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‘Our goal is to bring life and light into people’s homes’

On 13 October in New York, Christie’s Lates hosts bespoke wallpaper and fabric company de Gournay — the maker of antique interiors par excellence. Here, co-director Rachel Cecil Gurney discusses the company’s origins, collaborating with supermodel Kate Moss, and why we are all crazy for chinoiserie

Over the past 30 years, de Gournay has become known as the  go-to maker of antique interiors. Its exquisite, hand-painted wallpapers are produced in China by local artisans using techniques that date to the 18th century. We spoke to Rachel Cecil Gurney, co-director of de Gournay and daughter of the company’s founder, to find out more.

How did de Gournay get started?

Rachel Cecil Gurney: ‘My father, Claud Cecil Gurney, founded the company about 30 years ago. He was planning a trip to China, and thought that while he was there he might see if he could find someone to restore some antique wallpaper in his home because, of course, that’s where the original skill is. In the 17th and 18th centuries, wallpapers were made in China exclusively for export to Europe. There are still artisans on the mainland using the original wallpaper-making techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. The idea was to bring these chinoiserie wallpapers back into European homes, and to produce them in exactly the same way as they were originally made.

‘My father met with a group of artisans, and they agreed to work with him. The Communist authorities needed some convincing, but eventually we started with a team of around five artists. Now we have about 100 artists in our studio in China, some of whom have been working for us since the beginning. It is definitely harder these days to find artists. So our workshop offers programmes for young Chinese artists, taught by a senior artist, to encourage them to develop and learn, and, we hope, to come and work with us.’

de Gournay hand-painted ‘St. Laurent’ Chinoiserie wallpaper on Blue India Tea paper. From £1,151 per panel (915 mm width). Photo Marian Medvedeva
de Gournay hand-painted ‘St. Laurent’ Chinoiserie wallpaper on Blue India Tea paper. From £1,151 per panel (915 mm width). Photo: Marian Medvedeva

How long does one panel take to produce, and how many people are involved?

RCG: ‘There’s always a team of artists — generally about six to ten people — working on one order. An average panel is about 90cm wide and about 2.5 metres high. It takes around 150 hours for six artists to produce one panel. Most of our designs are about 20 panels, so a full order can take anywhere from three to six months — longer if there are bespoke elements. I think a lot of people, when they see the wallpaper, think, “Oh, it’s printed.” They don’t realise that it’s all painted by hand.’

Bringing de Gournays St Laurent design to life on Turquoise Edo painted Xuan paper

Bringing de Gournay's 'St Laurent' design to life on Turquoise Edo painted Xuan paper

What can you tell us about the techniques used to make the wallpaper?

RCG: ‘The wallpaper is usually made of painted Xuan “rice” paper or a paper-backed silk onto which the design is painted. The background is typically painted in gouache, and then the design is meticulously painted on using watercolour. Every detail and element of the design is first outlined in pencil — so if you look very closely at any of de Gournay’s wallpaper, you'll see the pencil marks, which is obviously a sign that it’s handmade.

‘When using a silk background, you first need to treat it using a glue so the colour doesn’t bleed when it is applied. Once you've painted on the design, the final process is mounting the silk onto the paper, which is quite laborious. Our artisans tend to use the original two-brush technique: one brush is used to apply the pigment, and the other brush is dipped into water, which drags the pigment out. That gives the design a lot of depth.’

de Gournay hand-painted ‘Amazonia’ chinoiserie wallpaper on Pink painted Xuan paper. From £921 per panel (915 mm width). Photo Marian Medvedeva
de Gournay hand-painted ‘Amazonia’ chinoiserie wallpaper on Pink painted Xuan paper. From £921 per panel (915 mm width). Photo: Marian Medvedeva

What modifications have been made to account for modern tastes?

RCG: ‘We still have clients with English country houses, who want a Chinese room. We’ve actually done a lot of work restoring wallpaper in famous houses in England, such as Marble Hill and Woburn Abbey.

‘Today, though, many people use de Gournay wallpaper in contemporary interiors to add a playful, fun element. People might use it as a feature wall in their bedroom, or even in the guest bathroom — somewhere unexpected, which is quite fun. I think in the last few years people have become less afraid to use wallpaper, and are happy to bring more boldness and brightness to their home.

‘My father's main goal is to bring life and light into people’s homes, and one of his favourite things is colour. We have such bold, beautiful colours at de Gournay, and, in addition to the traditional techniques, I think that's one of the things people love about it.’

Tell us about some of your recent designs and collaborations.

RCG: ‘One of our most popular designs is the Saint Laurent, with its peacock motifs, based on original 17th-century antique panels from Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris apartment. We tried to make it look really authentic, hand-painting the rice paper and creasing it to give it an aged feel. There were only two or three panels to work from, and we had to use those to develop a complete design.

‘We recently collaborated with Aquazzura, the Italian shoemaker, on an Amazon rainforest design — palm trees and monkeys and parrots. I think the connection to the fashion world makes de Gournay quite attractive to the younger crowd. It was a great way of bringing the worlds of interiors and fashion together. We ended up with beautiful wallpaper, they ended up with amazing shoes!

‘But really every job is a collaboration. Centuries ago, your wallpaper might take a year to arrive. It would come by ship and you didn’t know exactly what colour it would be. Now we tailor the wallpaper to fit a client’s space, and position design elements within it.

‘We want all of our clients to have something unique that they've worked on with us. So although it's made by de Gournay, it's still their idea that's been developed with thought to their home.’

de Gournay hand-painted ‘Anemones in Light’ wallpaper in Dusk design colours on Grey painted Xuan paper. From £1,200 per panel (915 mm width). Photo Simon Brown
de Gournay hand-painted ‘Anemones in Light’ wallpaper in Dusk design colours on Grey painted Xuan paper. From £1,200 per panel (915 mm width). Photo: Simon Brown

You've also produced a wallpaper range called 'Anemones in Light' with Kate Moss. How did that come about?

RCG: ‘Kate Moss actually approached us. She’s always loved de Gournay, and thought it would be fun to develop something with us that reflected her aesthetic. Ironically enough, my father had actually gone to her house about 15 years ago to discuss a project — he waited for hours and she never showed. It was quite funny for him to finally meet her and say, “You know, you stood me up!” 

‘For the “dusk” version of the paper, we used a textured, dark grey ground and added the anemone designs. We topped it off with pearlescent touches, almost as if moonlight was shining on certain areas. It’s definitely more abstract than our typical designs — but then again, abstract papers have become quite a trend.’

Where do you see de Gournay in 50 years?

RCG: ‘In the interiors world, we like to think that we’re considered the people who know the most about Chinese wallpaper. Even now, people who have moved house will take down the de Gournay and bring it to us to re-back so they can use it in their next home. Our wallpapers are works of art, and we hope that in 50 years’ time they will be considered collector’s items.’

Find out more about our Christie’s Lates event on 13 October in New York