by Richard Rabel, The Modern Sybarite
“And for the walls, I’m thinking handmade wallpaper: maybe Gracie or de Gournay….” This is music to any decorator’s ears. It means your client is savvy enough to know the best of the best from all the rest. Wallpaper elicits one of two reactions from clients – either a cringe or euphoria. Some people just can’t let go of the image of grandma’s metallic and velvet covered walls from the 1970s. But others know handmade wallpaper is an art and can look divine in spaces small and large. In small doses, it can even work well in a modern home.
Once upon a time the rich and famous, living in their drafty European castles, covered their walls with tapestries and wood paneling. This was a fitting way to add color to the room, keep the cold out, and soften the noises from echoing stone halls and passages. Indeed tapestries remained the favorite wall covering of well-to-do aristos well into the 17th century. But they were expensive and took years to make, so they didn’t translate down to the growing middle classes who wanted something similar, but more affordable. Wallpaper was originally developed as a cheaper alternative for decorating smaller homes, and like all really good ideas, the wealthy stole it and adopted “painted paper” as their own and began a craze in the 1700s for this new fashion statement.
And just as the trend was really getting started, hand painted wallpapers began to arrive from China and that really made a splash. Now along with your Chinese porcelain and Chinese inspired Chippendale furniture, you could cover your walls in gorgeous scenes of cherry blossoms and flowering prunus. Chinese artists had been decorating scrolls for the Imperial Court for over 1000 years, so it was a short hop from scroll painting to decorating wallpaper scrolls for export to the West. Today, these classic chinoiserie themes are still the most sought after in hand painted wallpapers for traditional rooms.
Really good hand painted wallpaper is not cheap because of all the work that goes into it – a medium size room of 20 panels can take over 700 hours to create. A single flower may require over 100 brush strokes from an artist to develop just the right shades and texture. To make, silk is first stretched on frames and laid on long tables where teams of artists work from sketches to building up colors and patterns of the design. Small variations in the work by each artist actually enhance the appeal of the wallpaper as it adds personality.
After decoration, the silk is then backed with rice paper and delivered in rolls to the client for installation. When custom ordered, the beauty of hand painted wallpaper is that the patterns do not repeat and they are sized to perfectly fit the room.
Today there are only a few names that are keeping alive this most traditional style of wall covering. Founded in New York in 1898, Gracie is still a family owned business whose clients include the White House. They make beautiful classic chinoiserie patterns, but also make more modern patterns in fab metallic hues. They also have very cool Japanese designs that really look like gilt lacquer.
De Gournay is another maker of handmade paper. Started in the UK in 1986 when the founder was dismayed by the lack of wallpaper selection available for the restoration of his historic property. They lean towards a more traditional look as well, but one of my current favorites is this stunning pattern that features a school of carp – amazing.
Fromental is also an English firm and one whose owner’s background in both fashion and art is clear in the inventive patterns they create. They really take the handmade notion up a notch by adding embroidery, gilding, precious metals, and beading to their wall coverings. In the examples I have selected, you can actually see that there is a 3 dimensional aspect to the embroidered flower petals. They claim that if a scroll of hand painted wallpaper takes 30 hours to create, then the embroidered equivalent requires 300 hours! Now we’re talking serious commitment to your home decor!
A couple of general tips for using this type of more traditional wallpaper in a modern home:
1. Small rooms are excellent choices to try out bold colors or patterns. An entry hall or powder room can be transformed into a perfect jewel box given beautifully patterned wallpaper.
2. A large room on the other hand, needs a stronger pattern – for example, a rambling floral decoration. This is good because it helps guide the eye around the room and creates an open feeling to the space.
3. Use panels as artwork. You can lay them onto a folding screen or frame them and place them on the walls. The point is that expensive hand painted wallpaper can be used in small doses and is perfect for adding personality to a room.
Richard Rabel, the|modern|sybarite