Spotlight: Rachel Cecil Gurney of de Gournay

Invited into the spotlight today is Rachel Cecil Gurney, a woman for whom a passion for unique artefacts, antiques and luxurious artisan textiles was inspired by a childhood surrounded by beauty, art and intrigue. The daughter of an entrepreneur, Claud Cecil Gurney, who founded their family business, de Gournay, over 30 years ago, Rachel now co-directs the luxury textile house alongside her father, sister, and cousin.

Tell us about yourself, Rachel, what’s your story?

I’m the daughter of Claud Cecil Gurney, founder of de Gournay which specialises in creating the world’s most exquisite hand-painted wallpapers, fabrics and porcelain. De Gournay is very much a family business and my sister Hannah and I are both directors of the company alongside my father and my cousin Dominic Evans-Freke. Together, we manage 7 showrooms around the world (London, Paris, New York, Beijing, Shanghai, Moscow and San Francisco) so we’re able to travel a lot, seeing new ideas and experiencing different cultures and climates, it’s so inspiring.

Growing up in a house full of Gournay paper, antiques my father had collected over the years and exotic artefacts gave me a very particular appreciation for decoration from a young age, especially colour. I’ve always been fascinated by interiors and have a particular interest in Georgian architecture and English history; I collect books on art, history and interior design. I am fascinated by the Pre Raphaelites and of course the trend for Chinoiserie in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the trade on the silk routes.

Co-director of luxury textile house, de Gournay, Rachel Cecil Gurney. Photo by Suzanna Scott
Co-director of luxury textile house, de Gournay, Rachel Cecil Gurney. Photo by Suzanna Scott

We understand that your father, Claud Cecil Gurney, founded de Gournay over 30 years ago. How did it all begin?

Growing up in Surrey, my father had first been introduced to Chinese wallpaper at his aunt’s house and it was years later, while conferring with a design company about a Chinese room for his London home, that de Gournay (the company uses the original French version of my father’s family name) was born. In 1984, he went to China to scout out possibilities. There were some factories doing bird paintings, but many of the old hand-painting skills were lost, so he partnered with the Chinese government to produce the wallpaper. Ultimately, however, the Chinese officials were keener on mass production than creating the luxury product he envisioned. So, he ended the joint venture and founded his own company, eventually opening a studio near Shanghai.

Hand painted Amazionia Chinoiserie wallpaper in Pink Painted Silk, Photo by Mariam Medvedeva
Hand-painted Amazonia Chinoiserie wallpaper in pink painted silk. Photo by Mariam Medvedeva

Was it always evident that you and your sister, Hannah, would join your father in running the family business?

There was never any expectation for either of us to join the business. Growing up I witnessed how much my father loved his work – he was so passionate and energized by de Gournay. He built the entire company from scratch. I felt so proud and protective of what he had created that I knew I would one day want to take it over from him, continuing and building upon his legacy. And it was not hard to be persuaded to work with such a bespoke handmade product which offers endless artistic possibilities for a creative mind.

What do you love most about what you do?

I think the opportunity to work with one’s family is pretty incredible. Also, being surrounded by colour. I adore colour! It brings such happiness, light and joie de vivre into a home.

Hand painted Badminton Chinoiserie wallpaper on White Gold Gilded Silk. Photo by Mariam Medvedeva
Hand-painted Badminton Chinoiserie wallpaper on white gold gilded silk. Photo by Mariam Medvedeva

Can you tell us about the process that goes behind creating de Gournay wallpapers?

Our paper is hand-made in exactly the same way as it would have been in the 18th Century, from the use of the same carefully prepared Xuan paper or silk for the backgrounds to the squirrel hair and pig bristle bamboo handled brushes and authentic pigments with which it was painted.

Our artisans use the original two brush technique: one brush is used to apply the pigment, and the other brush is dipped into water, which drags the pigment out. That gives the design a lot of depth. The result is a wonderful Chinoiserie which is as close to original papers of that date as possible.

Hand painted Earlham Chinoiserie wallpaper on Emerald Green Dyed Silk
Hand-painted Earlham Chinoiserie wallpaper on emerald green dyed silk

We understand that you also produce a range of fabrics and porcelain?

Yes. Our porcelain designs are based on originals made for the East India Companies and are made using exactly the same methods used back then in the 18th century. We hand carve, hand paint and enamel the porcelain to client specifications. There is no limit to the possible designs or colours which range from a brilliant underglaze blue to the breadth of the ‘famille rose’ palette, as well as gilt decoration. Our fabric collection offers clients the opportunity to paint any of our designs onto different fabric qualities for use as upholstery, drapery or stretched walling which gives such a decadent feel to any room.

Hand painted Askew Chinoiserie curtains in Apple Green Silk
Hand-painted Askew Chinoiserie curtains in apple green silk

We absolutely adore your recent anemone-inspired collaboration with Kate Moss. How did that come about?

A collaboration between de Gournay and Kate Moss was destined to happen since 2000 after my father spent three hours waiting for her in her bathroom to discuss decorating her home with my 13-year-old sister who was desperate to meet her. She never appeared, which increased our fascination and desire to meet and work with her. 17 years later it finally happened. We were summoned back to a different bathroom where Kate actually appeared and we found out what a charismatic and charming person she really is.

and painted Anemones in Light wallpaper. Photo Simon Brown
A collaboration with Kate Moss, hand-painted Anemones in Light wallpaper. Photo by Simon Brown

What’s in store for the future?

I think people will be willing to invest more and more in their homes and will become less afraid of exploring colour and texture in place of minimalism and the Modernist look. I also think as the world becomes increasingly techy people will crave handmade products in their homes.

At de Gournay, we love to constantly surprise people with rich, happy colour, strong pattern and interesting new techniques. As well as developing new designs, we enjoy re-inventing existing templates by using an unexpected palette or unusual technique which make them more current, still classically beautiful but with a contemporary edge.

de Gournay Temple Newsam Chinoiserie wallpaper on Green Williamsburg. Photo by Natalie Dinham
Temple Newsam Chinoiserie wallpaper on green Williamsburg. Photo by Natalie Dinham