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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Good bamboo furniture can be hard to come by, but I like David Francis Furniture’s traditional pieces.
For a modern take, check out Shine Home’s accent tables.
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.