The Finest Walls Created by Californian Designers

A new book by the scion of the de Gournay dynasty celebrates the enduring style of his family’s handpainted wallpapers



People occasionally stop me and tell me how wonderful de Gournay is and what lovely taste we have and how we have made the world a better place. It is, of course, immensely flattering, and I lap it up and preen myself afresh. Then, on occasion, I ask myself whether there is any such thing as “de Gournay taste,” and what could they possibly mean?

On reflection, I believe that they are often referring to the taste of the amazing and talented decorators and designers whom we work with daily. We are merely the painters who execute instructions faithfully. Our quest is always to paint with the finest materials, always to use the best possible painters for each particular subject, always to pay attention to every meticulous detail in order to allow our artists to deliver their interpretation of the designer’s vision and their client’s dream.


A magical menagerie appears on handpainted wallpaper in an interior by designer KEN FULK. Photo by Douglas Friedman.


Insofar as we have tastes and preferences, I like to think they are to embrace vibrant colors, to raise the spirits of our clients and infuse their rooms with happiness and ambience. Personally, I find “mood boards,” where everything must match, an abnegation of responsibility on the part of the designer, a sort of insurance policy against taking risks.


A bespoke handpainted wallpaper in fully custom colors features cranes on blue-gray dyed silk at Miami’s THE VICEROY HOTEL, with interiors designed by KELLY WEARSTLER.


Give me risque any day. Give me a Persian rug with an Aubusson tapestry, with a pattern on the chairs and another pattern on the curtains; then add in what the Duchess of Devonshire famously referred to as an obligatory coup de rouge to keep me contented. The designers who can carry this off successfully are few and far between. Give me a riot of color and happiness, even with some of the colors clashing elegantly.


Give me risque any day. The designers who can carry this off successfully are few and far between


In a residential environment, we aim to create a cocoon in which our clients can relax and be happy and at ease with themselves and the world. To take some extreme examples: when you’ve spent a long day at work and everything has gone bums up, the teacher called and said your son has been expelled from school, the vet told you your favorite canine was literally on his last legs, your husband or wife let you know they would not be home tonight, or the stockbroker announced the halving of your fortune — that is the time to sink into your comfortable sofa in a hand-painted room and realize how lucky you are and find how much happiness and love still lie ahead. With the spirits of all our wonderful artists helping to elevate your spirits and draw a smile to your face, we remind you that beauty, love, and truth are what matters most in this world, and there is tons more lying ahead in the future.


Left: Rateau handmade wallpaper in original design colors on deep rich gold gilded paper in the DE GOURNAY showroom in S.F. with cabinetry by CLIVE CHRISTIAN; photo by R. Brad Knipstein. Right: Bespoke “vases” handpainted wallpaper in custom design colors on blue-green dyed silk in an interior by KELLY WEARSTLER.


Of course, our installations are not just to cheer people up at the end of a long day. Just as excellent calligraphy has always distinguished the most cultured Chinese, a room of our wallpaper suggests that our clients have exquisite taste and confer an aura of respectability on them and their family that could never be confirmed by white walls of vinyl wallpaper. You may not become a member of the literati, but you may become part of the cognoscenti, and you are certainly hobnobbing with the best as you study our wallpaper and fall in love with it and commune with it; and you will never be able to accept anything less.

It reminds me a little of a famous property developer’s wife who was avoiding me at a large dinner party until she was told that I had founded de Gournay, at which point she explained to me that her new house had, in fact, been especially designed around her de Gournay dining room. We became close friends for the evening, a wonderful way to break the ice.


St. Laurent handpainted wallpaper in standard design colors on Edo Turquoise India tea paper in an interior by MARTYN LAWRENCE BULLARD. Photo by James McDonald.


There is also a didactic element to wall paintings, which, once again, were probably started by the Chinese. The many expressions of belief in the afterlife, as well as little collections of goodies that one might need to help one on one’s journey, feature prominently on graves from the Han dynasty onward. The hieroglyphs in ancient Egyptian tombs tell the stories of the Book of the Dead from which so much of our religion derives. And, most famous of all from the Chinese perspective are the Admonition Scrolls (which somehow came into the possession of an English officer during the Boxer Rebellion in China and now reside in the British Museum).

There is much that can be learned and understood from these historic designs; they can provide an endless source of conversation and learning, whether they’re depicting famous 18th-century scenes of the Chinese silk, porcelain, and tea industries or are murals based on Thomas and William Daniell’s journeys in India. You will never get bored with the beauty or the story or the admonitions, and, should you wish us to design a mural illustrating philosophical teachings for the politicians of our day, you only have to ask! The advice that ends up on your wall may not be so much different now from that in the Admonitions Scroll almost 2,000 years ago.

Excerpted and adapted from De Gournay Hand-Painted Interiors ($75, Rizzoli New York) by Claud Cecil Gurney.


Feature image: DE GOURNAY Amazonia handpainted wallpaper in special colorway on Edo Cyan Blue painted Xuan paper in the brand’s San Francisco showroom. Photo by R. Brad Knipstein.


Oct. 29, 2020

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