A rare treasure, desired by many but out of reach of all but the most wealthy aristocrats and merchants. More valuable than gold, Chinese Porcelain; often just called china, decorated some of Europes’s finest palaces. It spurred many imitations, and at the height of its own popularity inspired a new decoration style called Chinoiserie.
So what exactly is Chinoiserie decor, and why is it so popular?
While globalisation may seem like a modern invention, some form of trade between different cultures has existed for thousands of years. The silk road famously brought silk from China to Europe, passing through the Middle East. By the seventeenth century, trade had shifted to ships, Europe still had a strong desire for silk, and now, a taste for tea. To secure loads on these ships, Porcelain was used as ballast during these long journeys. The introduction of Chinese porcelain into Europe, Sparked a new curiosity for this new culture and visual language, depicting a world of people wearing unfamiliar clothes, architecture such as pagodas and fantastical beasts such as dragons. This was a time when the fortune of travel was limited, and information about our countries was relegated to the retelling of the few travellers who had visited these foreign countries.
Naturally, as Chinese objects arrived in Europe people were curious to learn more about the culture of this foreign land. Porcelain objects slowly began to flow into Europe, with the fine porcelain which we often call “China” prized for its paradoxical thinness and strength. At this time, Europeans marvelled at the Chinese craftsmanship and could not understand how they were able to produce such a refined product, and struggled to understand what the fine china was made out of. Was it some type of material that had been buried underground for decades to achieve such fine quality? In reality, Fine China was made of clay just like any other kind of pottery. Superior Chinese technology allowed for higher and more consistent temperatures in the kiln. China’s reputation for such fine products as Porcelain increased the allure of the exotic aesthetic. China was a large empire with an ancient civilization and refined culture therefore, Chinese Porcelain was seen as elegant and sophisticated so its artistic value was raised to equal European art.
The fantastical side of the Chinoiserie style would continue to rise in popularity in Europe as the Rococo style became more popular. Monarchs and Aristocats built Pagodas on their palace grounds in a Chinese fantasy style that heavily used gold and lacquer. With the tipping point being when King Louis XIV of France built the Trianon de Porcelaine a pavilion structure bedecked with blue and white tile work on the grounds of the palace of Versailles, ever the trendsetter, Louis’ fondness for Chinoiserie quickly spread throughout the European courts.
In interior design, the advent of wallpaper in the 18th century coincided with the rise of Chinoiserie. Wallpapers included fantasy depictions of life in China with picturesque temples, exotic plants and people wearing what Europeans imagined what Chinese Clothes would look like. Chinoiserie fabric with similar motifs also became more and more popular. Whilst renovating Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria gave rooms such as the lunchrooms a distinct Chinoiserie look!
In the 1920s, there was a brief resurgence of the Chinoiserie in interior design, and once again it has become popular. Ultimately the Chinoiserie style solidified itself as a timeless beauty and the reason for its continued popularity throughout the ages.
You can browse through our selection of Chinoiserie-inspired designs here, inspired by the history of the Chinoiserie and the cultural influences it made during the 1700s and 1800s.