Breaking Down The Chinoiserie Style
Chinoiserie. It’s pronounced “sheen·waa·zr·ee”…..but what the heck is it?!
In a very quick sense, chinoiserie is anything Asian-style, but it’s so much more than blue-and-white ginger jars! It’s a broad term that encompasses everything within a room with an Asian-influence; from small details to the entire look of a room.
The term chinoiserie comes from the French word chinois which translates to “Chinese”. This gives you your first clue that this does not relate to anything directly imported from China. In fact, it’s actually a term that interprets the Asian culture and decorative arts. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans became fascinated with the Asian culture and style. At that time, when travel was much more difficult than hopping a trans-Atlantic flight, China (a faraway place) was an enigma. While this led to more than a few misinterpretations and misunderstandings, Europeans nevertheless held Asian art and culture in high regard. (via One Kings Lane) They started imitating these styles, mixing it with the Rococo-style of the period - both very embellished and lavish. This is the start of chinoiserie as we know it.
During this time, there was an influx of Chinese and Indian goods coming into Europe via trade routes. The British East India Trading Company was the dominant player in the trade routes, and with them came luxurious goods that intrigued the Europeans. At the top of the list of imports: tea. For ladies of fashion, tea drinking was an all-out extravagance.
“Tea drinking was a fundamental part of polite society; much of the interest in both Chinese export wares and chinoiserie rose from the desire to create appropriate settings for the ritual of tea drinking.”
Tea importing was an expensive commodity as well as an investment. To protect their goods, tea and sugar were shipped in vessels, which included Asian-style motifs and chinoiserie patterns. The blue-and-white motifs that we think of today were collected by the aristocracy, including Queen Mary and Queen Anne. And because tea-drinking was such a social event, it called for complete tea sets, all designed in the chinoiserie style.
Ok, so now we know some of the history. But what do we consider “chinoiserie” items or designs? Let’s talk about a few of our favorites!
Dragons are a common motif in the chinoiserie style - often found on fabrics, wallpapers, art, etc. One of our favorite patterns by Schumacher is Chiang Mai Dragon. The pattern is a classic and is one of Schumacher’s best-loved designs. It originated in the United Kingdom.
When wallpapers became popular in the aristocratic homes of Europe, the upper class turned to Asian landscapes and nature scenes. These were extremely costly as they were all hand-painted. Lush gardens and floral motifs were all the rage. The most beautiful chinoiserie wall panels today are still painted by hand. There are some amazing artisans through Gracie Studio, Iksel, and DeGourney.
We can also attribute some beautiful toile patterns (known fully as toile du jouy). This is a special pattern that is usually depicted with a white or light colored background depicting a complex pastoral scene, such as a picnic by the lake or a floral landscape. One of my personal faves is the Willow Wood design by Anna French.
Pagodas spring to mind when we think of the Asian culture. The shapes are unique and mystical. We see pagodas via artwork as well as in lighting - in fact, check out the stunning light fixture in the next section….
Lacquered Wood and Faux Bamboo
Building materials and solid surfaces are also attributed to the chinoiserie style. Traditional Asian lacquerware are true works of art and take immense skill to complete. This style also includes fretwork and pagoda-like lines. The famous 18th century furniture-maker Thomas Chippendale was famous for his chinoiserie-style furniture. (You can still find new and vintage “Chinese Chippendale” pieces of furniture.) You can also find the bamboo shape in many forms: a lamp, a chair, a frame, oh my!
Perhaps the most iconic pieces of chinoiserie decorative arts are the ceramic pieces, more widely known as ginger jars. The classic blue-and-white motifs make these timeless and classic for any decor. The most coveted pieces are the ones imported directly from China of the 17th and 18th century. But when Europeans tried to replicate the style, they came up short, in part because of the craftsmanship required to create a single jar. Ginger Jars were originally vessels used to transport spices, but took on a purely aesthetic use, as we know them today.
Chinoiserie is truly a timeless style - because of it’s early roots and origins, you’ll likely find a piece of chinoiserie decor in many traditional interiors. It’s here to stay, and I’m totally ok with that!
And now that you are well educated in the style, we’re so excited to share our newest project, a completely renovated interior with a chinoiserie feel! Check it out in an upcoming blog post! Can’t wait to share! Stay tuned! #styleyourhive