What is Chinoiserie?

Le Chinois Toile

CHINOISERIE is a French word that means “in the Chinese taste”. It describes a European style of decorative ornament that was wildly popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and still looks great today. Scenes of the Orient abound on textiles, wallpapers, pottery, porcelain, and lacquered and painted furniture. Owning a piece of Chinoiserie (or, “japanned” furniture, as some pieces were called) was the height of fashion. The interesting thing about Chinoiserie is the tremendous range and variety of Oriental scenes and fantastical decorative details – Chinese people in elaborate robes with coolie hats, long pigtails and mustaches; intricately detailed pagodas with layer upon layer of fretwork, tassels, and bells; or monkeys, lions, and elephants in costume. Our endless fascination with exotic locales gives the designs relevance even today.

Antique Mulberry Plate.

Why Chinoiserie at all? Europeans’ fascination with the Far East began in Marco Polo’s day, in the thirteenth century. At a time when few people traveled the world, exotic goods such as silk fabrics, carpets and porcelain reached Europe via a trading route known as the Silk Road, which carried goods by cart and camel across the entire continent of Asia. This ancient road was a bridge connecting the major cultures of the world. China and Japan were sophisticated and complex cultures at that time, with a long history of art. (In fact, in the 8th century, when Europe was in the Dark Ages, Chinese artists were inventing Impressionism!) For wealthy Europeans, owning artifacts from the Far East was a status symbol. With these artifacts came stories from the traders of the amazing temples and pagodas they had seen and the strange costumes and appearance of the Oriental people. Cultures from Persia all the way to China were called “Oriental” by the Europeans. They made little effort to distinguish one people from another, and the fanciful designs of Chinoiserie often blend Chinese, Japanese and Persian or Indian elements. Today we know that the “Orient” at the time was really the current-day Middle East, and “Asian” is the only correct term for the peoples of the Asian continent. But because of this long-ago misnomer, it is not uncommon to hear some people still refer to Chinoiserie as “Oriental” art.

Hundreds of years before photography, Marco Polo was the first well-known westerner to travel all the way to China, returning to Italy seventeen years later and describing architecture, art and costume that sounded like fantasy. When his accounts were published in 1295 they were known as “the million lies”. Europeans simply did not believe his stories, but because China closed itself off from most foreigners several years later, Marco Polo’s vision of Asia was, for nearly two hundred years, the only commonly known information, and it became deeply ingrained in the western mind. In the sixteenth century, when trade routes opened up again and sparked a craze for Oriental goods, it was Marco Polo’s China on the minds of Europeans, as we can see in this oil painting that has been reproduced on an iPad cover:

What most people don’t realize about Chinoiserie is that the style doesn’t come from China at all. As trade spread around the globe and Europe’s economy matured, more people could afford decorative goods. To keep up with demand for more ornate works, artisans created designs that were pure fantasy. Reading descriptions of Chinese scenes, European designers created their own versions. Often they are whimsical and even silly, and that makes them even more appealing. A toile fabric might have a palace in Mughal Indian style, with people dressed in Turkish costumes, and tropical palm trees. Monkeys and leopards hide in the foliage of flowered wallpapers. Handpainted furniture from 16th century Venice might be peopled with Chinese scholars. Or, an English dinner service might have ornate pagodas on each plate.

Black and White Antique Plate

Chinoiserie decoration has the unique feature of combining real elements with fantasy, encouraging the rest of us to mix favorite decorative details with abandon. In short, it’s fun and pretty. Chinoiserie also has the unique ability to look right at home with many different decorating styles. In the nineteenth century, entire rooms were created by the wealthy in the Chinese style, or “japanned” with lacquered paintings on the walls. These rooms were used to show off collections of exotic porcelains, and as elaborate stage sets for fancy dinner parties. Later, elements of Chinoiserie such as monkey figurines, lacquer screens and porcelain urns were used as individual artifacts to make a room interesting and show off the sophistication of the homeowner. In the English country house style in particular, rooms are often crammed with interesting and unusual collections, the more exotic, the better.

Traditional Dining Room with Chinoiserie Toile Curtains

In mid-20th century America, the less cluttered look of Hollywood Regency interiors makes dramatic use of decorative accessories “in the Chinese taste”. Watch old movies from the thirties and forties, and we see Fu Dogs, fretwork screens, bamboo chairs and porcelain urn lamps. Designer Kelly Wearstler has revived the style recently, and it is gaining a large following.

China Seas Fabric

If you want to add some Chinoiserie to your life, fabrics are an easy way to start. This Duralee print is chic in black and white:

Brunschwig et Fils has some great historic Chinese toile fabrics. For lamps that feature Chinese figurines and porcelains, check out Currey and Company, or Oriental Accent. Peel and Company has some beautiful needlepoint rugs with Chinese scenes.

Peel and Co ChinoiserieThrow pillows are a quick way to bring a touch of the Chinese taste into a room – try these from PillowFolly.com:

Good bamboo furniture can be hard to come by, but I like David Francis Furniture’s traditional pieces.

David Francis Chinese Chippendale

For a modern take, check out Shine Home’s accent tables.

Bing Side Table by Shine Home

Chinoiserie pieces say to the guest: this is an interesting home, these are well-traveled and sophisticated people; this family has a history; this home has roots. Perhaps this is why, hundreds of years later, we continue to be fascinated by Chinoiserie — because it speaks about both who we are and who we wish we were, where we’ve been, and where we hope to go.

Copyright 2008 Kerry Ann Dame. May not be reproduced without permission.

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14 thoughts on “What is Chinoiserie?

  1. Tamara Matthews-Stephenson says:

    Thank you for your lovely comment on my blog, NEST. I have enjoyed putting it together, and it really is amazing to have another designer’s opinion. You obviously have considerable experience, and I have really enjoyed reading your blog. This article on Chinoiserie is particularly interesting and informative. Brava! I’ll will check back again soon. Tamara Matthews-Stephenson

  2. Melanie says:

    Such an interesting article! I am an Interior Decorator now, but got an Elementary Education degree, as per my parent’s wishes, when I was in college. Now, at age 44, I so wish I had learned all the history of the design periods…it fascinates me! I live in Atlanta, and went to the Symphony ShowHome yesterday and there was lots and lots of Chinoiserie touches in the various designer’s rooms. Now I am even more intrigued….thank you for sharing this! Enjoyed it so much:)

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  4. Anna says:

    Great article! Would it be possible for you to share what books did you rely on? I’d love to read some more about this subject.

  5. Kerry Ann Dame says:

    Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. With my Art History degree, i studied Ancient Chinese Art, and European Art topics including the famous Silk Road. There is a wonderful book called “Chinoiserie, the Vision of Cathay” that provides an extensive and fascinating account…There are vintage copies around. If you’re fascinated by the Decorative Arts, you might enjoy an Art History course or museum lecture 🙂

  6. Santos Kozak says:

    Ah I love this! I love finding people who share my passions. If you have any product or material recommendations please let me know. I’d love to connect

  7. DesignFolly says:

    Hi Santos, what a nice comment! I have lots of Chinoiserie on my Pinterest Board called “Chinoiserie Every Day” where I pin things as I find them – fabrics, furniture, lighting, and beautiful rooms! Hope you can stop by and visit! My Pinterest Account is Designfolly.

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