A Treatise on Chinoiserie
Among the most interesting, if not the most beautiful European artifacts of its genteel past is inarguably that of chinoiserie. Appearing first in the late 1600s, chinoiserie gained immense popularity into the 18th c. as burgeoning trade with the Asian continent washed ashore new designs from China, East Asia and Japan. Baronets and Burghers whet their appetite with enameled furniture, brass fire dogs and such, and before long it had blossomed into an instatiable demand for the exotic designs. Mirroring the rise of Orientalism as developing trend in the arts, master cabinetmakers and carpenters like Thomas Chippendale and Francois Boucher were soon swamped by orders for claw foot dining chairs and mock bamboo armoires delicately ornamented with scenes of Chinese agricultural and spiritual life. Before long, Portuguese traders were loading their sloops with crated menagerie of textiles, lacquers, porcelains and furniture destined for the Continent.
European fascination with the Orient had been growing for years by the time the style was popularized, appearing as early as 1679 in the ledgers of the court of Louis XIV, which describes incidental objects in such phraseology as “facon de la Chine” or “a la Chinoise”. Despite a poor understanding of Chinese life, noble Europeans were no less fascinated and reverential for the mysterious world of the Orient and the stoic disposition of it’s statesmen and traders. Voltaire famously wrote a treatise on Chinoise style in his “Art De La Chine” and writes of a world developed in the sciences and literature far before Europe. But not everyone in a coronet was happy about the trend; many architects and aristocrats described it as ‘hedonistic’, ‘immorally feminine’, ‘chaotic’ and ‘disrespectful’.
Part of the mad rush for Chinoise embellishments was driven by the fervor and frequency with which Europeans drank tea. The highly ritualized and delicate rituals of tea drinking allowed a perfect host for the dainty china of the East, and many prominent women soon became avid collectors. Among them Queen Anne, Queen Mary, Henrietta Howard and the Duchess of Queensbury, the latter having an especially immense collection accumulated at great expense.
Chinoiserie dominated European interior design, especially that of the French and English, for many years before yielding to neoclassical trends. Strolling through the elaborate town houses of Continental gentlemen we find elaborate fretwork contained within transoms and banisters, enameled handrails and scenes of dragons and tiger lily murals decorating vast expanses of stucco and plaster. Tea tables and China cabinets, designed to display the treasured hard-paste porcelains of the era, were in high demand, even making their way to the New World on the ships of the East India Company, where they found homes in the paneled rooms of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Pagodas were soon in demand on the drafting tables of prominent architects, to be added to the gardens of houses from Cannes to Scituate.
Chinoiserie has never left the ‘back room’ of interior design. It’s popularity has ebbed and flowed, been revived and left to fizzle in perpetuity since the late 17th c., but it’s unique charm is still found at the highest iterations of interior design around the world, something for which we are all the better.