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Interior Design Style - Chinoiserie

In Awe of China

At the start of the 18th century, Cathay, (as China was called during medieval times) was seen as an exotic land with the best of everything and idolized by ordinary people in Europe. Expeditions to the Orient during the 17th and 18th century led to a heightened interest in anything that arrived from the East.

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China was seen as a nation with benign and well-educated leaders and according to Voltaire (1694 - 1778): " the Chinese for four thousand years when we were unable to read, knew everything essentially useful of which we boast at the present day"

Chinoiserie is a style that grew out of a melange of travellers' tales, exaggerations, odd lots from India to Japan, and the European imagination of the exotic.

- Alex Lawrence

Merchants returned from the East with vast quantities of Chinese objets d'art and Europeans were in awe of the exquisite workmanship and taste that could be seen in Chinese manufactured goods like silk, lacquer-work, ivory and porcelain.

Genuine imported Chinese items were far too expensive for the middle-classes and European artists and craftspeople quickly started producing cheaper imitations to satisfy the growing demand for Eastern imports. This new style that emerged became known as Chinoiserie. The term comes from the French word chinois, or "Chinese" and refers to goods imported from China for the European market, objects made in Europe fashioned in the Chinese taste and the Eastern-inspired aesthetic style based on Oriental art and design.

Chinoiserie differs from authentic East Asian design in almost every way imaginable.

Chinoiserie continued to flourish during the first half of the 18th century, but it was a style entirely invented by Europeans. Chinoiserie didn't accurately portray Chinese motifs and designs, but rather relied on the imagination of the European creators.

Chinese inspired Washing Bowl with Floral motives and a Pagoda. Image: Rijksmuseum

Chinese-style objects were eagerly collected throughout Europe during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with Chinese, Japanese and Indian objects and materials becoming standard components of grand European interiors. ('Indian' being synonymous with 'Chinese' or 'Asian')

According to David Porter in his book The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England,

"By the 1730s a Chinese room, decorated with imported paper and screens, plump figures of the laughing Buddha, porcelain vases on the mantelpiece and blue and white plate lining the walls, was de rigueur in respectable country houses."

The Chinese Bedroom at Badminton House Image via Pinterest

Chinoiserie Furniture and other Interior Accessories

Furniture in the Chinese style was famous for its surface decorations and frequently decorated with ebony and ivory, brass hardware, Chinese lacquer and faux bamboo.

Chinese fretwork could be seen in chairs, tables and cabinets.

The production of Chinoiserie style furniture was popularised by the publication of Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director in 1754 that provided a guide for intricate chinoiserie furniture and its decoration. He created a trademark style which was a blend of Rococo with Chinese and gothic elements. This style was the basis of "English" Rococo. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Chippendale believed his delicate Chinese fretwork chairs were "very proper for a lady's Dressing Room"

Fretwork Chippendale chairs
Chinese chair designs from Chippendale's Directory p.72

Chinese cabinet at Blickling Hall
Chinese painted cabinet in the Chinese bedroom at Blickling Hall c1760

Chinese Chippendale cabinet V & A Museum
Chinese Corner Cabinet by Chippendale displayed in the V & A Museum

Chinoiserie was mixed with other styles such as Rococo and the Gothic style. Designers of the time were inspired to use oriental motifs like pagodas, dragons and peacocks for a wide variety of objects and the passion for the Chinese taste heavily influenced the Rococo. Both the Rococo and Chinoiserie styles are characterised by their stylised nature, animated decoration and subject matter depicting pleasure and leisure.

Chinoiserie symbolised a new freedom for individual creativity outside the rigid rules of classicism.

The Chinese Room at Claydon House Image via Pinterest

The folding screen, decorated with chinoiserie motifs and scenes was often seen in 18th century country houses and it was a popular expression of the Chinese style.

The Toilette by François Boucher 1742
The Toilette by François Boucher 1742

Chinese Folding Screen at Blickling Hall in Norfolk

Although Chinese porcelain had been exported to Europe since the 16th century, it was enthusiastically collected during the 18th century. The fashion for Chinese porcelain had a great effect on the production of decorative objects in Europe and also played an essential role in influencing Chinoiserie elements. The blue and white Chinese-style china so popular today reflects the Chinese porcelain of the Yuan era in the 13th century which was often produced in Jingdezhen - the "Porcelain Capital" of China.

Ming dynasty 15th century - Sothebys

Porcelain chinoiserie plate
Porcelain plate with Chinoiserie decoration c.1755 from Bow Porcelain Factory

Chinese Papers

Hand-painted Chinese papers were imported via the East India Company from the early 18th C. These were more delicate in design and detail than the English block prints and were very expensive, therefore often pasted onto linen before being tacked onto wooden frames so that the wallpaper could be removed when necessary. This also protected the wall hangings from damp rising through the wall. English chinoiserie imitation papers were also available for those who couldn't afford the expensive imported papers, but still wanted a high quality paper.

Historically, the creation and use of such papers was not a Chinese tradition and research suggests that these were a largely European construct, devised to fulfil the expectations of fashionable clients and their decorators

On some occasions, the lady of the house would have enhanced the printed papers by cutting out extra figures like exotic birds from unused bits of paper and pasting these onto the papered wall to create a look with more depth.

The Chinese Garden paper below is a design recreated from Allyson McDermott's archive of original, hand painted Chinese wallpapers. These panels can be used individually as framed panels which works particularly well if you love wallpaper but perhaps feel that papering an entire wall will be too overpowering or too expensive.

The panels could also be used to create a stunning panorama:

The Chinese Bedroom at Belvoir Castle (pronounced 'beaver') reflects the very best of Regency taste and were named for the exquisite Chinese wall decorations.

The 'Scenes from Life' paper below is a fantastical 18th century paper from the Chinese bedroom at Belvoir, faithfully reproduced by Allyson McDermott. These are currently only available in sections, but according to Allyson they work beautifully as individual framed prints or screens.

Chinoiserie, Women and The Obsession with Tea

The craze for chinoiserie was partly due to women's fascination for these imported (or created) products. Women quickly became avid collectors of chinoiserie and

the style came to be seen by some as a feminine indulgence. Many of the famous chinoiserie and porcelain collectors were women - Queen Mary, the Duchess of Queensbury, Queen Anne, Henrietta Howard. According to Porter in his book The Chinese Taste , it seems largely to have been women who did the looking, judging, admiring and possessing of these items and there was a strong association between women and the production of all things chinoiserie.

During the 18th century, many of the rooms designed in the Chinese taste were the 'feminine' rooms in the house, like bedrooms, dressing rooms and boudoirs.

There was also an association between Chinese porcelain and the feminine ritual of tea drinking. Before the 18th century, tea was normally taken as a cure for ailments, but by the 1730's tea had become a popular drink to be taken as refreshment.

The emergence of tea as a fashionable beverage created a demand for the accessories of the tea table, which in turn stimulated interest in the Chinese furniture, wallpapers, textiles, and architectural designs which became a ubiquitous presence in homes and gardens by 1750.

- David Porter

The Tea Party by Richard Collins 1727
'The Tea Party' Richard Collins c.1727 (Goldsmiths Company)

18th century Chinese Teapot Image:Sothebys

Key Elements of Chinoiserie

  • Dragon motifs

  • Ginger jars

  • Foo dogs

  • Pagodas

  • Fantasy elements

  • Fabulous birds

  • Nature scenes

  • Lacquered wood

  • Faux bamboo

  • Figures in Chinese clothes

  • Ming-style blue and white patterns

  • Chinese-style calligraphic symbols or script

The obsession with chinoiserie in England reached its peak during the second half of the 18th century. According to an article published in 1787 in The World (the 18th century newspaper):

"everything is Chinese, or in the Chinese taste; or, as it is sometimes more modestly expressed, partly after the Chinese manner. Chairs, tables, chimney-pieces frames for looking glasses, and even our most vulgar utensils, are reduced to this new-fangled standard."

Many 17th and 18th century critics ridiculed chinoiserie and classicists saw chinoiserie as a style that offended against good taste. Some felt that it made a mockery of original Chinese art and design while others saw chinoiserie as a chaotic and hedonistic style, a symbol of social and aesthetic decline and not a pure style at all. It was derided by some for its triviality, prettiness and ornamental excesses and it gradually became less fashionable during the latter half of the 18th century.

Chinoiserie Today

With its characteristics of asymmetry and depictions of Chinese figures, dragons, pagodas and fantasy elements, chinoiserie is still very popular today. The fact that Chinoiserie can effortlessly be combined with other styles contributes to its ongoing fashionability.

Chinoiserie endures, it seems, because it somehow keeps defying conventions. A decorative confection conceived for mass consumption, it has kept the design world intrigued — and inspired — for centuries.

- Marisa Bartolucci

Today, chinoiserie is not often used in the 'themed' way of 18th century Chinese rooms, but rather as accents in a room, for example a chinoiserie lamp, vase or cabinet. Chinoiserie accessories work really well when mixed with contemporary and modern pieces.

Vintage pieces will be less expensive than older antiques and are relatively easy to find at auctions, antique fairs and markets.

With so many options to choose from, be it a wallpaper panel, a vase or a piece of furniture, it’s easy to add an Oriental touch to any space.

Where to see Chinese Rooms of the 18th century

  • Badminton House, Gloucestershire

  • Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire

  • Blickling, Norfolk

  • Claydon House, Buckinghamshire

  • Felbrigg, Norfolk

  • Harewood House, Yorkshire

  • Marble Hill. London

  • Royal Pavilion, Brighton

  • Saltram, Devon

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