March 6, 2015

De Gournay's Hand-Painted Chinoiserie Wallpapers

First Famed For Sublime Chinoiserie Wallpapers Painted By Hand In China, New York and London-based company De Gournay Has Grown Into A Global Resource For Bespoke Decorative Beauty.

by Judith Nasatir

Necessity and invention? It's the dialectic that drives design. Though we tend to pooh-pooh its existence in the parallel world of decoration, with its oh-so-pretty tradition of ever-evolving ornament, it's standard operating procedure there, too. Just consider de Gournay, the family-owned British firm renowned for its superlatively beautiful, satisfyingly exotic, made-to-order products: hand-painted wallpapers and fabrics, hand-carved and hand-gilded furnishings, and hand-decorated porcelains, all crafted by Chinese artisans in the company's four ateliers in China. The precedents for pattern? Think Asia, for the preponderance take flight from the great Chinese, Korean, and Japanese decorative arts traditions-and some Western ones, as well-all enhanced by serious research at the London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The actual designs? A coupling of European sensibilities (de Gournay's design studio is in London) with Chinese craftsmanship, and as thoroughly contemporary as traditional antecedents become when deconstructed and reconstructed for today, tomorrow, and twenty or thirty years from now. The processes? They're rather like the Chinese phoenix-immortal (or virtually so), but only present and thriving in times of peace and prosperity.

The backstory begins in 1986, when Claud Gurney, then in finance, hit a glitch in the renovation of his then house, a Georgian beauty in Brompton Square. Says Gurney's nephew Dominic Evans-Freke, director, co-owner, and the man in charge of design and production: "Claud was actively looking to find a room of Chinese paper, and the only available options were astronomical in price." Gurney then headed to China-at the time opening its doors wider to the West-to see if any artisans still practiced the wallpaper-painting techniques that originated there in the late 17th century. As luck would have it, he did. That's when, says Evans-Freke: "Claud and my grandmother got the idea to restart the China trade." By 1993, Gurney had set up the firm's first production facility, not far from Shanghai.

With four showrooms around the world, three additional Chinese production facilities, a staff of 250-plus, greatly expanded offerings, and at least one more family generation embraced, de Gournay today is poised to make the most of the rare, practical beauty that it produces. Evans-Freke says, "The key to the top of the design world is individualism." No argument here.