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Coco Chanel’s passion for her antique Chinese coromandel screens was legendary. “I have had 21,” she once said. “They play the role that tapestries did in the Middle Ages; they allow you to re-create your home everywhere.” At 31 Rue Cambon, in Paris, where in her honor the designer’s apartment is kept pretty much as she left it, the floor-to-ceiling screens dominate. They were the first things she bought when she achieved some success, and they are often acknowledged as the inspiration behind the tonal, whimsical singularity of her designs. “I nearly fainted with joy,” she said, describing her first sight of the ancient Ming dynasty screens, when she was 18.
Less acknowledged is the role of her English beau, Boy Capel, in her design maturation. It was in fact Capel who introduced her to the screens and to kuan cai, the ancient Chinese lacquering technique that allows for the inlaying and painting of different colors and materials onto each panel.
I mention Capel because from London now comes the latest tribute to Chanel (and, by appropriate default, her English lover) in the form of hand-painted Coco Coromandel wallpaper, sparked by Madame C’s screens and made by de Gournay, masters of specialist wallpapers and fabrics since 1986. “We’ve looked to these screens for inspiration for many years,” says design director Jemma Cave. “It was only a matter of time before that inspiration moved beyond the drawing board.”
The wallpaper—peonies and dignified peacocks against a charcoal brown—is the latest addition to de Gournay’s chinoiserie. The brand is a success story prompted by founder Claud Cecil Gurney’s failed attempt at finding an expert to restore antique wallpapers in his English family home. It turned out that Gurney was not alone in his desire for exquisite handcrafted wallcoverings. He has since set up an artists’ studio, an hour outside Shanghai, and installed master craftsmen who work on Xuan paper, using venerable Chinese painting techniques. (Colors are applied in layers; panels can take up to 140 hours to complete.)
And everywhere from The Ritz in Beijing to Bergdorf Goodman in New York boasts the de Gournay effect—not just in chinoiserie but also in modern-day abstracts or French landscape form. Coco Coromandel wallpaper, from $1,725 per panel; when mounted on a 61⁄2-foot-high, four-panel folding screen (pictured), $14,250; 212-564-9750; degournay.com.