Chinese Tableaux

Gracie, a family company based in New York, continues the tradition from the Far East.

China’s rich culture, 5,000 years in its continuity, imbued unparalleled splendor into the 17th and 18th century Europe in the form of Chinoiserie. The delicate grace of China’s architecture, silk, porcelain, and calligraphy all enchanted the aristocracy and literati of the period. The resplendence of these forms of art and culture enjoys continued relevance today.

XVII Century Antique Designs for Your Living Room

Traditional Chinese paintings, so gentle and languorous, crystallize human impressions of nature’s beauty, and express it with succinct power and grace. Gracie, a company based in New York that for over 100 years has been making exquisite wallpapers based on traditional Chinese designs, offers the chance to bring that harmony into your living room.

“Each one is a unique work of art,” said Jennifer Gracie, a fourth generation heir of the prestigious family business. “The replicas based on 17th and 18th century antique wallpapers are at the highest standards.”

Originally the wallpapers, conveying and celebrating some aspect of nature in a characteristically Chinese traditional manner, were created for the enjoyment of the 18th century European high society. Wealthy Europeans, and Americans, could display a piece of the Orient to their own dwellings.

The Treasures of Ancient Wisdom in Contemporary World

Gracie, founded by Charles R. Gracie in 1898, sallied into the hand-painted wallpaper business in the 1930s. After Jennifer’s great-grandfather was shown samples from a friend who had just travelled to China, he was sure he had a winner.

The company worked with the same Chinese studio until the communist takeover in 1949. In the fifty years since then, the studio has been managed by the same family. The Gracies still have wallpaper once hidden by their Chinese manufacturers. It had to be buried to avoid destruction during political turmoil in China, and was dug up upon the studio’s return from Taiwan.

All of Gracie’s designs are hand-painted, and thus no two are exactly alike. The demand for the variety of products they offer has changed since the early days. For the first nearly 50 years, the demand was primarily for the “standards”: classical Chinese motifs. That changed in the 1970s and 80s, with a shift to customization, and later “extreme customization.”

Jennifer says, “I try to steer [clients] away from micromanaging and worrying about the placement of every bird and butterfly. It seems overwhelming now, but when they sit in their room and it’s finished, they’re going to love it, and absolutely not going to say ‘I wished that that butterfly had been three inches higher.’”

In recent years the company has offered more modern designs, with a simplified palette and design style, or a completely custom production not based on any antique reference. But the core product — the traditional Chinese landscape and mood — are still there, unchanged.

In these paintings, the natural world and man’s harmonious place in it comes to life. Plants are flowering, creeklets run, and man sits with his fellows to enjoy the grandeur of nature. Sweeping mountain ranges and subtle cloud formations appear often. The images are imbued with a feeling of esteem, respect, and harmony toward the natural world: the treasures of ancient Chinese wisdom, animated.

Mastering the Technique, One Leaf at a Time

Dozens of accomplished artisans are at work in Gracie’s studios in China and New York. The training is “quite a lengthy process,” Jennifer said. “They start practicing very simple things, like a leaf. When I was at our studio in August, there was a new artist painting leaves. There were 50 leaves she had practiced, on one piece of paper, to make sure that she had the shape, the veining, and the colouration and shading all correct.”

All that work pays off when a customer has on their wall a soothing tableau of peacocks, phoenixes, and pomegranates—for good luck—or a scene of tea cultivation, or Chinese pottery making.

“When people are here or see one of our wallpapers installed somewhere,” Jennifer says, “They say: ‘I just didn’t realise how beautiful it was until I saw it up close.’”

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