SHADES OF BLUE AND WHITE in interior design have enjoyed almost a cult status since Egyptian times. From the blue lotus-flower murals of Queen Nefertiti’s palace, to the flower-rich cultures of Persia, China and Mughal India, the aristocracy has always been fascinated by the color blue. Despite being rare as a flower color, blue has a rich cultural history derived from the use of blue flowers in medicine and myth. The Romans believed blue flowers were created by the gods as a gift; irises were a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and she is usually depicted wearing a blue cloak. Violets were a symbol of Christian humility, and the pale blue flowers of rosemary were thought to ward off black magic and the plague. Even today, brides traditionally wear something blue, as the belief persists that it is a lucky color.
Historically, the color blue was not easily available to all; the dyes that make blue fabrics were derived from the rarest flowers. A blue or purple garment was a status symbol for the wealthy. By the eighteenth century, however, that began to change. Indigo was cultivated in larger quantities in the New World, and fabulous porcelains were brought back from the Orient in massive quantities. Our love affair with blue and white had begun.
Beginning in the 16th century European traders sailed the globe, returning with ships full of valuable spices and silk. In order to keep the delicate fabrics and spices away from moisture in the hold, they needed to fill the lowest parts of the ship with wares that wouldn’t be damaged if wet. Chinese porcelains were perfect. First seen only in the homes of the very wealthy, blue and white porcelain quickly became a collecting craze. Europeans were smitten by the shades of blue and handpainted designs. Its manufacture was a mystery; compared to European pottery, porcelain was miraculously refined, light, strong and white in color. It was the perfect vessel for drinking the newest popular drink, imported tea. Fascinated by the Oriental scenes depicted, French manufacturers copied the designs onto fabrics, creating the scenic toiles we still love today. To show one’s wealth and sophistication, a roomful of blue and white “China”, as it came to be called, was a must. Shelf brackets covered the walls, each holding a precious vase or jar, and plates hung side by side, closely filling the walls. Often the walls were handpainted to match, and blue and white fabrics covered the furnishings. After dinner, guests would relax for drinks in the China Room, and admire the host’s impressive collection.
It was many years before potters in Europe discovered the secret to making true porcelain, and the passion for blue and white could hit the mass market. By the early 18th century, German potters at the now-famous Meissen factory had finally created true porcelain; once the secret leaked out, it spread quickly to England. By the mid-1700’s factories in England were turning out copies of blue and white Chinese porcelain, and the passion for blue and white began to spread. Cobalt blue was a much cheaper glaze to produce, since it could be completed in fewer steps than multicolored pieces; in a short time the color became widely popular as a growing middle class could finally afford the magical China. However, these pieces were still handpainted and somewhat expensive to produce. In an effort to keep up with demand, English potters looked for a way to apply the decoration to the porcelain mechanically, so artists wouldn’t be needed. They developed a way of transferring design from books onto tissue and firing it onto the plates. By the 1760’s, factories were producing hundreds of thousands of pieces of “transferware” per year. While it was printed on a heavier pottery and not porcelain, the blue and white of the upper classes was finally available to nearly all.
So it was that the long-admired blue China spread like wildfire around Europe and across the Atlantic to America. Equally stunning developments in other manufacturing in the early 1900’s not only allowed accompanying fabrics and wallpapers to be mass-produced, the Industrial Revolution created the American middle class. Now millions of people finally had access to and were able to afford beautiful things for their homes. While it is a popular belief that historic homes were plain inside, in actual fact vibrant color was used to paint interiors as early as the 1700’s. Light blues were common for dining rooms, and deep blues for sitting rooms and libraries. Curtains and bed hangings were made up to match. So by the middle of the 1800’s blue and white had been enjoyed in the finest homes for over a hundred years, and it was looked upon as a symbol of good taste.
Throughout the 19th century, the Victorians, with their passion for collecting stuff, amassed millions of pieces of blue and white China. They ate off it, filled rooms with it, and hung curtains and wallpaper to match. Some of the wallpaper and fabric patterns created a hundred years ago are still popular today.
Nowadays, blue and white seems to wax and wane on the decorating scene. There are those who never seem to give up on it, as if it is part of their collective unconscious. Generations have grown up dining on American-made Blue Willow china, sleeping under blue patchwork quilts, counting the flowers on blue and white wallpaper. So many of us remember cupboards full of blue and white dishes, and many of us have inherited collections that we continue to decorate around. Even when the color trends stray from the blue family, it eventually comes around again.
Blue is making a comeback this year, as we revisit it in our homes and lives. It reminds us of our family histories and exotic travels. It echoes the sea, the sky, and the rare flowers that we enjoy in summer. Living with blue and white helps brighten rooms in dark climates like Sweden and cool down the heat of a French country summer. It can capture the feeling of the beach without using cliche’ elements like shells and sailboats. Like the limitless horizon on a summer day, blue and white seems to be with us to stay.
Copyright July 2008 Kerry Ann Dame. May not be reproduced without permission.