A conversation with one of the world’s premier decorative artists.
In our quest to bring you the most beautiful decor and artwork in the world, we discovered Vancouver’s Gorman Studios, a humble-looking artists’ studio out of which comes some of the grandest and most beautiful decorative arts on the planet. Gorman Studios opened in 1983 and has since pioneered innovative techniques and mentored talent using workshops where professional artists expand their knowledge and experience, much like the decorative arts guilds of the past.
Gorman Studios is a veritable fount of exquisite chinoiserie, reverse glass painting, Chinese lacquered panels, and more. Here, Taste of Life discusses artistic roots and inspiration with the studio’s founder, Peter Gorman.
TOL: Tell us about the artistic lineage to which you belong.
Gorman: In the mid-20th century, decorative arts were diminishing in Europe. Studios came to an end as craftsmen died and World War II took its toll. The technology changed, and decorative arts fell out of favour.
Isabella O’Neil revived the decorative arts in North America in the ‘50s, with a famous studio in New York City. Gail Lawrence, who taught under Isabel, brought the decorative arts to San Francisco, CA. Gail is the living authority on chinoiserie and taught authentic techniques. I am Gail’s protégé. I am credited as the first decorative painter in Vancouver in the early ‘80s.
TOL: What have been the most remarkable experiences for Gorman Studios?
Gorman: Our international exposure and our transformation of glass as a medium. Because we were willing to travel, we worked on residences in Japan, hotels and palaces in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Our work goes into the United Kingdom and we have a long history of doing work in Texas and California.
We are defining what reverse glass painting is and what effects it can achieve. We have transformed the application of Oriental lacquers and églomisé [a term for reverse painted glass] to a whole other scale. If someone told me 10 or 12 years ago that we would be doing entire rooms of raised Chinese lacquer, I would have not thought it was possible. These panels, for instance, go to Jakarta in a week, 11 feet high and 6 feet wide, one piece of glass. There is not a project in all of Europe that people have been able to paint on glass of this massive size.
TOL: Where did your inspiration come from to revive and carry on decorative arts?
Gorman: Fourteen years ago, I went to the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, to photograph a series of rooms for a client who wanted something similar. The palace curators were trying to restore two chinoiserie rooms but they were having trouble finding someone in Europe to do it. I approached my mentor, Gail Lawrence, on my return, asking if she would pursue this opportunity with me but she very kindly pointed out that I was not ready. She said, however, she had been waiting patiently for something like this: she wanted to mentor artists. From then on, Gail taught in my studio and I led workshops. The teaching element of our studio continues to this day and is one of the reasons Gorman Studios is well-versed in Oriental lacquer techniques and is reputed to be the preeminent firm for reverse painted glass and antiqued mirrors.
TOL: How else did European decorative artwork of past centuries inspire today’s traditions?
Gorman: When you look into chateaux and the palaces, both in Europe and all over Asia, the decorative arts have been with mankind in every civilization. They are the expressions of the very best talents of the artists within each culture. On one of my first trips to Europe, I walked into the Apollo Ballroom of the Louvre in Paris, looked at the paintings on the walls and ceilings, and realized at that moment “My gosh, this is what I do! This was the legacy.” The irony is, 15 years later, someone handed me a picture of that very room and said, “I’d like a room in our palace to look like this.” That was pretty amazing.
Years later, I took myself to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Curators there showed me lacquer screens hundreds of years old. That same sensation came over me that this was the tradition; these decorative arts are revived in each century and kept alive by artists and by clients whose homes they grace. But the specialization of chinoiserie work has, to a certain extent, become a lost art in Asia.
TOL: Why do you think it’s a lost art in Asia?
Gorman: There are unbelievably talented Asian artists. I had the privilege of traveling in China and met contemporary artists. They are just not painting in traditional Chinese style.
TOL: What can you tell people who are considering decorative wall panels, screens or decorative wall coverings for their homes?
Gorman: Chinoiserie is, like reverse painted glass, richly textured, differently styled and nuanced. Gail Lawrence once identified 30 distinct styles of chinoiserie: German, French, Italian, Portuguese, even South American, Mexican and Central American chinoiserie. You have local technique and local influence by talented painters who just paint as they see it. And that makes for a very, very rich set of references, something that Gail and I would like to write books on to allow the discerning and educated clients to know that there are differences.
Photography by Hugh Zhao / Photos courtesy of Gorman Studios