A Chat with Sisters Hannah and Rachel Cecil Gurney of de Gournay

By Ariane Maclean Trimuschat

Hand painted Amazonia Chinoiserie wallpaper on Pink xuan paper.
Photo by Mariam Medvedeva

Walking into a room lined with de Gournay paper is like walking into a painting. This is no mere wallpaper, but rather, exquisitely rendered, custom created scenes that draw you into another world. Claud Cecil Gurney founded de Gournay almost 40 years ago and today it is widely known as the world’s most beautiful hand-painted wallpapers. Every inch of de Gournay paper is painted by skilled artists and artisans, every project a work of art. Their collections cover a breathtaking range: the exotic and flamboyant, Chinoiserie, the stunning block-print-style panoramics of the Scenic Collection, the striking, delicate Japanese & Korean Collection, the graphic and floral patterns of the Eclectic Collection, and the abstract and ornate designs inspired by the decorative movements of 20th century art found in the Diaghilev Collection, among others.

‘Erdem’ hand painted Chinoiserie wallpaper on Adam Grey dyed silk. Photo Sarah Piantadosi

I recently chatted with Claud’s daughters, Rachel Cecil Gurney and Hannah Cecil Gurney about the company, the creation and production process and what sets de Gournay apart.

Ariane: This is very much a family business, can you share how you all work together and what your roles are?

Hannah: My father started the company in 1982 with his nephew, my cousin, Dominic Evans-Freke, so I grew up surrounded by walls filled with designs and colour as the brand grew. My sister, Rachel started working with my father after university and I followed shortly after. My father remains involved in every aspect of the company, and Dominic too, who oversees our production. It’s lovely to be able to work so closely with my family despite the odd and inevitable disagreement!

Rachel: My father is the one with boundless energy even at 70 so funnily enough he is the one who constantly looks to develop new fields in the business and has recently set up our embroidery studio in India offering stunning hand embroidered fabrics. He is also the one opening new showrooms around the world, the latest one in Beirut, an exciting cultural melting pot of creativity. He loves travelling and meeting people. My cousin manages the production in our studio near Shanghai and helped my father set up the studio back in the 1980’s so he oversees all the detail and has a huge depth of knowledge in all the technical side of things. My sister handles PR & marketing and is always dreaming up a new collaboration or looking for inspiration for a new design. I manage worldwide sales so am constantly in touch with all our showrooms worldwide about their projects and trying to keep all our clients happy!

‘St. Laurent’ hand painted Chinoiserie wallpaper on Edo painted xuan India Tea Paper Interior by Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Photo by James McDonald

For our Chinoiserie collection we look back to iconic 18th century rooms such as Yves Saint Laurent’s drawing room or Pauline de Rotshchilds’s bedroom and try to recreate the depth, beauty and aged feel of the original papers.

Detail of image above

Ariane: What is the process for developing a new wallpaper design? Where does the inspiration come from?

Hannah: We’re always looking for ways to develop our collections and create new designs. Inspiration can come from anywhere – the world around you, art, books, history, that’s the beauty of creating something from scratch – there are limitless sources to be inspired by. As well as creating new designs, some of our wallpapers are based on beautiful originals, which can be found in grand English houses or taken from ancient Chinese scrolls.

Rachel: Our more traditional wallpapers tend to be reproductions of original designs. For our Chinoiserie collection we look back to iconic 18th century rooms such as Yves Saint Laurent’s drawing room or Pauline de Rotshchilds’s bedroom and try to recreate the depth, beauty and aged feel of the original papers. Our Papiers Peints Panoramiques collection refers back to 19th century hand block printed wallpaper but we hand paint in this style giving much more flexibility for the client to customize colours and tailor the design to fit the space. Our Japanese & Korean collection is inspired by works of art from the Edo period such as kimonos and screens.
Some designs are developed as a result of a collaboration such as our whimsical English garden re-interpretation of a Chinoiserie with Erdem, our tropical Chinoiserie design with monkeys and toucans inspired by the Amazon developed with Aquazurra or our Anemones in Light wallpaper inspired by Kate Moss’s favourite flower and reflecting her more modern aesthetic.

‘Fishes’ hand painted wallpaper with hand embroidered beaded embellishment
on Tarnished Silver gilded silk

Ariane: What materials are used in your wallpaper design? What sets it apart from other wallpapers?

Hannah: Our range of finishes and grounds are what makes de Gournay wallpapers special. We’ve spent a great deal of time developing these over the years by studying various techniques and materials used around the world, particularly from China, which is renowned for producing the most stunning hand painted porcelain & murals. Our wallpaper grounds play a large role in the overall effect of the wallpaper. For example, ‘Williamsburg’ is a finish with an antique feel to it, whereas Metallic silk is a far more contemporary finish which plays with the light. We also have finishes such as pearlescent antiquing, beading and embroidery which, as a final flourish, has the ability to turn the wallpaper into something mesmerizing.

Rachel: 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.

‘Houghton’ hand painted Chinoiserie wallpaper in Rose design colours on Williamsburg

Ariane: How long does it take from idea to completed product?

Hannah: The time varies relative to the complexity of the design, the size of the project and the client. We work very closely with our clients from start to finish to ensure they are truly satisfied with their finished product but of course, minds can change! Once the order has been confirmed then the time frame for production starts at around 3 months.

Rachel: 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.

‘Wisteria’ design hand embroidered upon Almost Mauve dyed silk

Ariane: Where is your wallpaper produced? And has production slowed or changed during the pandemic?

Hannah: We have a team of incredibly skilled artists based in a studio just outside Shanghai where all of our wallpapers are hand painted. As well as the painting studio, we also have a team of designers based in our London showroom, who play a vital role in the development of new designs and ongoing client projects. Our painting studio in Shanghai went into lockdown before the UK and was back up and running whilst we were still in the thick of lockdown so I’m please to say we have been able to keep orders in production despite the expected slight lull in the middle. In spite of this, lockdown provided a good opportunity for our designers to work on a lot of in house projects so we’ve certainly stayed busy.

Rachel: There are still artisans on the mainland using the original wallpaper-making techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. My father’s idea when he set up de Gournay was to bring these chinoiserie wallpapers back into European homes, and to produce them in the same way as they were originally made.
Our production ironically enough was not affected by the pandemic as we are based in China and they recovered the most quickly from the pandemic so we were only closed for a few weeks. Unlike many other suppliers clients did not have to experience any significant delays to their orders.

‘Anemones in Light’ hand painted wallpaper in Dusk design colours on painted xuan paper. Designed with Kate Moss. Photo by Simon Brown

Ariane: How does wallpaper change a room?

Hannah: I love how wallpaper holds the ability to be able to transport oneself. I have our Flamingo’s design in my bathroom and I always look forward to the evening when I can slip into the bath and be carried to a watery land full of gossiping pink birds! There’s something special about a wallpaper which draws you in so you can’t resist the temptation to be lured in to inspect the finer details.

Rachel: It transforms a room bringing life and colour to it and lifting your mood. It is a window onto another world, stepping into a fantastical ‘Narnia’ like landscape.

‘Flamingos’ hand painted scenic wallpaper on Sterling Silver gilded xuan paper
with Yellow ombré effect. Photo by Douglas Friedman

Ariane: You’ve been collaborating with the Fall Show for 5 years. What are some good memories, your favourite show theme?

Hannah: The theme which stayed with me was ‘Animalia’ in 2016, it was so playful! The show is truly special to me as it brings together the most amazing group of antiques dealers all under one roof, each with a perfectly curated exhibit of products to pour over. I love that every exhibitor goes the extra mile to make their stand a masterpiece, decorated beautifully and full of inspiring vignettes.

Rachel: We love the show and look forward to it every year. There is always such a buzz around it and everyone gets dressed up which I know is unusual for San Francisco! My father is an avid collector of antiques and is always on the lookout for new pieces for our showroom. I loved the year where the theme was ‘Flower Power’ as each designer had a different season so there was a very different feel to each vignette. Last year there was an incredible Mexican red lacquer cabinet which stood out amongst the other pieces.

Designer Vignettes at the San Francisco Fall Show
Custom wallpapers by de Gournay in collaboration with the designers
Clockwise from top left by: Faux Bois hand embroidered Moire by Alessandra Branca (2019, Wanderlust), Zodiac hand painted wallpaper with embroidery by Ken Fulk (2018, The Sun, the Moon & The Stars), Ferns hand painted wallpaper by Veere Grenney (2019, Wanderlust), Dancing Arucaria hand painted wallpaper by Geoffrey De Sousa (2015, Time After Time) Photos by Drew Altizer Photography

Ariane: Let’s get practical. What should one think about before adding wallpaper to a room?

Hannah: It’s certainly important to take into account the practical aspects of a room – like light and purpose, but don’t let this make you feel like you can’t be adventurous. As I mentioned, my house is covered in de Gournay wallpaper, so I believe each wall should receive attention, no matter where it is. That’s no means to say you should have an bold and colourful design in every room and corridor, even if it’s just a beautiful silk wallpaper in a soft hue, this still makes a difference as it adds texture and interest.

‘African Savannah’ hand painted scenic wallpaper in monochromatic design colours
Photo by Douglas Friedman

Ariane: What are important considerations when selecting a wallpaper design?

Hannah: I think it’s important to gather your feelings about what you want to experience from a finished space. Perhaps you want to walk in and feel instantly calm, or maybe you want to be transported to a far land filled with beautiful birds and verdant vistas. Once you have established this, you will be able to guide your mind towards the right design. Although I must admit, there is so much to choose from so this can often be very tricky. My house is covered head to toe in de Gournay wallpapers, it’s mad! But I’m delighted with how it all works together, and this is because I trusted in the process, there’s my tip!

Rachel: The design needs to suit the aesthetic of the house so for example in a Georgian property interior, I would recommend one of our historic Chinoiserie designs, garden scenes of Chinese birds and flowers, hand painted onto an aged handmade rice ‘Xuan’ paper, which are the most faithful reproductions of originals, unaltered in scale or design to suit modern interiors.
Our Japanese & Korean collection lends itself well to a more modern interior with its bold imagery and more free flowing brushwork. We can paint these onto our metallic grounds gilded with precious and non-precious metals, in addition to more subtle pearlescent grounds, for an even more contemporary feel.

‘Coco Coromandel’ hand painted Chinoserie wallpaper on Burnt Umber xuan paper
Photo by Douglas Friedman

Tips for Adding Wallpaper to a Room:

HOW TO PREP A ROOM:
Hannah: Prepping a room for wallpaper, especially de Gournay, is an extremely important part of the process. If the joinery and walls aren’t ready for the paper, it will show and can end up being a time consuming mistake to correct. We recommend using lining paper before all of our installs, this is to ensure a smooth finish and act as a barrier between the raw wall and our paper. It also means that the wallpaper can be removed at some point down the line, re-backed, then re-installed somewhere else! So my tip is to pay attention to all the small details in a room to ensure it’s completely ready for the wallpaper, it’s much easier to notice and tweak details before the paper is up then have to deal with correcting them after install!

Rachel: Old uneven walls would need to be re-plastered before applying de Gournay wallpaper to ensure a smooth even finish and good design join from panel to panel. All walls need to be lined prior to applying the wallpaper to avoid moisture coming through to the surface of the panels and to get a more professional finish.

Pay attention to all the small details in a room to ensure it’s completely ready for the wallpaper.

‘Early Views of India’ hand painted scenic wallpaper.
Interior by Miles Redd. Photo by Simon Upton

PROPER WALL SURFACES:
Hannah: There are spaces which lend themselves to paper, with tall, straight and smooth walls, and some which don’t. For example, my son’s room has strange angles and sloping walls and naturally the paper I chose for the room was one of our more complicated designs with animals and foliage (oops!). We used a preferred installer and he did a fantastic job, so it is important to research your installer before. I think you have to be realistic with a room and wallpaper – if it’s a very intricate design and you have an awkward space with no straight lines and sloping walls, it could end up being a very tricky project.

Rachel: Before adding wallpaper to a room you should think about whether the scale of the design suits the room and whether a lighter or more dense design would work better in the space. You also need to think about which construction type is most suitable for the space for example a silk with a lustre, a gilded reflective ground or an aged matt painted ground. It is also very important to see the sample options in the space to see how the light affects the colour. For taller rooms it may be nice to install a chair rail to start the design higher up whereas for a shorter room it would look better to have the design run the whole height of the wall and even be cut off at the top to give an illusion of height.
If your room has lots of light it is best not to go for a silk but to go for a ground which will not fade such as our dyed paper, metallic or scenic paper grounds. For a bathroom we would always suggesting adding a glaze to the wallpaper in case of splashes. We can help guide you as to what wallpaper would best suit your purpose.Most clients choosing a de Gournay wallpaper will start with that as their focal point then work the other elements around it, sometimes to contrast against the colours in the wallpaper and sometimes to incorporate or tone with the colours in their wallpaper. Providing the colours do not clash, I think it is important not to be afraid of layering rich colours and patterns within a room; Colour and pattern are what brings a room to life. A lot of colours from our papers and fabrics refer back to colours used frequently in classic Georgian interiors-soft greys, dusky pinks, sage greens, blue greys and burgundy’s-and I think Georgian colours are timeless and elegant and work as well today as they did then.

‘Amazonia’ hand painted Chinoiserie wallpaper on Pink xuan paper