Chinoiserie: Europe’s Fascination with Eastern Culture and Design

The “exotic” has inspired western design and style for centuries, with writers, designers and artists drawing from Eastern cultures to create their own interpretations and imitations of the motifs and designs they admired. This European practice is known broadly as Orientalism and Chinoiserie, and original pieces are covetable and valuable to this day.

A Chinese Style Bridge In Pushkin, Russia

Limited travel to foreign lands and the opening of trade routes to China in the 17th – 19th Centuries led to a fascination with oriental design in Europe. The passion for the Chinese aesthetic began with porcelain and tea, then progressed swiftly to textiles, art, and furniture. There was a desire for novelty and to move away from familiar and traditional European forms, and so the discovery of Chinese culture excited and inspired creatives across the continent. Europeans were intoxicated by Eastern architectural designs, artistic techniques, and general lifestyles, from tea drinking to interior and garden design.

The craze swept over the region so completely that there was nary an important court residence that did not feature a homage to Chinese culture. Noteworthy examples include The Chinese Palace in St. Petersburg commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1762, The Chinese Luncheon room in Buckingham Palace, The Vieux-Laque room at Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna, the Great Pagoda in the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London, and The Porcelain Room at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, just to name a few.

A Fine Chinoiserie Black Lacquered Cocktail Cabinet
On Stand

Although many Royals and wealthy European families had the means to import goods directly from China, the middle-class masses opted instead for locally crafted versions, like lesser quality porcelain and lacquer. It is these examples that are known as Chinoiserie; although translating to ‘Chinese’ in French, the pieces were not made in China but rather, were fanciful western interpretations of Chinese motifs and culture.

Lacquer was a special Eastern technique that Europeans fell in love with. Their interpretations comprised of items decorated with pagodas and garden pavilion scenes rendered in lush bold lacquers, commonly in green, black or red. These designs were applied most commonly to furniture, screens, watches, clocks, and mirrors. Most of these pieces were crafted in the late 17th Century, though they were produced well into the 19th Century, and then following a short break, were revived again in the mid-20th Century.

Chinoiserie still plays an important role in modern interior design, with many collectors incorporating a nod to Eastern influence in their homes. Although these pieces were once in abundance, the originals are rarer, and we look forward to sharing fine examples of early Chinoiserie with you on May 24th, forming a single owner component of our seasonal Decorative Arts Auction. Presented within this collection are original 18th Century examples of lacquered furniture including a Georgian bureau of compact proportions, a George II longcase clock, and a striking two door cabinet on a stand.

Chiara Curcio / Head of Decorative Arts

March 2021