Chinese wallpaper: a living tradition

Wallpaper in 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Mahogany' colourway. ©Fromental

At the recent panel discussion about chinoiserie at Christie’s Education I met Lizzie Deshayes of Fromental, who held us spellbound with stories about how her company designs and makes bespoke Chinese wallpaper. I have since also met her husband and fellow director Tim Butcher, with whom she set up Fromental in 2005, and who is equally passionate about the subject.

Customised 'Nonsuch' pattern, part-embroidered, in 'Warrington' colourway on silk. ©Fromental

Fromental employs Chinese painters and embroiderers, based in a studio in Jiangsu province, who are skilled in using traditional materials and techniques. Fromental’s craftsmen can produce traditional Chinese wallpapers, as seen in historic houses, but they are equally adept at realising the contemporary designs created by Lizzie and Tim and their team.

Wallpaper in 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Kelly' colourway. ©Fromental

This uninhibited mixing of tradition and modernity gives Fromental’s wallpapers real design integrity: the papers are ‘now’ and yet at the same time you get the sense that they are part of a tradition. 

Part-embroidered 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Old Gold' colourway. ©Fromental

This also gives you a flavour of what the production process of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Chinese wallpapers must have been like. Those earlier designers (about whom virtually nothing is known) were operating within a similar matrix of constraints and opportunities: a traditional pictorial language, the availability of craftsmanship, trends in taste and the economics of consumer demand.

Wallpaper in 'Sylvaner' pattern, 'Bolero' colourway. ©Fromental

What is fascinating too is that there is now a Chinese market for these wallpapers, which were originally made purely for export to the west. International interior designers have been introducing them to Chinese clients, who recognise the traditional motifs and techniques but also appreciate the sense of ‘western’ style that these wallpapers exude.

'Sylvaner' pattern on gold leaf, 'Burnish' colourway. ©Fromental

Here we have yet another twist in the long history of chinoiserie: what was once created in China for a western market is now being re-designed in the west and being adopted by the Chinese as an emblem of international taste.

As it happens, Fromental has also contributed to the joint National Trust – BBC project at Avebury Manor, which I hope to post about shortly.

10 Responses to “Chinese wallpaper: a living tradition”

  1. columnist Says:

    What a joy!

  2. Parnassus Says:

    When budget is not a consideration, wallpaper like this can make quite a statement, especially in large-scale or scenic patterns like these. Shandy Hall in northern Ohio (now a house museum operated by the Western Reserve Historical Society) contains a rare survival of 19th century French scenic wallpaper.

    The house in Fair Haven I just posted about contained some early wallpaper. ( ) I tried to notify some specialists about this, but I’m pretty sure that nothing was salvaged–the house at that point wasn’t much longer for this world, and in fact was too dangerous to enter again.
    –Road to Parnassus

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Columnist, Parnassus, thank you. Although these papers are not particularly cheap, there is still a fairly wide spectrum of price levels, depending on the materials used and the labour involved.

    How interesting about the Shandy Hall and Fair Haven wallpapers. There are very few French scenic wallpaper sin Britain, apparently because of a Regency-perid wallpaper import tax designed to protect local manufacturers.

  4. little augury Says:

    they do beautiful things,the Chinese influences-and all Eastern reaches on our decorating culture is broad & alive and well today.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed Gaye it constantly amazes me how popular chinoiserie decoration still is. It seems our psyche needs a fantasy ‘China’, regardless of how much more accessible the real China now is 🙂

  6. HRH The Duchess of State Says:

    Such beautiful examples of a traditional timeless way to add a chic touch to a room: chinoiserie… how FAB!

  7. Lynne Rutter Says:

    what fabulous images. Chinoiserie is very hip again in interiors and i love that Fromental has made such cutting edge color palettes in these papers. I really think its the color that makes them look so current.

  8. style court Says:

    Emile — I’m envious that you met Lizzie and Tim and intrigued that the papers are now gaining favor in the East. Talk about coming full circle. The wallpaper and the rebuilding of the Nanjing Pagoda too.

    So wish I could’ve heard your talk. Was it recorded for a future podcast? Did I ask that already? One day you will have to share more about the pagoda-roofed chicken run!

  9. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    What I really like about these Chinese designs is that each has a landscape base, and that detail adds immensely to both the exotic and historic feel.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    HRH, thanks.

    Lynne, yes in years to come these papers will be an accurate record of the colours that were considered chic in the early 2010s… my inner art historian coming out 🙂 But equally some of the colours, especially in the foliage and the flowers, are directly inspired by unfaded antique wallpapers. We have all seen so many faded and discoloured Chinese wallpapers that we assume that was how they always looked. And although they can look wonderful in their golden/cream/buff state they would originally have been quite a bit brighter and more ‘in your face’. So Fromental are being modern and historical at the same time with their colours.

    Courtney, yes it is such fun talking to Lizzie and Tim, they are so passionate about Chinese wallpapers. The talk at Christie’s wasn’t recorded – but actually it may be possible to do a podcast here about the subject – some colleagues know about the technology – and put it on the NT website or on this blog. I will explore that, thanks for the idea!

    Mark, yes the landscape bases have the pleasing effect of ‘grounding’ the scenery, don’t they?

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