Imagine growing up in a magical world where butterflies flutter along perfectly painted vines and mischievous monkeys frolic up and down the walls. Now imagine that place is your childhood home and those fanciful landscapes are the family business, and you might get a sense of the charmed upbringing had by sisters Hannah and Rachel Cecil Gurney.
“We grew up in a stunning house, decorated by our father, just opposite Kensington Gardens in London,” says Hannah. “My sister and I used to sit on the stairs, fascinated by the Chinese figures on the wallpaper.”
Depicting peasant life in rural 18th-century China, the pattern, which featured scenes of silk-weaving and porcelain-making, wasn’t just a work of breathtaking decoration, but also a lesson in history and culture. “It was all very exotic to a 6-year-old Londoner, and our father would happily spend hours talking us through it all,” she says.
Their father, Claud Cecil Gurney, founded de Gournay, the world-renowned maker of exquisite handmade wallcoverings, christening the brand with the French root of the family name in 1986.
As the story goes, Claud had trouble finding skilled artisans to restore some antique wallpaper in his home; so, through the Chinese Trade Commission in London, he located artists familiar with the painting techniques in mainland China. Working with the craftsmen, he began to create hand-painted papers, reigniting a tradition that had begun in the early 18th century, when chinoiserie was all the rage among the European aristocracy.
By staying true to original production techniques — typically six artisans work on a single paper that can take up to 150 hours to produce — Claud created a truly bespoke luxury item. Today, his daughters help run the company — Hannah as director, and Rachel as the global style manager — putting their stamp on a number of forward-thinking initiatives while preparing to take over the family business when their father retires.
“Our father has been wonderful about allowing us to make decisions and take on a lot of responsibility,” says Hannah. “He understands that if he is serious about handing over the reins, he needs to trust and support our ideas and allow us to learn from our mistakes. We love what we do so much that we want to ensure we safeguard it for the next generation.”
The company’s vision has expanded to include both more contemporary designs and ones that reflect other global perspectives, such as the more abstract Japanese and Korean collection, an example of which features a weeping willow motif, or the Papiers Peints Panoramiques collection, which is inspired by 19th-century French murals of exotic scenes. “While de Gournay has always been seen as a company that makes very traditional hand-painted papers, my sister and I encourage a more modern aesthetic through employing innovative new techniques and colorways, as well as developing new collections,” says Hannah.
One strategic move that has proven successful: a string of high-profile collaborations, the most recent of which is an au courant take on an Art Deco motif inspired by and created in conjunction with Harrods department store. “Art Deco is making a comeback in interior design, and I love the use of geometric shapes, gilt and lacquer in interiors,” says Rachel. “The new design features an ornate scallop pattern gilded onto a metallic background with hand-painted watercolor accents.” Adds Hannah, “The wallpaper has a contemporary edge that we think will appeal to a whole new audience.”
In the quest to expand the brand’s reach, de Gournay pairs up in September with style icon Kate Moss, the latest partnership to feature a boldface name more synonymous with the runway than the annals of interior design. Other recent sartorial collaborations include Matthew Williamson, Jenny Packham and Moda Operandi. Most recently, the company teamed up with Italian fashion label Aquazzura for a line of embroidered footwear and a Tropicalia-inspired wallpaper (shown in part on the previous page), which they developed as a nod to brand founder Edgardo Osorio’s Colombian heritage.
Of the synergy between the company and the fashion industry, Hannah feels it’s a natural fit–after all, wallpaper is a form of dressing for one’s home. “There are a lot of similarities between couture and de Gournay,” she says. “We make everything by hand to the highest quality while offering limitless bespoke capabilities. Furthermore, people with style tend to have flair when it comes to their interiors, and vice versa. These days being stylish extends to a whole lifestyle, not just your clothing.”