“What do you look for when you head out to flea markets and estate sales?”
The truth is that I rarely have a plan. I like to go with an open mind and just poke around. Occasionally, interior designers or clients of mine that are redecorating will give me a list of things to keep my eye out for them* but in general I rarely go looking for something in particular. That being said, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I do have a few personal style preferences that are always hard for me to ignore when I come across them, and one of those preferences is Asian-style decor items, AKA “Chinoiserie.”
*If you want to be on my list of curation clients, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
What is Chinoiserie?
Above: A sample of the many chinoiserie items I have in my shop right now. I admit that I have even more in my own home and waiting to be listed!
Chinoiserie is a word created by the French in the 17th century which simply means “in the Chinese style.” Chinoiserie as a decorative style originated at the height of trade between Europe, China, and other East Asian countries and describes interpretations of the decorative and artistic style of Asia. “Orientalism” was sweeping the western world, with fashion, art, music, and design all pulling from these influences.
I’m a bit of a chinoiserie hoarder. Whenever I come across something that looks even remotely Asian, I stop, pick it up, flip it over, inspect it, and try to place its period and origin. Not an easy task, considering the popularity of the style means there are tons of European and American-made pieces, modern pieces, vintage, and then there are the very rare antiques actually made in Asian countries.
Does that mean that a European-made chinoiserie item is less valueable? NO WAY!
In fact, there are tons of reasons why the chinoiserie look is timeless and why collectors everywhere will never stop hoarding them. Here is a short list I put together to help you understand why chinoiserie a wonderful decorative investment that trends again and again.
- Royalty and aristocrats have led the chinoiserie trend from the beginning, even going so far as to creating showrooms and museums dedicated to their collections. Queen Mary, Queen Anne, Duchess of Queensbury, Louis XV of France and King George IV of England all were among collectoris of chinoiserie in their time, setting the standard for fashion around Europe. There’s even a story about Margaret, 2nd Duchess of Portland, and Elizabeth, Countess of Ilchester, competing for a Japanese blue and white plate.
- Chinoiserie is as firmly implanted in European culture as drinking tea in England. Drinking tea became popularized in Europe during the 1660s by King Charles II and his wife Catherine of Braganza of Portugal, where importing Chinese tea had already become quite fashionable. Therefore, importing Chinese tea only strengthened the desire to own Asian-styled tea sets, trays, chests, and ginger vases.
3. Foo dog statues have earned a special place in my heart, and I’m not alone. We see them across all genres of design style over the ages. Foo dogs are actually imperial Chinese guardian lions which are known to have stood at the entrances of all important buildings (palaces, tombs, government offices, etc) since 200 BC! The lions are usually depicted in pairs – a male and female – on either side of an entrance. You can tell them apart because the male typically has his foot on a ball representing supremacy over the world and the female will have a cub, representing the nurting female power. I love their mythology and their quirky facial characteristics!
4. The intricate designs, unique use of colors, and incredible craftsmanship of Asian lacquered furniture make them incredibly valued and collected around the world. Lacquered wood, faux bamboo, and painted nature scenes are typically what you see in chinoiserie furniture. And famous 18th-century British furniture maker Thomas Chippendale renewed interest in chinoiserie style, so you’ll come across both vintage and new “Chinese Chippendale” furnishings the the chairs in this contemporary dining room:
Here are some other great uses of chinoserie pieces to inspire your interior designs: