Chinoiserie is a classic and timeless interior design style that has been used by designers for centuries. A design style full of personality, it pairs exceptionally well with modern design and can complement any space. Learn the origins of Chinoiserie and how you can authentically incorporate the style into your home for 2020.

WHAT IS CHINOISERIE STYLE?

Chinoiserie is the interpretation and idyllic representation of Chinese and East Asian culture. The word derives from “chinois,” the French word for “Chinese.” The style movement is characterised by its romanticised, theatrical and playful perceptions of life in the Far East. As a creative style Chinoiserie can be identified by extravagant decoration, asymmetry, stylised Chinese motifs and a focus on the Chinese lifestyle.

Chinoiserie Interior

Born from orientalism, Chinoiserie started in the mid-to-late 17th century and became popular in Europe as part of the French Rocco movement around the 18th century, the style is widely seen as the last expression of the Baroque movement. Europe became fascinated with the East as a result of Chinese goods being imported by English, Dutch, French, and Swedish East India Companies.

International travel wasn’t common at the time, so it was rare for Europeans to have a first-hand experience of East Asian cultures. Chinese paintings, furniture, silk and other artefacts offered a taste of the exotic. With few having the first-hand experience of Asia, Asian culture was captured in romantic writings from travellers such as Marco Polo and through imported oriental porcelain, silks, lacquer and paintings.

The mystery of the orient inspired European artisans to create their own wonderfully whimsical interpretations depicting elaborate Asian characters, pagodas, exotic animals such as elephants and monkeys and fantasised depictions of Asian life. As a result, much of the wallpapers, furniture, paintings, silks and porcelain created in the Chinoiserie style were actually created in Europe.

Bedroom with Chinoiserie wardrobes
Portobello by De Gournay

CHINESE MOTIFS

The Chinese culture has been interpreted by various artisans over the years and as a result, it is a fusion of designs and trends. Each century, the design has evolved to incorporate the stylistic elements of the East. Chinoiserie can be recognised from the following characters and motifs. These depictions found their way into paintings, wallpaper, textiles, furniture carvings and house accessories such as clocks and porcelain.

Chinese Landscapes

Many Chinoiserie designs in art and interior design are inspired by romantic and spectacular oriental landscapes and lavish gardens.

Florals & Exotic Birds

Chinoiserie draws its inspiration from nature and in particular, tropical birds, flowers and elaborate garden scenes. The designs are usually asymmetrical and are found in all manner of Chinese inspired furniture and wallpapers.

Chinese Figures & Animals

At a time when international travel was rare, the orient was a mystical, exotic and romanticised place. The Chinese figures and animals featured in European designs were copied directly from Chinese objects or representations of what designers thought Eastern culture to be.

Mythical Creatures

Dragons are a symbol of strength and luck and they have key importance within Chinese culture and mythology. Dragons appear in all manner of Chinese objet d’art and are a key character that is often seen in Chinoiserie inspired design.

Shishi

Shishi means “lion” in Chinese, known as Foo Dogs in English culture, also appear in many Chinoiserie designs. Shishi are considered Chinese guardian lions that appear outside palaces and temples to ward off negative energy.

Pagodas

Pagodas are synonymous with East Asian culture, designed as multi-tiered structures that serve as social and religious areas. These structures originated in India and spread through Asia as Buddhism introduced them to China.

CHINOISERIE FURNITURE DESIGN

East Asian countries have long traditions of lacquer work, going back several thousands of years. Traditional Asian lacquerware pieces require incredible skill and craftsmanship, a technique that is still being passed down from generation to generation. Traditional lacquer art is often painted or carved with asymmetrical Chinese motifs, before being lacquered with tree sap.

Europeans began manufacturing furniture imitating lacquerware and art imported from the orient. Thomas Chippendale, often referenced as one of the greatest British cabinet-makers, was influential in popularising the production of Chinoiserie furniture with the publication of his design book The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director. His book featured over 160 designs for various items of furniture that he could build for his clients or that could be used as a blueprint for other cabinet-makers, and Chinese Chippendale furniture forms one of the three design styles outlined in his book.

Chinese Chippendales designs provide an intricate guide to Chinoiserie furniture design. The chair designs featured glazing bars in a fretwork design and a pagoda inspired pediment. The same fretwork design can be found around the edges of Chinese Chippendale tables and the legs of chairs. Chinese Chippendale designs were lacquered and Japanned with scenes of colourful birds, flowers and exotic Chinese imagery.

CHINOISERIE WALLPAPER

Blue Chinoiserie floral and landscape Wallpaper
Chinoiserie Wallpaper. Left: Quex Garden Midnight by Fromental. Right: Handpainted wallpaper by Gracie.

When it comes to Chinoiserie style, nothing makes a bolder statement in a room than a bold and ornate oriental landscape or floral motif wallpaper. However, historically Chinoiserie wallpapers were not a traditional Chinese export. Stunning wallpapers of Eastern landscapes and motifs were originally curated by European aristocrats to be paired with their oriental collections. These early wallpapers would have been very expensive, and hand-painted onto silk using vibrant and luscious colours.

Blue shaker bench seat by Extreme Design with Chinoiserie vase

Chinoiserie wallpaper designs were created to complement the floral designs, pagodas, oriental characters, animals and exotic landscapes found on decorative oriental objects such as porcelain and furniture.

With the evolution of print and the mainstream popularity of Chinese culture, chinoiserie wallpaper became accessible to the middle class. Like chinoiserie furniture and other decorative art forms, chinoiserie wallpaper was typically placed in bedrooms, closets, and other private rooms of a house.

Pink Chinoiserie Wallpaper Magnolia by Fromental
Modern ‘Magnolia’ Chinoiserie wallpaper by Fromental

Today, original Chinese wallpapers achieve high prices at auction whilst modern replicas and interpretations represent the epitome of contemporary luxury. Authentic contemporary hand-painted wallpapers can still be purchased from companies such as de Gournay, Fromental and Gracie.

MODERN CHINOISERIE INTERIOR DESIGN

Modern Chinoiserie bedroom panel by de Gournay
‘Sans Soucis’ by de Gournay. Interior by Handelsmann and Khaw

Chinoiserie is a timeless design style steeped in history and although it has moved in and out of popularity over time, it has cemented itself as a classic style representing a sense of culture, whimsy, opulence and sophistication. The style has influenced several design movements since the 17th century, seeing a major resurgence in the 1930s with the popularity of Hollywood Regency style and its twist on old classics.

Ultimately, Chinoiserie has never really gone out of style. However, we are seeing a resurgence which will continue in 2020 alongside more traditional design disciplines. This is part of a wider departure from more uniform, safe and minimalist interior designs in favour of layered designs rich in texture, colour and pattern.

Contemporary Chinoiserie inspired schemes by LivingEtc

The classic style traits of Chinoiserie add a sense of oriental opulence to a space, making this style perfect for interiors that require additional depth such as monochrome palettes that lean heavily on layering. Adding a touch of Chinoiserie chic such as silk wallpaper to a room creates a focal point for the space, adding warmth and texture.

Bedroom with Chinoiserie wallpaper by Gracie and contemporary interior style.
Winter Garden Chinoiserie wallpaper by Gracie. Interiors by EJ Interiors

Chinoiserie bold motifs and ornate patterns bring a sense of energy, culture and drama to a space. Its timeless quality means that the style lends itself to homes that have an eclectic, curated feel and feature items from different eras and cultures. When pairing chinoiserie with clean-lined contemporary furniture pieces and architectural elements, it is important to create balance. Chinoiserie style should be used sparingly so as not to overpower the other contemporary elements of the room.

Pink and green dining room with bold Chinoiserie wallpaper by de Gournay and mid century furniture
Contemporary chinoiserie inspired wallpaper from de Gournay. Design by Virginia Gash

At Extreme, we’re passionate about creating spaces with an authentic sense of style that transcends trends. To learn how we can help you with your project, contact a designer today.