Say the words “Chinoiserie” and many of our minds will instantly leap to ginger jars, the shapely blue-and-white bedecked urns that design connoisseurs covet. In reality, ginger jars are a microcosm of Chinoiserie design; a vast style that encapsulates everything from porcelain to furniture to rugs. Highly decorative and exorbitantly embellished, Chinoiserie decor has earned devotees the world over, including epochal tastemakers like Sister Parish, Tony Duquet, and, more recently, Miles Redd and Alessandra Branca.
Chinoiserie style first emerged in Europe in the 17th Century. Chinoiserie (a word which derives from the French word chinois, or “Chinese”) was directly linked to the burgeoning of intercontinental trade routes, including prominent maritime routes. As trade flourished between Europe and Asia, Asian decor began trickling into Europe. Almost immediately, Europeans fell for Asian decor’s intricate architecture, labyrinth-like scrollwork, and exotically luxe finish work.
Because access to Asian home decor was still limited, Europeans began to manufacture their own decor in the Asian style. Craftsmen replicated Asian designs on cabinets, porcelain vessels, and textiles that had been imported from Asian countries. To meet the insatiable demand for all things Far East, factories were also set up in Asia to produce designs specifically tailored to European tastes.
Part of the appeal of the Asian decor was the way in which it organically paired with the opulent Baroque and Rococo styles that were in vogue at the time. Like Rococo and Baroque, the 17th Century Asian style was characterized by over-the-top decoration, a focus on materials, and stylized nature and leisure scenes. In some respects, Chinoiserie could be considered a hybrid of all three of these styles.
Chinoiserie Scenes & Motifs
From avian accents to the perennially popular pagoda print, Chinoiserie motifs are plentiful. Pagodas, one of Chinsoiserie’s most recognizable hallmarks, infiltrated Europe not just as a design motif, but as an architectural element. As gardens were liberated from their rigid, maze-like constructs, pagodas began popping up in European parks in lieu of traditional gazebos. Artfully tiered with elegantly swooped roofs, pagodas were easily translated into almost every medium. In Germany, in fact, soup tureen lids were frequently designed to mimic pagodas.
Other keystone Chinoiserie motifs include mythological beasts like dragons, phoenixes, and dragon-fish. On the tamer side of the spectrum, Foo Dogs prevail. Designed to stand guard outside of palaces and temples, Foo dogs traditionally come in pairs—one male and female—to represent yin and yang. Also omnipresent in Chinoiserie design are lifestyle scenes. Whether bustling or bucolic, both are punctuated by motifs like people and livestock, as well as naturally occurring elements like mountains or waterways, and native flora and fauna, including the iconic weeping willow tree.
Chinoiserie Decor Check List
Long before bicoastal arts patron, Ann Getty exalted the pleasures of chinoiserie in her tome Ann Getty: Interior Style, aristocratic women like Queen Mary, Queen Anne, and the Duchess of Queensbury were reveling in the reverie of Chinoiserie. The monarchs’ main vice? Chinoiserie porcelain. In fact, a fabled tale tells of a rivalry between Margaret, II Duchess of Portland, and Elizabeth, Countess of Ilchester, for possession of an exceptionally striking blue and white Japanese plate.
Europeans’ ability to replicate Asian porcelain was no overnight venture; however. In fact, from the 15th Century to the 18th Century, Western designers tried to crack the mystique of Asian porcelain to no avail. In 1708, a German Meissen scientist did finally succeed in producing a hard, white, translucent type of porcelain that was remarkably similar to Asian china. While the Europeans’ porcelain wasn’t as durable as the exports from China, it produced remarkably similar-looking blue and white Ming vases, which may account for the ginger jar’s prevailing popularity.
Furniture & Fretwork
Two traits you’ll notice cropping up again and again in Chinoiserie furniture? Luxe lacquer and fancy fretwork. Enamored with the lavish look of lacquer and fretwork, European craftsmen siphoned both traits and employed them in new, hybrid manners. Chinese Chippendale, for instance, the legendary style named for craftsman Thomas Chippendale, is a fusion of Rococo, Chinese, and gothic elements.
In addition to fretwork (frequently fashioned to look like stalks of bamboo), Chinese Chippendale pieces often showcase high-gloss lacquered finishes. Tree sap—up to thirty layers of it—was originally used to lacquer pieces. Paintings and carvings were then applied post-lacquer to up the decorative appeal. Chinese Chippendale pieces sidestepped some of the more laborious processes, but still bore plenty of luscious lacquer.
Coco Chanel may have been all about sartorial simplicity, but if the designer’s taste for Chinoiserie screens is any indication, her interior inclinations skewed more maximalist. Coco was a collector of Chinese Coromandel screens, a traditional screen that provided the stylistic basis for Chinoiserie screens. Designed using a lacquer technique called kuan cai, Chinese Coromandel screens featured colored drawings incised into thick coats of lacquer.
When Europeans began manufacturing Chinoiserie screens in the early 18th Century, they didn’t use lacquer techniques but instead produced less expensive painted versions. Nevertheless, the sentiment of Chinese screens prevailed. Flush with imagery referencing the Orient, Chinoiserie screens offered a way for design devotees to land the look of Chinoiserie wallpaper without the commitment or pricey investment. Today, these Chinoiserie decor items remain a trademark of the style.
20th Century Chinoiserie: Hollywood Regency and Beyond
Fervor for the Far East waned in the 19th Century, which led to a decline in the demand for Chinoiserie. Travel innovations had bolstered imports from countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Greece, which, for stint, piqued Westerners’ interest in all things Mesopotamia.
In the 1930s; however, Art Deco emerged as the first global modernist movement, and Chinoiserie was again thrust into the spotlight. In Los Angeles, Chinoiserie took on particular appeal, as the area’s newly-minted movie stars and set designers hunted for a glamorous style to outfit their homes and sound stages. It turned out that Chinoiserie, with its bamboo fretwork and elegant pagodas, made a befitting bedfellow for the era’s low-slung slipper chairs, channel back sofas, and decadent fabrics. As Hollywood glitterati intersected with Chinoiserie, a remarkably chic—if not somewhat hodge-podge—hybrid emerged: Hollywood Regency.
During the Hollywood Regency era, Chinoiserie assumed a more pared-back look. Fretwork took on the more simple look of latticework, and lacquered case pieces lost the painted scenery in favor of more simple brass embellishments. New Chinoiserie decor also emerged, such as Chinese Art Deco rugs. Produced from the 1910s until the 1940s, Chinese Art Deco rugs featured saturated jewel tones, and deep, decadent piles. They were sprinkled with pictorial scenes that included trees, clouds, mountains, dragons, birds, and exotic flowers. Today, Chinese Art Deco rugs rank among the most sought-after pieces of Chinoiserie decor.
The Hollywood Regency era also saw a redux of Chinoiserie wallpapers. Actress Marlene Dietrich’s Hollywood home, decorated by design doyenne Elsie de Wolfe, featured a bird-and-botany theme wallpaper in a striking robin’s egg blue. Similarly, the dining room of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s Bel Air home, which was designed by the Hollywood Regency legend Billy Haines, was outfitted with an impressive chinoiserie wall panel.
Several decades later, wallpaper and textile extraordinaire de Gournay would be founded on the basis of reviving 17th Century Chinoiserie wallpaper techniques that founder Claud Cecil Gurney had discovered still percolating in Chinese factories. De Gournay’s biophilia-inspired murals would inspire the next Chinoiserie revival in the late 1980s.
Today, Chinoiserie has blossomed into a perennial design style that virtually every major designer has riffed off of at some point. Whether used in moderation or with abandon, Chinoiserie has a knack for always feeling sensationally chic.
Lead Photo by J. Savage Gibson / Courtesy of Meg Braff Designs