds and flowers. The growth of the team is an organic process.

Astounding artistry, technique, and care make every de Gournay wallpaper unique. Just as a couture dress is made to exact specifications, each wallpaper is tailored to fit a room to perfection. And just as a fine piece of porcelain combines delicacy with durability, each meticulously created wallpaper combines ethereal loveliness with enduring quality.

This article was originally published in Radiant Life magazine. 

Hazel Atkins
Hazel Atkins is a lapsed academic with a background in English literature who now spends her time gardening, cooking, and watching her children grow.
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