Can’t afford 13th century Chinese landscape paintings? Get the wallpaper instead
Classic Chinese art by the likes of Zhao Mengfu and Wang Ximeng is the inspiration for luxury wall-covering company de Gournay’s Emperor collection As it expands in China and Hong Kong
Given that luxury UK-based design house de Gournay expanded its Shanghai showroom in 2015, branched into the Beijing market at the same time, and is now scouting for a Hong Kong location, it is perhaps fitting that its Emperor collection takes its cue from famous historical Chinese paintings.
The new line is based heavily on the actual works of famed Chinese artists whose names, granted, may not mean much outside collectors’ circles. But those whose tastes gravitate towards statement-making walls will appreciate the quietly dramatic nature of the new wall coverings.
“We wanted to launch these Chinese styles as the new showrooms in China were opening,” says Jemma Cave, the brand’s design director. “But we wanted also for the designs to be versatile, to end up being used in a modern way.”
One of the new designs draws heavily from the works of Zhao Mengfu, whose 1287 piece, Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu, is part of the Asian Art Collection at Princeton University Art Museum. His artwork references the blue-green style of landscape painting practised in the Jin and Tang dynasties – evenly spaced trees, flat forms, shades of blues and greens. Cave’s reimagining of the piece as a wall covering certainly imparts the same sense of tranquillity of Zhao’s work – a pale gold background, shades of jade and moss, and soft lines.
Another design is inspired by the Song dynasty’s Wang Ximeng and A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, reportedly his only surviving work and now in the permanent collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing: in the de Gournay rendition, brilliant shades of turquoise punctuate an amber landscape, in a scene that could be as much alpine as Chinese.
“We used the original inspiration of the oil paintings as our actual design – the rich textures on which we build colours,” says Cave. “It was something for the Chinese market, but not just that, necessarily. These are so easily adapted to Western styles.”
The two Chinese showrooms add to existing de Gournay’s outposts in London, Paris, New York and Moscow, and the company works with multi-brand showrooms worldwide. The company’s founder, Claud Cecil Gurney, who began de Gournay in 1986, is a collector of Chinese art, and has much of his wallpaper – Chinese-inspired or otherwise – handmade in a workshop outside Shanghai. He was one of the first British designers to develop production in China, and did so after extensive research on finding craftspeople who knew how to work with paper in the same way as their forefathers.
“We use 18th-century techniques that involve watercolours on a silk background,” says Cave. “As a result, these wallpapers age so gracefully. They age as you would see in a stately home or palace. Over the decades the colour might fade, but the charm and character remain.”
The de Gournay craftsmen in China bleach some of the pigments to impart a muted patina to these surfaces – not just in the new Emperor collection but also in the previously existing Chinese-, Korean- and Japanese-inspired offerings. Even the most “Chinese” of the renderings are finding interesting homes.
Celebrated designer Kelly Wearstler, for example, chose the brand’s Coutts design using 22-carat gold gilded silk – a vista of an ancient Chinese village – on the walls of New York’s Bergdorf Goodman restaurant. Its Askew design of chinoiserie-inspired monochromatic cranes and blossoms is on sterling silver gilded silk at Beijing’s Ritz-Carlton hotel; a spray of plum blossoms on lead-grey dyed silk covers the wall of bedrooms in suites at the Vidago Palace Hotel in Portugal.
Cave says the designs are often customised and adapted – scales and colours changed to suit the room. And paintings chosen as the jumping-off point for Emperor were done so for their flexibility.
“We wanted to create papers that had no distinctive foreground and background, just the perception of lines, which makes it all look more contemporary.”
In Zhou’s Mindscape work, for example, “the trees are conical pine trees throughout the middle ground, rendered in blocks of colour – more like a pattern. When you look at the aesthetic, and it’s used in the right light, setting and against the right colours, it becomes more decorative. The way we did the design has more to do with the placement of shapes in a slightly skewed perspective than fully recreating the painting.”
Cave says the decision to start the Emperor line was in response to Chinese clients asking for wall coverings that featured landscapes. “The patterns can continue being reinterpreted in different ways – the colourways and scales will change, and we are pushing new techniques as well,” she says.
Among these: using paint that has a three-dimensional effect, and then layering metal leaf over it. “It creates an entirely gilded surface with a pattern raised out of it,” says Cave.
Experimentation by Cave and her team helps keep clients happy: one, a homeowner in Utah, had developed a fascination with cave paintings and wanted a wallpaper that reflected that. Cave is now working on a motif inspired by animal shapes scratched into rock.
There are plans to develop the Emperor offering further, again by locating ancient, museum-quality paintings that can serve as inspiration. “We have to find historic roots to the designs that we are making,” she says. “We have to work out the most logical and aesthetically pleasing design, but in keeping with the character of the brand. It’s about using the skills we know, and reinventing them at the same time.”