I happened upon the most amazing corner cabinet not long ago. It was in a style — Chinoiserie —that I have always loved and that I designed with many years ago, but I just haven’t seen much of it around lately. Many pieces in this style show incredible character and craftsmanship, and can be surprisingly appropriate in settings from historic to modern. I asked my friend Sarah Sperling of Brunk Auctions to give us a history lesson on Chinoiserie so we can all appreciate it.
“Chinoiserie” is derived the French word chinois meaning Chinese. As the name suggests, it is a style inspired by Chinese and Asian design. In the 18th century, porcelain, lacquerware, and silk coming from Asia became extremely fashionable and craftsmen throughout England, Europe, and the United States began creating their own goods based on these designs. They incorporated popular motifs such as Chinese figures, pagodas, dragons, and fanciful landscapes on wallpaper, furniture, and other wares.
Examples of the Chinoiserie decoration on 18th century furniture can be found in a range of colors, from very muted blacks and dark greens to vibrant reds and golds. Decorated with Asian-inspired motifs and delicate hardware, these furniture pieces mimic lacquerware. Created with layers of paint and gesso, they do not require the same painstaking labor and skill as traditional Asian lacquerware.
Pieces of Chinoiserie furniture do come up at auction, but they are rarer than nondecorated pieces. At Brunk Auctions, we sold a Queen Anne style decorated secretary in November 2017 for $5,100. The Chinoiserie design in dark green included figures and flowers in painted landscape scenes. Dark green, in particular, is less common than pieces done in black-and-gold or red-and-gold.
Personally, I tend to be drawn to the darker, more muted examples, especially in the dark greens, but that reflects my own sense of style. Others may prefer the brighter, more vibrant colors, which are true showstoppers in a room!
The term Chinoiserie can often be used as a catch-all when describing furniture, lamps, porcelain, and wallpaper with an Asian look or feel. Often furniture made of bamboo or porcelain Foo dogs are referred to as Chinoiserie. This style can be fun and lighthearted, but also represents beautiful craftsmanship and elegant details.
And here’s my beauty: a two-door George III corner cabinet in black, with wonderful Chinoiserie detail. It’s perfect for an elegant powder room to hide things you don’t want on display, and it would also do wonderful duty dressing up a living room corner in place of a plant.
Do any of you have a piece of Chinoiserie — large or small — that you’re particularly proud of? How do you use it, and how do you think it fits in with your home’s décor?
Top Left: Love is Speed, Top Middle: Sarah Bartholomew Design, Top Right: Habitually Chic
Bottom Left: Sett Design Bottom, Middle: Pinterest, Bottom Right: Habitually Chic