Chinoiserie: Reimagining the East

Chinoiserie: Reimagining the East
Eglomise Chinoiserie botanical motifs feature in this powder room by Gorman Studios of Vancouver. (Courtesy of Gorman Studios)
3/4/2022
Updated:
3/4/2022

How the whimsical, hand-painted wallcoverings have captured the imagination of artists and homeowners for centuries

Precious exotic items from China, such as fine porcelain, silks, and lacquer panels started to trickle into Europe beginning in the early 16th century. These decorative items quickly gained popularity with Europe’s aristocracy. By the late 18th century, nearly all of Europe’s great houses had at least one room with Chinese wallpaper—typically women’s bedrooms—as did many more modest homes.

English and French manufacturers sought to capitalize on this demand for Chinese wallpaper and began producing imitations. The word Chinoiserie derives from “chinois”—French for Chinese—and is used today for the style of decorative art that was inspired by these Chinese designs and the exotic notions that Europeans held about China. Despite the name Chinoiserie, European artists didn’t differentiate between different designs and often mixed motifs from China, Japan, and other East Asian cultures to create whimsical motifs and vignettes in damasks, toiles, and other materials.

This watercolor, painted in 1850, illustrates the Chinoiserie wallcoverings in the Chinese Room of the Royal Palace of Berlin. The first Chinese wallcoverings arrived in London for sale in the late 17th century through China’s trade with Britain’s East India Company. These hand-painted wallpapers with their Chinese motifs and techniques were made in China exclusively for export and were more expensive than those produced in Europe at the time. Custom orders from China could take 18 months or more to fulfill. (Public Domain)
This watercolor, painted in 1850, illustrates the Chinoiserie wallcoverings in the Chinese Room of the Royal Palace of Berlin. The first Chinese wallcoverings arrived in London for sale in the late 17th century through China’s trade with Britain’s East India Company. These hand-painted wallpapers with their Chinese motifs and techniques were made in China exclusively for export and were more expensive than those produced in Europe at the time. Custom orders from China could take 18 months or more to fulfill. (Public Domain)

Contemporary Chinoiserie

Today, a select few artists in the Western world are continuing the tradition of this decorative art form. Peter Gorman of Gorman Studios in Vancouver, Canada, is one of them. He creates beautiful hand-painted Chinoiserie wallcoverings that bring exceptional elements to contemporary homes.

“It is a theme and a subject within the decorative arts and people’s homes that is cross-cultural and cross-century, which is what makes Chinoiserie such an example of continuity and constant rebirth, like a phoenix,“ he said. ”A phoenix comes into its full blossom and then disappears and then comes back again.

“One thing to remember about Chinoiserie is there is a persuasive association.”

The motif of a plum, for instance, “has a whole history of poetry and painting. ... Every sort of flower, from various regions—it all has heavy symbolism, every branch, every tree,” according to Gorman.

Exquisite hand-painted Chinoiserie wallcoverings by Gorman Studios adorn this dining room. (Courtesy of Gorman Studios)
Exquisite hand-painted Chinoiserie wallcoverings by Gorman Studios adorn this dining room. (Courtesy of Gorman Studios)

The opulence and delicacy of Chinoiserie, with its fine detail and fine line work, historically featured gold, gold powders, and semi-precious metals. Today, it still springs from a mainly artisan-based industry.

A lot of the interest comes from the novelty of the challenge and from artists wanting to learn Chinoiserie because it’s the gold standard, according to Gorman.

Hand-painted Chinoiserie wallcoverings are labor-intensive to create, from design to execution. For example, after obtaining client approval for a particular design, a series of four wall panels, each one three feet by three feet, could require two artists painting full time for up to 3 1/2 weeks.

Training an artist in Chinoiserie is also a time-intensive process, which can take anywhere from 2 to 4 years in Gorman Studios.

“Artists come in with their own innate talent; the studio enhances those natural talents they bring in,” Gorman said.

Historically, Chinoiserie wallcoverings were favored in women’s bedrooms, but it has become popular to incorporate the style in dining rooms, sitting rooms, living rooms, and even kitchens. Luxurious powder rooms bedecked with Chinoiserie are also trending.

Its popularity today also includes more and more “ready to apply” offerings at lower prices.

Details in this powder room by Gorman Studios of Vancouver. (Courtesy of Gorman Studios)
Details in this powder room by Gorman Studios of Vancouver. (Courtesy of Gorman Studios)

Hand-Painted Luxury

Gracie Studio, which is headquartered in the United States, has been producing hand-painted wallpapers since 1898. The studio uses mainly water-based paints, which is the historical medium, with various hand-painted, metal leaf, silk, and other finishes.
A hand-painted Chinoiserie wallpaper by Gracie Studio features birds and flowering trees. (Courtesy of Gracie Studio)
A hand-painted Chinoiserie wallpaper by Gracie Studio features birds and flowering trees. (Courtesy of Gracie Studio)

Most of Gracie Studio’s orders are produced to the architectural specifications of a room, and they first produce a design sketch for approval. For custom designs, Gracie Studio will sometimes produce a hand-painted design sample for a client. Upon approval, production starts with sketching the entire panel’s design before the hand-painting begins. On average, each panel then requires 75 to 100 hours of artwork.

The intricate details and fine line work of hand-painted Chinoiserie wallcoverings are produced by highly skilled artists. It's a labor-intensive procedure. Every studio is slightly different. For Gracie Studio, each panel requires about 75 to 100 hours of artwork. (Courtesy of Gracie Studio)
The intricate details and fine line work of hand-painted Chinoiserie wallcoverings are produced by highly skilled artists. It's a labor-intensive procedure. Every studio is slightly different. For Gracie Studio, each panel requires about 75 to 100 hours of artwork. (Courtesy of Gracie Studio)

Gracie Studio wallpaper has been in the White House for three presidencies. It’s a go-to brand for sought-after interior designers and their high-end clients.

Mike Gracie, president and fourth-generation co-leader of his family business, said people often comment that Gracie Studio wallpapers are having their moment.

“We feel that the moment has been happening for our 123-year history,” Gracie said.

Exuberant and expressive, Chinoiserie wallcoverings are still a status symbol for any home and the dream of many homeowners who have an eye for traditional beauty. It’s also one of the finest examples of an East-meets-West hybrid in the decorative arts world. The art form itself is a testament to the power that Eastern beauty possesses, and to the West’s appreciation of it.

A hand-painted Chinoiserie landscape wallcovering by Gracie Studio. (Courtesy of Gracie Studio)
A hand-painted Chinoiserie landscape wallcovering by Gracie Studio. (Courtesy of Gracie Studio)

Tips for Homeowners

Incorporating Chinoiserie in any living space can make a room pop.

Hire an excellent installer to ensure your Chinoiserie wallcoverings are hung to perfection. After investing in a high-quality product, it will be worth it to make sure the job is done right.

People should also consider working with a professional designer. Vancouver-based architectural designer ​​Bianca Fusco Zanatta has achieved beautiful results using Chinoiserie in her clients’ homes. Principal for M. Zanatta Homes and Design, Zanatta is known worldwide for creating gorgeous traditional and transitional-style estates.

“Harmony is the base of it all,” she said regarding the creation of a balanced room. ”It [takes] a really good eye, in the sense of color, in the sense of proportion, and a sense of balance, definitely balance.”

Zannatta likes the blend of tradition that comes with the use of Chinoiserie in design.

“Don’t limit yourself. Be exploratory. Open your heart,“ she said. ”It welcomes you. Don’t restrain yourself from design because it’s an art form.”

This article was first published in ELITE Lifestyle Magazine.
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