The Tale of Hannah Cecil Gurney - The Grace Tales

The Tale of Hannah Cecil Gurney

When Hannah Cecil Gurney was a child, her father Claud Cecil Gurney's office and showroom was situated in the lower ground floor of the family's London home.

As the founder of the luxurious handmade wallpaper company de Gournay, which he created in 1986, their entire house was covered head-to-toe in glorious de Gournay wall coverings. “These wall coverings were rich in colour and pattern and each one told a story … ” recalls Gurney, who is the director of global marketing and development at de Gournay.

Consequently, her home nurtured her imaginative soul in the most wonderful way, feeding into her family abode in London’s Battersea neighbourhood, which she shares with her husband Eddie Harden, their son George, newborn twins Oscar and Scarlet and two dogs. It’s only now, as the mother of three young children, that their home has really come to life and the chaos of a vibrant family home is something Gurney is embracing with open arms.

We were invited into Gurney’s spectacular London home, which we discovered was as glorious as it is child-friendly … 

This story originally ran in GRACE Magazine. Photography by Helene Sandberg.

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Tell us about how living with so much colour and pattern influenced you as a child?

My father is the founder of de Gournay, my family business, that specialises in producing bespoke hand-painted wallcoverings. When I was a child, my father’s office and showroom were situated in the lower ground floor of our London home and of course, our entire house was covered head-to-toe in de Gournay wallcoverings. These wallcoverings were rich in colour and pattern and each one told a story… for example, a scene of a Chinese Palace garden full of exotic flora and fauna… or a scene of a Chinese countryside landscape depicting rice paddies and tea plantations. It seemed totally normal to me that ‘staring at the walls’ could, in fact, be an incredibly vivid game for the imagination! I grew normalised to layered and vibrant interiors that had stories to tell. I loved the feeling of always discovering something new that you hadn’t spotted before… The interiors fed by creativity and embedded in me a sensitivity and love for pattern and colour which is clearly reflected in the interior of the family home I now share with my husband and children.

And now as a mother of three, how does the happy energy in your home impact your life (especially if you’re sleep deprived!)?

I believe the interior decoration of your home can have a significant impact (albeit partly subconsciously) on the quality of one’s life. Firstly, in a practical sense, if you design your home to suit the way your family lives then you are able to enhance the joys of simple routines such as eating together, bathing the children, socialising with friends at home etc. For example, we have seating at our kitchen island so that we can keep my husband company while he cooks… We created a separate snug for watching television in a very small and cosy room where we can all cuddle up together… We put lots of joinery on the ground floor so that we have plenty of storage for the endless coats, shoes, scooters, toys and books. Thought that goes into the layout of the home can create a lovely flow for day-to-day activities. Secondly, in a psychological sense, if you decorate your home in your own style and aesthetic then your home becomes incredibly personal to you and your family. Your home becomes an extension of you. The colours you use are the ones that feel positive to you. I love warm colours because they create a cosy atmosphere like being inside a cocoon. I love vibrant colours because they are uplifting. The combination of warm and vibrant colours makes my home feel happy and welcoming. The impact of colour on one’s mood is very powerful and if I can colour my home in a way that inspires positivity then I am off to the best start even on a terrible day.  

de Gournay started in the basement of your family home – what do you remember about these days? And can you tell us about your father  Claud Cecil Gurney and how his energy and drive has inspired you – what are some of your most vivid memories of growing up with him?

My father is incredibly fun and charismatic and his energy catches you like a wave and takes you with it. He is a wonderful example of someone who has strength in both sides of the brain – he has great logic and wonderful creativity, the combination of which makes him a wonderful father and a great entrepreneur. He has an astounding breadth and depth of knowledge which enables him to give sound advice on how to deal with any predicament. A few years ago my father took a masters in Chinese Arts and he learnt about ‘Wu Wei’, a Confucianist concept literally meaning “inaction”. Sometimes the best course of action is inaction. Whenever I am stressed about how to deal with a certain scenario my father will say ‘Wu Wei’. Sometimes waiting allows the subconscious to form the right decision… Or enough time to pass to make the correct decision obvious. I admire my father’s passion for learning – whether it be Chinese Arts, French literature, economic theories, beekeeping, gardening, cooking etc. My father has always taught us that no matter what the subject, provided you study it deeply, it can be fascinating both for you and for those you share it with. Watching our father create a successful business doing something that he loves made my siblings and I realise that being passionate about your work is vital. Work takes up a huge percentage of one’s time on this planet and enjoying it is certainly a large component to one’s happiness.  

Not one machine goes near anything you do at de Gournay – talk us through the process behind the work at  de Gournay and why it is so special…

In the modern world, so much is mass-produced. Technology has advanced so much that the majority of products are made by machine. Unique products are becoming more rare. Being able to offer our client’s something bespoke is what makes de Gournay special. Because we produce everything by hand, our custom capabilities are almost limitless. Clients can come to us with a concept and we can create it for them so that they end up with a wallcovering that is completely personal. We don’t have to set parameters to comply with the capability of machines. As hand made products become more rare they become a great luxury. Something with great craftmanship has great luxury. We consider our wallpapers to be art. When the artist creates them, he leaves a part of his spirit in the product. My father has always referred to this as the ‘spirit resonance’. You can feel this spirit resonance when you see the product.

Top designers and tastemakers wait months for each paper to be rendered by hand – can you share any memorable stories of special wallpaper and where it has ended up?

We have just recently installed our new ‘Houghton’ wallcovering in Lady Rose Cholmondeley’s bathroom in Houghton Hall in Norfolk. With interiors by William Kent, Houghton Hall is one of England’s most beautiful stately homes and one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture. Our ‘Houghton’ design is a faithful reproduction of the iconic 18th Century Chinese wallpaper installed in the Cabinet Room at Houghton Hall which has lasted in near perfect condition since its installation in 1769. With our longstanding expertise in the creation of hand-painted wallpapers this project allowed us to reconnect with our roots; engaging ancient techniques to create Chinese wallpapers and continue a tradition that dates back to the early 18th century. The catalyst for this project was that Lady Rose had recently discovered in Houghton Hall’s attic a set of 5 untouched and unused panels from the same original set as those installed in the Cabinet room. Knowing that we would be fascinated by her discovery, Lady Rose reached out to us at de Gournay. The 5 panels allowed us to see how the Cabinet room wallpaper appeared when it first arrived from China in the late 18th century. Comparing the attic panels to those installed in the Cabinet room showed that the panels were originally full of rich pink and red tones and that the flowers and leaves were accented with gold, all of which have slowly faded over the near-300 years that the Cabinet room panels have been installed. This unique opportunity allowed de Gournay to create two colourways for our ‘Houghton’ design corresponding to both the faded monochrome of the original installation (‘Cabinet’ colourway) and the rich flair of those stored in the attic, hidden from the vagaries of time (‘Canton’ colourway). The recent installation of de Gournay’ panels in Lady Rose’s first-floor bathroom marks the first installation of our ‘Houghton’ hand-painted wallpaper, just a floor up from its historic counterpart. For this installation Rose worked with de Gournay to create a third colourway for the design in fresh and lively greens, pinks and reds on a dusky cream coloured ground. I am so proud to think that the de Gournay panels are now part of the history of Houghton Hall and the story of their production will be talked of in centuries to come… and to think that we are continuing to keep the tradition of hand-painting Chinese wallpapers alive.

de Gournay has been called “couture for the home” by Lauren Santo Domingo. How would you describe it?

I completely agree with Lauren that our wallcoverings are couture for the walls. They are tailor made for every client, fitted to their walls so that the design flows beautifully around the architecture of the room. Our clients send us the measurements of their walls and we draw up a black and white design miniature that shows our suggested layout for the non-repeating pattern. Just like at a first dress fitting, the client can then tweak the layout so it exactly how they have envisaged it. In a similar way to a couture dress, as our wallcovering is made for each client, the client can choose which material they want us to use for the background, what style of painting they want us to employ, which types of paints they want us to use, which colours they want us to paint in and whether they would like us to add gilded accents or silk embroidery or beading… It is a beautifully layered process which the client is involved in very closely. The end result is something truly unique that dresses the walls beautifully.

Talk us through the renovation you did on your London home – did you come up against any challenges? What’s the secret to surviving a renovation with your spouse? What’s your favourite room and why? How would you sum up the renovation?

The renovation was particularly tricky for Eddie and I because he had very little interest in interior design and therefore couldn’t understand why any of the work needed doing in the first place! His idea of interior design was the largest bed on offer at Ikea and an enormous flat-screen television. As such, when I started to knock the house down causing chaos and sending us to live with his in-laws… he wasn’t particularly pleased! It didn’t help that the builders took twice as long and cost twice as much as expected! However, it was all worth it when we moved back in and Eddie and my family adored the interiors. Suddenly Eddie understood the power of interiors to enhance daily life. And he understood the feeling of stepping into a warm, welcoming and beautiful home. There is no secret to surviving the renovation – just try to start out very in love haha! And remember that once it’s over you barely remember it ever happened… It is so soon a distant memory. And being able to create a wonderful environment for your family to grow in is so special…

Where are some of your favourite places to source furniture and décor items?

Nothing beats the flea markets in France. My father and I adore going trawling through the antique markets together finding antique furniture pieces that we then have restored and brought back to life. We have a wonderful restorer that we work with in Paris. I then source vibrant patterned fabrics to use for the upholstery which inject youth and fun back into the pieces. I have lots of 18th-century antique pieces in my home that have been restored and upholstered in modern Dedar fabrics or graphic Pierre Frey fabrics. Aside from de Gournay, those are my two favourite fabric houses. They both focus on exceptional quality and also have an amazing breadth of designs from the very classical to the innovative and modern.

For accessories, I love The Edition 94 which has gorgeous unique pottery, lighting, art, tableware etc. Their store is just across the road from de Gournay so I can never resist going in. I have a particular weakness for the scalloped edged ceramics in pastel colours. I am a sucker for anything scalloped edged. I also love the scalloped edged accessories of Matilda Goad – particularly the linen napkins. She also has gorgeous ribbed beeswax dinner candles in jewel colours.

For bedding, I adore Once Milano. They make exquisite linen quilts and bedding. I have the buttoned quilts on all my beds at home. They are very rustic chic and also come in great colours.

The Conran Shop and David Mellor are also both great for kitchenware.

For bathroom hardware Catchpole & Rye is just beautiful – so English and such high quality and craftmanship. I love their bar towel rail that I have in my bathroom in a nickel finish.

How do you want to feel when you walk into your home?

I want to feel like my house is embracing me. I want to step into it and feel like I have completely escaped from the outside world.

Tell us about the bathroom featuring a paper of pink flamingos?

Veere Grenney – one of my design icons – designed an exquisite pink interior with pops of yellow. I saw it on the cover of a coffee table book and fell in love with it. Although my bathroom is not remotely in the style of this interior… it was that interior that made me realise how beautifully pink and yellow paired together. For my master bathroom, I knew I wanted to do something feminine and glamorous but not too serious. I am not a naturally glamorous person and so I wanted to do more tongue-in-cheek glamour. The pink flamingos on the silver background seemed perfect. I also loved the idea of bathing amongst a flock of flamingos in an exotic landscape. I have a hot bath every night, so I thought why not do something transportive with the decoration so that my daily ritual could become even more of an escapism. It really feels like you are a million miles from Battersea when you are in that bath! I added an ombre effect to the wallpaper so that the silver turns to yellow at the tops of the panels… and then merges with a yellow ceiling. My colleague found the epic tiles from a company called Mosaic del Sur and we had them custom made in pink and yellow. All the beautiful bathroom hardware is from Catchpole & Rye. I love mixing their traditional English fittings with the funky tiles and wallpaper. The mirrors were custom made by Reid & Wright. Overall, I haven’t tried to adhere to any particular style. The bathroom is a jumble of things that I loved and as I was decorating for myself I didn’t feel obliged to make it make any sense at all! The luxury of being one’s own client!

And what about your son George’s room with the divine paper featuring turtles. What kind of room did you want to create for him?

My main priority was to design the children’s rooms to engage and inspire their imaginations. I wanted them to feel like they were inside a storybook or a magical land… So that when they entered their bedrooms they felt transported away from the mundane every day. It was also important for me  to design the rooms so that they worked as adorable nurseries for babies but also as fun rooms for older children too… so that the rooms could grow with the children. I don’t know when I will next find time to redecorate! I wanted decoration with longevity. Another criteria that I felt was important was to avoid creating rooms that were too gender-specific. Both children’s rooms would work for girls or boys. I don’t know how many children I will end up with… Or who will want to share with who. Life is always better with some flexibility. Then, of course, there was also the question of durability. The wallpapers in the children’s bedrooms and bathroom are covered with a protective glaze. When my son decided to colour in a turtle with an orange crayon, I was able to wipe it away! The wallpaper in the bathroom is waterproof so they can splash in the bath without worrying about the wallcovering. So, the rooms were also designed to be practical! Decorating my children’s rooms has been incredibly rewarding. My son George adores his wallpaper. We have named all the turtles and we say good night and good morning to them and make up endless stories featuring their adventurous journeys. My son really feels like his room is his… Somehow I feel like the distinctive décor creates more of a sense of ownership for him. Oh – and his first word was ‘turtle’!

Why can some people feel afraid to use wallpaper in their home? And what is your advice to them?

I think some people are afraid of pattern or colour on the walls. People might think it is easier to have plain walls and bring colour in with the furniture, curtains and accessories… But, speaking from experience, one beautiful wallpaper and the room is brought to life and most of the work is done. The remaining elements can then be more simple. Wallcovering allows you to envelop and dress the room, thereby completely transforming it into whatever character you want it to assume. Wallcovering creates an entire mood for a room that a single piece of furniture does not have the power to do on its own.

You’ve described your husband as the “homebody—the opposite of me!”. How would you describe yourself at home?

I love variety. I love to leave home to be able to appreciate it twice as much when I return. I love that feeling of sinking into my own bed at home after long days of work trips and sleeping in hotel beds.

You’ve got friends coming over – how do you like to entertain?

My husband is the chef. I take care of flower arranging (a new passion of mine – so therapeutic!), tidying and lighting candles etc. I am obsessed with the smell of the Hotel Costes candles and buy loads of them every time I am in Paris and find myself having drinks or dinner there. I am one of those people that consider the ambience more important than the food. I choose restaurants based on their atmosphere more than their menu. Having said that, my husband is an awesome chef! With the new arrivals and my work, we don’t get to see friends as much as we would like… so when we do have the opportunity we love to host big dinner parties and get everyone together. We designed the kitchen/dining room with a super long narrow table that allows us to host up to 14 for dinner. I love long dinners full of conversation.

What’s your approach to children and homes – are there any rooms that are off-limits? Do you get stressed when furniture gets damaged? How can we all have a lovely home that’s still family-friendly?

I love a home full of children and dogs. I love the chaos and the commotion. I absolutely wanted our home to be comfortable for children. I would hate if I had to spend all my time telling my children not to touch things or sit on things. They should feel totally relaxed at home. It is as much their home as mine. When decorating, I specifically chose beautiful yet durable fabrics and furnishings. For example, the bench in my kitchen and the sofa in my snug both have washable velvet on them. Where I have used antique furniture pieces, I have made sure they are ones that look even better with additional wear and tear….! At the end of the day, it is best not to be too precious about furniture, rugs etc. They are made to be sat on and walked on. Even the most fancy ones! I know that this is easier said than done. I remember initially banning my dog from my bedroom… now he sleeps on the end of the bed every night. Yes, I have to wash the quilt more often but there is no permanent damage. And the dog is in heaven. Equally, with children, I think we need to remember that most children aren’t intentionally throwing food at the walls! A small part of preventing damage is having reasonable boundaries with the children. George knows to take his shoes off before getting on the sofa. To be honest, I am pretty sure I am the one who caused most of the spillages and breakages around the house!

When your son arrived, how did your approach to work/your career shift? Were you more ambitious/more efficient? Or did you want to pull back?

To be totally honest, I am not sure I have ever mastered the balance. With my first son, I was obsessed with proving that I could be back at work in no time at all. I think I was emailing between contractions! I wish I had taken more time off. The office were perfectly capable of coping without me! With the twins I have taken more time off but ironically this time – with two newborns to deal with – I have an amazing maternity nurse helping me… and I could have probably been doing more work than I am! Generally, I tend to veer too much in one direction and then correct myself. But that is my character. I love to be in full-on mum mode and ignore work… and then go into full-on work mode and burn the midnight oil. If I try to do a little of both then I end up doing neither well. I would rather work in the office and really work… and then come home and really engage with the children… Rather than give the children 50% of me when I am with them, which is an easy trap with emails so readily available on our mobile phones.

What has been the most challenging part of motherhood for you?

In the early days, definitely breastfeeding. No one told me how complex it would be! I was the first of my siblings and friends to have a baby and I was shocked how unnatural the whole thing felt for me and my son. I wish I had either had better advice at the start so I could have set myself up better for success… or I wish I had had someone to tell me to stop when I was losing out on precious time with my newborn son because I was attached to a breast pump watching Keeping up with the Kardashians. It was all very surreal now I look back on it! The second time around was so much better. With the twins, I did the best I could for 6 weeks and then I stopped guilt-free and switched to formula knowing that was the best decision for me and the children in my circumstance.

What about the most rewarding part – how would you sum it up?

The most rewarding parts are the moment you get to experience truly selfless love for another person and the many moments you get to witness your child experiencing innocent joy. I love the joy and happiness that our children bring to their grandparents. I love having a 3-year-old as a friend and experiencing things from his point-of-view. Summing up motherhood is almost impossible. As with everything in life, there are ups and downs…

Tell us about your pregnancy carrying twins – any highs/lows?

My goodness, yes, it was certainly intense! The pregnancy hormones aren’t quite double that of a singleton pregnancy but they are 50% more… And that is plenty enough to create some mood swings which my husband handled with the utmost patience. With the twin pregnancy, the last 4 weeks were really tough as I was so huge and immobile. It was a struggle to get in and out of the car or the bed! I really did feel like a beached whale and being housebound was very frustrating! But now I am almost 3 months on the other side and I can barely remember it… Seeing the outcome I would have happily gone through something much much worse. The high comes every time I look down in my arms and see a newborn baby… then look across at my husband and he is holding one too! It is completely surreal!

And how was the birth – can you share anything about your birth?

I had a C-section with the twins. I always assumed this was the ‘easy’ option. I naively under-prepared for what was, in fact, a major surgery. My husband and I were almost surprised to find ourselves in an operating theatre! Post-surgery, the first few days of recovery were intense and a bit of a shock to me… but within 2 – 3 weeks I felt almost back to normal. It is incredible how the body can heal. I had a great doctor and the scar is amazingly small and neat for a twin birth. Overall, I found the recovery much quicker than that of a natural birth… but what I have learnt is that there is no rule. One person may find they recover faster from a natural birth than a C-section. The trickiest thing about childbirth and motherhood is that everyone gives conflicting advice. Everyone wants to help but it can often be rather confusing!

How have the early days of being a mother of three been (and a mother of twins!)? Do you ever have blue days/feel overwhelmed?

With George, we tried to do it all ourselves at the start. That was tricky as neither my husband nor I had a clue what we were doing… which often ended in tears (usually mine and George’s!). We were so nervous! I remember not wanting to fall asleep as I wouldn’t be able to monitor every one of the babies’ breaths in and out. With the arrival of the twins, I can’t believe the difference. We are so much more confident. And handling the babies more confidently makes the babies so much more relaxed… Having said that, we basically have Mary Poppins helping us in these first couple of months… so ask me again in a few weeks when she leaves us and I may well be feeling rather more overwhelmed!  

What are your time management tips – how do you get it all done?

Google Calendar on my phone rules my life. And to be honest, if my husband and I have all 3 children on our own we have realised it is much better to surrender and accept that we will not get anything done other than keeping them alive and hopefully happy! Managing expectations and being realistic is key… as well as asking for help. When I have the help I have to really push myself to not procrastinate but to use that time wisely to be as productive as possible…

What’s your approach to health and wellbeing – what does a day on your plate look like?

I love having healthy and unhealthy days. I get bored by moderation. A healthy day is hot water with lemon in the morning while I get washed and dressed. A flat white in the park as I walk my dogs. Freshly squeezed grapefruit juice as I start work in the morning. Salad or an omelette for lunch and a carb-free but delicious dinner… Something like Thai green curry with cauliflower rice. I tend to avoid carbohydrates if I want to lose a little weight. If I want something sweet I snack on dried mango or ‘Deliciously Ella’s’ ‘healthy’ millionaire shortbread which my husband stockpiles for me in the freezer (made with dates, almond butter and cacao nibs). In contrast, an unhealthy day (usually a Saturday) starts with pancakes, maple syrup and crispy bacon in bed with a big cup of Yorkshire tea. Pizza at The Oak for lunch (just by Battersea Park) and then cinema popcorn (literally via Deliveroo!) and Maltesers on the sofa with a movie and a bottle of red wine once the children are all asleep. Generally, I am useless at remembering to drink enough water each day but I do keep trying! All the supermodels say it works… But I am pretty sure that they also have genetics to thank!

As a busy mother of three, what helps keep you sane?

Hot baths with scented candles (Jo Malone green tomato is my current favourite), lavender oil and magnesium salts. I don’t know what the magnesium salts do but a very zen woman once told me to add them and I sort of started and never stopped!

What’s your relationship with your inbox like?

Pretty unhealthy. I am never on top of it and don’t know how to defeat it. I hate the email culture. I try to move as many group conversations onto WhatsApp as possible. I try to make phone calls and video calls to avoid endless email chains. I once read an article that James Dyson receives on average 4 emails per day. He has mastered the art of emails. I am probably on about 200 per day so my mission now is to change our work culture to improve the quality and reduce the number of emails that we send and receive. When faced with too many emails it reduces productivity as it diffuses concentration…

When you’re with your children, what’s a typical outfit for you? What are your favourite brands?

My favourite brand in the world is Erdem. I bought one of his dresses years ago, it fit me like a glove and made me feel wonderful and I never looked back. Now half of my cupboard is Erdem. Of course, that is not what I wear on a trip to the playground with the children… When I want to be casual I love wearing a woollen jumper (Whistles or Jigsaw) in a fun colour over a white oversized ‘boyfriend’ shirt with large collar and cuffs (& Other Stories have great ones)… on top of Paige jeans… with some Nike trainers. For work, I love to wear midi-length Ganni or Rixo dresses/skirts with nude suede loafers.

For my children, I recently discovered Olivier baby which has the most charming and beautifully made children’s clothes (the cashmere hats and cardigans for babies are to die for). I love that it is British, as so many great children’s brands tend to be French or Spanish (e.g. La Coqueta, another new favourite).  

What about beauty – can you list your favourite products?

I am obsessed with lotions and potions. I tend to invest a lot more in face creams and serums and then spend less on makeup. I love the Lancer ‘The Method: Polish’ exfoliator which I alternate in the mornings with Revive ‘Le Polish’. I am slightly addicted to exfoliating. After exfoliating, I apply The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid and then Sunday Riley C.E.O Glow face oil. I love richly hydrating products that give my skin a dewy feel. In the evenings I cleanse my skin with The Ordinary ‘Squalane Cleanser’ which is really hydrating. I follow with The Ordinary Glycolic Acid toner. Then I apply The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% (I have started at the lowest % and will work my way up as my skin gets used to it) followed by Sunday Riley Vitamin C moisturiser. For eye creams, I alternate between very expensive Revive eye creams and more basic Caudalie ones. That way the more luxurious products last longer… Makeup wise I am a fan of Charlotte Tilbury for all eye makeup and Yves Saint Laurent for tinted moisturiser and foundation. The YSL CC Crème is amazing for light dewy coverage.