Handpainted Chinese wall coverings have been an important element of interior decoration for over three hundred years, and Gracie, established in 1898, was the first firm to ever import them. Each panel takes 50 – 100 hours to paint, making them true works of art. It is easy to become bored with traditional wallpapers (a costly mistake I have unfortunately made more than once), and as trends come and go, they can quickly make a room appear dated. With hundreds of colors, patterns, and textures from which to choose – and with customization available – Gracie offers personalized art for your walls that withstands the test of time. Since its inception, Gracie has been a family-run business, and today I am thrilled that fourth-generation leader Jennifer “Jenn” Gracie is sharing more about this exceptional company. Welcome Jennifer Gracie!
Q: Please tell me about the history of Gracie and how the company has remained family-owned for four generations.
A: My great grandfather Charles started the business in 1898. He was a gilder, who catered to the well to do carriage trade in New York. His first shop no longer exists, because it is where Penn Station now stands. He loved antiques, and collected Chinese snuff bottles. He even had a pen pal relationship with President Herbert Hoover, who also collected them. By all family accounts, Charles was charming. He was a fun character, and I’m sure that his two sons (my great uncle James and grandfather Charles Douglas) were eager to join him. The next generation was my father, Brian, who thought he would be a lawyer, but was drawn in due to his love of antiques. The fourth and fifth generations are me, my brother Mike, and my son, Zach. My father jokes that no arms were twisted in any generation. We love our business.
Q: Gracie was the first firm to import handpainted wallpapers since their original creation by Chinese artisans in the 1700’s. How did this process begin?
A: Charles had been buying and selling antiques, and antique Chinese and European wallpapers. In the 1920’s an intrepid friend of his, who had been traveling all over the Far East, brought him some handpainted wallpaper, and asked if he thought he could sell them in New York. Antique Chinese papers were all the rage, and being scooped up be designers like Elsie de Wolfe, Frances Elkins, Dorothy Draper, and McMillen, Inc. My great grandfather was sure he would be successful selling current handpainted wallpaper, and he was right!
Q: What kind of training is involved to prepare your artists for creating Gracie wall coverings?
A: Intrinsic artistic talent is a must, but artists in our New York, and China studio must train for months and years to perfect the highly detailed quality of our work. A new artist may just practice leaves and flowers on separate pieces of paper for months before they work on a client’s order.
Q: How many hours does it take for an artist to complete one panel?
A: A few artists may work on a panel at the same time. They are painted on large tables, so that one person may be painting groundwork plants, another butterflies, and someone else flowers, but the total hours for each panel is at least 50 and often over 100 hours. Our level of detail takes time.
Q: How does one go about purchasing Gracie papers for their home, and what is the timeline?
A: From start to finish an order can be completed in less than four months. That includes creating the design sketch, a sample if requested, and painting the order, but it will take longer if the client wishes to continue tweaking along the way!
Q: How much customization is possible when selecting Gracie wall coverings?
A: Anything is possible! We never say no. If a client asks “can you”, the answer is always “of course”. Some custom orders are simple. The client may love the design colors and style just as we show it on our display wings, but sometimes an order is 100% from scratch, or changes color and style. Even if no color or design changes are requested, though, each order is still created without repeat, and will fit the walls and height of the room perfectly. We have made panels as tall as 30’ going up staircases, for example. A recently completed room included the family’s homes from over several generations. Another order was inspired by a photo clients took on their honeymoon of vineyards in Italy. A Hudson River scene included boats actually owned by the homeowner.
Q: Please tell me about the antique Chinese papers you have available, and how often do you recreate these to include in your inventory?
A: Antiques of all kinds are my favorite things – lacquer boxes, Japanese screens, and antique Chinese wallpaper especially. It is harder and harder each year that passes to find antique Chinese papers for sale, since they are so fragile. Some (it hurts me to even think about!) get thrown away, because people just know nothing about them. I recently purchased a gorgeous wallpaper, though, from a grand apartment overlooking the East River that had not been updated since the 1940’s or so. The Chinese wallpaper was 19th century, and we removed it. It is now living happily in California, with someone who truly treasure it. We have such fabulous photos in our archives of wallpapers we have sold, and they are fabulous inspiration, but we will often update them with a new scale, perspective, or coloration.
Q: How do you go about removing antique papers and restoring them?
A: Very carefully! Most antique wallpapers were installed over fabric, because people realized what treasures they were. If they are not, it can be difficult or impossible to remove them. I prefer to do as little as possible to antique papers, since I love the way age and patina makes them even more charming, but we always need to remount them on a new fabric backing. So that an antique wallpaper fits a new room, we lay out the original as optimally as possible according to the elevations of the new space, but often need to paint additions. Our artists are so talented that the transition from original to new paper is virtually impossible to detect.
Q: I understand Gracie papers can be backed in muslin prior to installation which allows them to be removed and reused. How does this work, and is it a popular option?
A: It does cost more to install this way, but our wallpapers are art, and an investment. I have seen vintage Gracie papers sell for huge numbers at auction in the US and Europe. Many children grow up with fond memories of Gracie paper in their homes, and it is so lovely when they can use them decades later in a home of their own.
Q: Handpainted Chinese wallpapers have been highly coveted since the 1700s. Why do you think they have withstood the test of time?
A: Originally, they afforded a view of an exotic, far away place that most people would never see in person. Travel was so incredibly expensive and time consuming. These were truly looked upon as treasures, and it was the chicest thing one could have in their home. Handpainted wallpapers, then and now, create instant charm, character and beauty in a room. The world can always use more beauty.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: I feel fortunate every day to come to work. Each day is different, and we collaborate with some of the most inventive and talented designers in the world. I have been proud and sentimental about our family business since I was very young. We will continue to create classics, but also are excited to grow and innovate. New designs are coming soon.
Such fascinating information! Thank you, Jenn for sharing with us today! In addition to exquisite wallcoverings, Gracie also offers one-of-a-kind antiques and lacquered furniture. Gracie’s Instagram account is one of my favorites, and I highly recommend following for daily eye candy. And for further information on the history of Chinese wallpaper, a beautiful new book on the subject was just released…