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Each painted panel begins its life as a length of raw silk which we size with a natural adhesive so that it receives paint without bleeding. We often brush the silk with iridescent pearl washes to add further lustre before backing with traditional rice paper. This forms the extraordinary canvas on which our artists work their magic.
For our embroidery, we use unspun silk floss, which in its un-dyed state is so fine as to be almost invisible to the naked eye. It is dyed by hand in small batches, and our embroiderers have thousands of shades at their disposal. It is not uncommon for an embroiderer to work with six tones of the same colour, which he or she will carefully combine to create subtle shifts in hue.
All our embroidery takes place in Suzhou, China. This remarkable city was the birthplace of silk over 4700 years ago and remains the silk capital of the world.
Our artists are masters of traditional Chinese painting and work in teams to meticulously plan out each room before slowly building up the many layers of detail and colour. To achieve intensity and shade, the artist will blend hues, often using two brushes simultaneously.
Which artist works on which task very much depends on the nature of the design.
For example, our head artist, Master Wang, is a virtuoso of ‘unconscious’ painting, a free and spontaneous style practised by only the most skilled artists. This approach lends a unique energy to the finished work; other techniques require more control to capture detail and definition.
Our embroidery studios are located in a district in Suzhou where embroidery has been the main industry for two thousand years. It is a flourishing part of their local culture, and there remains a strong and proud tradition of passing down skills from generation to generation within families.
The technique uses unspun silk floss and involves incredibly fine stitching – 600 stitches for a single blossom. An individual panel can take up to 400 hours to complete. Most of our embroiderers are talented local women who work from their own homes; they collect the painted panels from our studios before taking them away to hand-embroider them. They are always very careful to coordinate with their fellow artists so that the colours and techniques flow beautifully from one panel to the next.
All our printed designs originate as hand-painted, full-scale works of art. We scan the completed paintings in super-high resolution before preparing them for print.
It’s a meticulous process, and we take great care to retain all of the attributes that made the original piece so special: paying particular attention to capturing the nuances in the brushwork that bring so much energy and character to the hand-painted original. Focusing on these minute details is how we make sure our printed products have the same integrity as our handmade wallcoverings.
But it doesn’t have to be a case of ‘either/or.’ We’re obsessed with finding the correct production method for each project, and sometimes the best solution is to layer a combination of techniques, for example embellishing printed wallpapers with hand-painted or gilded details.
Traditional Chinese painting draws from forms within nature, most commonly birds and flowers, and this rich heritage remains the cornerstone of much of our own design. We believe the natural world provides a unique and inspiring blueprint for beauty. It’s a perennial inspiration at Fromental. We love how the beauty of a golden pheasant or a cherry blossom tree transcends taste and fashion, something we aspire to in all our work.
But we’re restless souls, and we like to cast the net of inspiration wide, ranging freely through the history of art and design. We have a voracious appetite for books, exhibitions, sales rooms: anywhere craftsmanship and beauty can be found.
We use what we learn from past masters to drive us forward into new and exciting territories. As we see it, the richest histories are just a starting point for an extraordinary future.
Even the most traditional methods, such as painting and embroidery, were once cutting-edge innovations and would have felt incredibly futuristic at their invention. The same goes for gilding, traditional Japanese goldwork, foiling and screen printing – techniques we still find incredibly exciting and are lucky enough to use every day.
But why stop there? Life’s more fun when you push the boundaries, and new technology, when used sensitively, can lead to astonishing results. Lately, we’ve been exploring 3D printing and puff paint screen printing, which have endless creative potential and can add incredible depth and texture to a design scheme.
When it comes to pioneering new techniques, the process is very much a collaborative effort between our London and Wuxi studios and is very hands-on. Our co-founder Tim or a senior member of the design team will visit our China studios in person and work side by side with our artists to develop a new design or methodology. This is always a thrill.
We love what we do, and we want to keep doing it for a long time. So it’s vital that our way of working is as environmentally friendly as possible. We are by no means perfect, but we always try to make informed, considerate decisions, and many of our production methods are sustainable by their very nature.
The vast majority of our work is made to order and carefully tailored to a specific space. A happy consequence of this way of working is that wastage is extremely low.
The traditional ‘xuan’ (rice) papers that we use in our wallcoverings are made from a natural byproduct of the food industry. Our silks are created by the cultivation process of the domesticated silkworm, which is inherently sustainable. In Suzhou, China, where all our silks are made, crop rotation has been mastered over centuries to retain the health of the local soils.
And it should go without saying that our silk suppliers fully comply with China’s Environmental Protection Law and the production methods required in the textile dyeing and finishing industry.