Worth Slideshow

Wall Flowers

By David Foxley

With its new jewel-box showrooms in Paris and New York, an expanding business in China and a recently launched bespoke furniture line, the London-based design firm de Gournay, best known for its intricate handpainted wallpaper, appears to be having a moment. But when speaking with founder Claud Cecil Gurney, who worked as an economist at PwC before quitting to follow his passion, one soon realizes that this moment took some time. Since founding the firm in 1986, Gurney has mastered the art and business of being small. After all, very few people can spend the money and time that a room from de Gournay demands, which is precisely how Gurney, who has a masters in economics from the University of Chicago, likes it. “I don’t have any visions of building a factory and making lots of things,” he says.

He came up with the idea for de Gournay after receiving a “very snotty letter” and an insanely high price quote from a New York design firm he’d asked about some handpainted chinoiserie wallpaper. “I did a quick calculation and said, ‘Oh, dear.’ And being an economist, I thought, Here’s a good opportunity,” Gurney recalls. He gave his new business the name and crest of his ancestors from Normandy.

The secret of his success, Gurney says, is customer engagement—making the clients feel as though they designed their own wallpaper. Although a decorator often serves as a middleman, Gurney believes his best projects have been the result of unfettered client interaction. And clients who want to design their own wallpaper can do just that.

“It feels like something they’ve created for themselves, rather than something that’s been bought off a shelf and stuck in their house,” says Gurney.

Gurney’s 26-year-old daughter, Hannah—who, like her father, spent several years at PwC in London before she joined the family business as its director—echoes the company’s entre nous ethos. “We do everything by word of mouth; we don’t advertise or push things into people’s faces,” she says. “Everything we do grows very organically.”

One looming challenge: All of de Gournay’s wallpaper is handpainted by Chinese artisans, and the number of artists sufficiently skilled to paint a de Gournay wall panel—a 10-day job—is dwindling as more Chinese aim for jobs in white-collar professions. “We can’t increase production enormously, so we will go on doing the very best things for some people, and people in the world will get to know us if they care to,” Gurney says.

The following slides illustrate the bespoke artistry of de Gournay.

Postcard from Paris

Blending the classic and the contemporary.

The wallpaper in de Gournay’s Paris showroom features the Askew design from the firm’s Chinoiserie collection on an Apple Green Williamsburg painted silk background. The design combination is Gurney’s favorite, and also hangs in the London showroom. The chinoiserie is very traditional, but the design is monochromatic, giving the wallpaper a subtle modernity.











Foreign Flora

A Chinese hotel turns abroad for inspiration.

The Narada Resort & Spa Perfume Bay in Hainan, China, ordered the Wisteria design from de Gournay’s Japanese and Korean collection—an unusual choice for typically domestic-minded Chinese clients. For this installation, the painters applied lavender design colors on Lilac mica metallic
xuan paper.

“When our Chinese clients begin to understand the story behind the product, they fall in love with it. It’s just about trying to get them to understand that they need to spend the money to have it installed correctly,” Hannah Gurney says. “And that if they get the wallpaper copied by someone else, they will never achieve the same quality.”



Dine Design


Gold silk brightens a dining room in the Netherlands.

De Gournay’s Sans Soucis paper, from the Chinoiserie collection, hangs on the walls of a dining room in Amsterdam. The background is a Crackled Gold metallic silk. “My favorite wallpaper probably changes every three months, but this is currently my absolute obsession,” Hannah Gurney says.









Landscape Architecture


Scenery fit for a castle in Scotland—or a hotel in Chicago.

A bathroom in Balfour Castle, located on Shapinsay, one of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, features the English Landscape design from the Papiers Peints Panoramiques collection in Eau Forte colorway on scenic paper. De Gournay recently installed the same wallpaper in the Ritz-Carlton Chicago.



Peonies on Parade


An emphasis on color to inspire the viewer.

Installed in a house in London’s Chelsea, this design shares the area’s name; done on Pea Green dyed silk, it’s part of de Gournay’s Chinoiserie collection. Unlike traditional chinoiseries, with their small, delicate designs, this paper features large, whimsical peonies. The ground, which is typically shown in some form in chinoiserie, is absent in the Chelsea design.

“We go out on a bit of a limb and introduce color, vibrancy, joy and happiness into interiors,” Gurney says. “Our clients don’t want to go home to some miserable brown or gray room.”