Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, when traveling the world was practically an impossibility for the general population, people relied on objects, artworks, and word-of-mouth to learn about the far-flung corners of the map. Thanks to a global network of trade routes, many cultures were getting to know one another for the first time not through physical meetings, but primarily through goods who sold them.
In Europe, an overwhelming fascination with China—and in particular, Chinese porcelain—developed among tastemakers, which fueled an immense demand for East Asian goods, particularly within the realm of the decorative arts. “European manufacturers took advantage of this craze by beginning to produce designs in imitation of the Chinese,” says Anca Lasc, Associate Professor in History of Art and Design at the Pratt Institute. Such goods—which ranged from furniture to textiles to fine art—featured Chinese materials (or imitations of them) such as porcelain and lacquer, plus Chinese motifs like pagodas, dragons, and flora as imagined through the highly fantastical Western lens. “They were specifically made to match the European taste rather than respecting the Chinese originals,” says Lasc.
The History of Chinoiserie
“Chinoiserie was originally part of a desire for novelty and otherness in European design, which had long followed the rules of classicism and baroque design. Newly discovered cultures with brand new materials such as porcelain and lacquer naturally made a sensational splash,” says Dr. Aldous Bertram, an interior designer with a doctorate in chinoiserie from Cambridge University. (Bertram has a forthcoming book on the subject, Dragons & Pagodas: A Celebration of Chinoiserie, which will be published by Vendome Press in 2021.)
While the European taste for Chinese goods grew organically in Europe as traders brought them back, the tipping point in chinoiserie’s popularity was when King Louis XIV of France built the Trianon de Porcelaine—a five-pavilion structure bedecked with blue-and-white tilework—on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles in 1671. Ever the trendsetter, Louis’ fondness for chinoiserie—which included Chinese-style fashion—quickly spread throughout European courts, becoming a quite popular design style through the 18th century.
By the 19th century, however, chinoiserie fell out of vogue, in part due to the First Opium War between China and Britain, in part due to the rise of other “exotic” aesthetics such as Japonisme, Egyptian Revival, and Moorish Revival. Chinoiserie did, however, make a comeback in the 1930s during the Art Deco period, and it’s also waxed in popularity today.
So, Chinoiserie Isn’t Actually Chinese?
Chinoiserie an entirely European invention. “Chinoiserie differs from authentic East Asian design in almost every way imaginable,” says Dr. Bertram. Imagine a massive game of telephone: 16th-century European traders would bring back tales of East Asian civilizations to Europe, along with precious few illustrations and objects, thus descriptions would be shared by word-of-mouth and become increasingly inaccurate the further the stories spread. “There was not nearly enough knowledge to distinguish between very different national cultures,” says Dr. Bertram. “This meant that European interpretation of Asian design was ill-informed, blending Chinese and Japanese products under the umbrella term of ‘Indian’, and tending to recycle again and again a few key motifs such as the blue-and-white color palette, scenes of the Chinese royal court living a life of leisure, and symbols of exoticism such as palm trees and monkeys.”
But What About Cultural Appropriation?
It’s all about the lens through which we view the movement. From a historical perspective, the European fascination with Chinese design was simply an interest in the novel. “The key factor to keep in mind about chinoiserie is that it was a seduction of the unknown, a strong sense of curiosity during an era of very little travel at that kind of distance,” says fashion and decorative art historian Patrick Michael Hughes, an adjunct professor of fabric styling at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
It’s a theme found throughout the history of art and design. “Certainly there are elements of cultural appropriation in chinoiserie, but no more so than the Regency period’s fascination with Egypt as championed by Napoleon, or America’s consistent adoption of Greek and Imperial Roman styles of architecture in its churches and courthouses,” says Dr. Bertram. “In all these cases the intention is not to ridicule or degrade, but to imitate and celebrate a distant culture, allowing both ancient and novel ideas to cross-pollinate throughout world fashion.”
But some 17th- and 18th-century critics did deride the chinoiserie, not only for being a chaotic and hedonistic style, but also for potentially making a mockery of Chinese art and design. Those sentiments continue with a contemporary perspective: it’s easier for us now to point out the concerns about the West interpreting “otherness.”
“I believe the ‘Western gaze’ and ‘exoticism’ will always have their issues, as long as there are humans studying art, design, and the decorative arts,” says Hughes. “The terms ‘sumptuous,’ ‘desire,’ ‘seduction,’ and ‘possession of beauty’ are not new pursuits. What is new and exciting is the de-colonization within these terms and discussions with new frames of context and thinking.”
How to Decorate with Chinoiserie Today
Design trends are cyclical, and what’s old often becomes new again. As we move forward into an era of maximalist design, some classic styles like chinoiserie are re-entering the spotlight. “Granny-chic and Grandmillennial are having a moment, and chinoiserie is the perfect way to illustrate that,” says designer Isabel Ladd. “Chinoiserie is interesting, with little scenes telling a story, it has movement and depth, it can be colorful and really engage your eye.”
But as with all maximalist interiors, a little control goes a long way. “When integrating the old with the new, it’s all about balance and scale,” says designer Kendall Wilkinson. “Juxtaposing Chinoiserie with more modern elements like shiny lacquered walls in a bright and unexpected color, contemporary furniture, and lighting reinvents the traditional into a modern and fresh aesthetic.”
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