In 1670, the opulent King Louis XIV built the Trianon de Porcelaine at Versailles, a small estate perfect for entertaining his mistress du jour and serving as a retreat from the formal customs of the court. The roof was crowned in a Chinese motif of blue and white faience, the walls faced with blue and white Italian majolica tiles, and the balconies clad with ornate oriental vases. This petit chateau stands out in history as the first example of ‘Chinoiserie’ – a French word meaning ‘in the Chinese taste’, which depicts a European style of decoration that was predominantly fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Chinoiserie style stemmed from Europe’s fascination with the Far East; interest piqued with Marco Polo’s return from the Orient in the 13th century, where he had spent 17 years immersed in the exotic and traditional cultures of the people. Depictions of Chinese men and women; Fu-Manchu beards and moustaches; dragons big and small; ornate pagodas and serene water gardens; Chinese flora and fauna, such as lotus blossoms; monkeys, lions, birds, and elephants; misty mountain tops and landscapes – such exotic imagery was suddenly en vogue. These motifs graced a multitude of artifacts. Striking porcelain ware, including plates, bowls, urns, and vases in the signature blue and white colouring; hand-painted wallpapers; embroidered silk tapestries; lacquered and painted decorative items such as screens, boxes, cabinets, and containers all made their way into Europe via a trading route known as the Silk Road. This ancient thoroughfare was the bridge that connected major cultures of the world, from Persia all the way to China, globally leading designers, artists, and craftsmen down this road of Asian style.
We see Chinoiserie influence in 17th century art, frequently depicted in still life paintings featuring Asian-inspired tableware. Dutch company Delft imitated the style on their pottery, and by the 18th Century, the Rococo style—with leisure, nature, and pleasure as its subject matter—launched the production of Chinoiserie items even further into popularity. Owning a piece of the ‘exotic’ was a trend that established one’s place on the social ladder. By the mid-19th century, however, the Chinoiserie style struggled, no longer able to compete with the emergence of new foreign styles emanating from eastern Mediterranean countries like Egypt, Greece, and Turkey.
As with many design styles, we see the revival of Chinoiserie in the mid-20th century; Hollywood adapted the style on the movie sets of the 1930s and ’40s with the introduction of fretwork screens, Fu Dogs pedestals, bamboo chairs, and porcelain urns. Today we still see this movement trending in many facets of interior décor and design.
A leader in the plumbing industry, KOHLER banded together a group of artisans and designers to collaborate and create a new series of lavatories entitled the Artist Collection. Drawing inspiration from different cultures, travels abroad, and Mother Nature, several of KOHLER’s pieces are strongly influenced by Chinoiserie. The Empress Bouquet is a modern interpretation of 18th century style with its intricate floral pattern synonymous with Chinese print work; the Imperial Blue is motivated by the blue and white earthenware produced in China during the Ming dynasty. Serpentine Bronze features illustrations of fauna – turtles, fish, and serpents inspired by the forests and oceans of the Far East. Like Chinoiserie, these pieces are both nature inspired and culture inspired.
De Gournay, wallpaper manufacturer and purveyor of all things gorgeous, employs in-house artists to illustrate a stunning variety of Chinoiserie wallpaper. Gilded with hints of imperial gold foil and dusted with silver leaf, the delicate florals of these modern day papers are a perfect representation of Asian-influenced design.
Currey & Company, a leader in the field of lighting design, shows strong influence of Chinoiserie. The Mandarin Lantern, directly inspired by the style, depicts the architecture of the traditional Asian pagoda fused with a sensuous hue of the Far East cultures. The Dream Pendant’s intertwining branches and glistening crystal leaves add a hint of opulence to the nature-inspired piece. The Benson Lantern is strong yet delicate, softened by the Shantung silk shade – an element that is distinctly Chinoiserie.
NEW RAVENNA, America’s premier designer and manufacturer of mosaic tiles, introduced a new line named Altimetry. We not only see the Chinoiserie influence in the motifs, but also in the composition and symmetry of the patterns. Mandarin Lattice, composed of the natural materials dolomite and shell, echoes the delicate lines of Chinese screens. Royal Palace, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and natural stone, mirrors the exquisite outline of tradition Chinese fretwork. The inspiration for Flock, evoking the fantasy and whimsy of birds in flight, further illustrates the global phenomenon of Chinoiserie.
Chinoiserie derives its influence from life itself; it is a combination of our daily routine fused with the beauty of our surroundings. It is in no part a fussy style – in fact, it is a style that is timeless and immortal, able to adjust to any surrounding, to any interior, and makes itself right at home. The depictions and motifs alone take us on a trip to the Orient, to the exotic, where cultures are so different and so vibrant – a juxtaposition of two worlds. I personally have a special place in my heart for the style, having grown up in a home with hand painted gold leaf walls; depictions of delicate peacocks and regal ostriches, a Fu Dogs pedestal in the foyer to perch on, brass cranes in flight on the walls, and Rococo fauteuils covered in silk were the backdrop of my childhood. I thank my mother for her impeccable taste, her fervor for beautiful items and for introducing me to this enduring style of Chinoiserie – unique and lovely, just as she was.