Chinese Art and Heritage in 20th Century Decorative Arts

shopping for hand painted wallpapers

An Antique Fragment from The Bentley House Chinese Drawing Room


As an interior designer I have often been charged with the task of adding historical reference to my projects.   This can occur in a number of ways.   Today I want to talk about one of the most sublime genres of the decorative arts – hand painted Chinese inspired wallpapers.  The history of decorative arts is a vast caldron of ingredients which when handled deftly can produce a fine stew.

First lets consider the role of wallpaper.  The concept evolved from tapestries and woven wall hangings, as paper revealed itself as a more affordable way to protect and add decorative comfort to bland and blank wall planes.   As the trend caught on, it became obvious that the stature of wallpaper could be elevated due to its boundless decorative possibilities.

Beginning in the mid 17th century the Orient became a popular destination for travelers, merchants and missionaries who returned with a treasure trove of new and exciting decorative items; among them beautifully hand painted papers with exotic designs which ultimately became one of the most fashionable methods of surface ornamentation.

Lets fast forward to the early 20th century, when the revival spirit was strong.  One man, Charles R. Gracie, with an existing business providing decorative home products, was introduced to hand painted Chinese wallpaper in the midst of the Roaring Twenties.  He endeavored to introduce this alluring product to a new audience in America.

Gracie SY-205

As the demand and the market has changed over time, Gracie has maintained the high standards of artistry and authenticity which is the mainstay attraction of their product.  They are best known for their historically correct reproduction and interpretation of original Chinese documents.  This fourth generation family owned company offers the adventurous designer and client limitless possibilities to have made-to-order wallpapers that hold true to the artistic heritage of 18th century China.

A Gracie Artisan at Work

Gracie SY-700


Now lets cross the pond to take a look at what the English have been up to when it comes to Chinese hand painted wallpapers.  De Gournay is a British based firm, and in my opinion epitomizes the European interpretation of Chinese imagery commonly known as Chinoiserie.  In addition, de Gournay offers painted paper-backed silk, creating a vast array of possibilities for customization within a more stylized look to a rich traditional heritage.

de Gournay ‘Portobello’ at the Tapet Cafe

de Gournay ‘Earlham’

de Gournay ‘High Temple Newsam’ at Balfour Castle, Scotland


Finally, lets consider another exciting Chinoiserie hand painted paper company – British based Fromental.   Just as steeped in tradition and maintaining the highest qualities of artistry, this company has brought a few new twists to the genre.  The one aspect of this product line that I focus on is their free wheeling amalgamation of classicism and a contemporary London fashion sense.  The second is that nearly all of their designs are painted on a variety of paper backed silks.  Their introduction of silk embroidery to the overall design achieves an added decorative reference and dimension all reinforcing their vision.

Fromental ‘Avebury Manor’

Fromental Embroidery Detail

Fromental ‘Paradiso’


If only I could delve ever more deeply into these three fine companies and their vast array of boundless innovative creativity.  Each is steeped in Chinese heritage and each produces a quality product that is time-honored and still produced in the same techniques as earlier centuries.  Each also provides the design professional with the same tools to maximize their products to suit – and be custom fitted to the rooms they create.

My intent is not to single one out from the other, but to offer to the reader three choices.  It all boils down to personal preference.  Each company has its individual characteristics that resonate with their distinct audience.   I am simply hoping to open a few doors for you and let you decide which product line fits into your aesthetic.


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