This trend became mainstream beginning in the 1700s when England’s Queen Elizabeth I founded the East India Trading Co., which brought back shiploads of exotic goods from the Orient. Their novelty, exquisite craftsmanship and beauty gave these items a high-status acceptance. Oriental design combined with Georgian (Queen Anne and Chippendale), Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian furnishings made a complete picture.
Today, the neo-traditional look is made more beautiful with Oriental art and accessories, wall coverings and fabric designs. Contemporary interiors also can benefit by Oriental detailing, because some Oriental design, particularly Japanese design, can be abstract.
Oriental design influences come from China, Japan, India and other areas. Technically, the Orient is considered to be the geographical area from the Near East (Israel and Saudi Arabia) to the Far East (Japan and Taiwan), north to the Caucuses area (Pakistan and Afghanistan) and south through the sub-continent of India. This means that Oriental influences can be very diverse and that design motifs and textures range from ethnic and coarse to intricate and refined.
Traditionally the major impact of Oriental design in home furnishings has been art and accessories, fabrics and wall coverings from China and Japan, which is the focus of this article.
Chinese design is both mystical and bold. There is an artistic quality coupled with confidence and strength in Chinese works. For example, Chinese chairs are straight-backed with intricate, yet prominent designs. Imperial Chinese beds have large-scale frames topped with crown cornices of fantastically carved pagoda-like shapes. These beds inspired late Georgian drapery cornices -- both wooden and fabric-covered. The long draperies surrounding Chinese beds became long draperies in European and American formal interiors.
Chinese vases, used alone or as a base for Western lamps, include the ginger-jar shape, which has become a classic. The decoration on vases, painted hanging scrolls or artwork, pillows, fabrics and wall decor may be complex fretwork, scenes from nature peopled with Orientals in traditional clothing, architecture with pagoda-style roofs or beautiful gardens.
Chinese rugs are filled with bold, somewhat simple patterns in blue and cream, red and cream or red, gold, blue and cream patterns. Chinese rug pile is deep and carved or sculpted at a beveled angle to set off the patterns and make them more striking.
Other Chinese motifs include the dragon (a five-toed dragon is the Imperial dragon, a four-toed dragon is the protector of the commoner), the phoenix, waves, clouds, pine trees, old men, tall jagged mountains, the tortoise shell and birds such as the crane.
Floral motifs from Chinese designs are either flat or face-on, stylized and isolated or more naturalistic and real in appearance. Usually they are seen as huge, fully opened flowers hanging from large climbing vines. Sometimes they are tipped downward as full-blossomed peonies do, and often they are seen with a large exotic bird perched on the branch. Peonies and chrysanthemums are Chinese flowers imported to Europe in the 1600s and are a classic Chinese motif.
Complex geometric fretwork patterns are common as background elements, and vases set on carved stands are often used as stand-alone motifs. Circular fretwork patterns were used for centuries as family crests. Chinese calligraphy also may adorn art work and textiles. Artistic compositions may be asymmetrical or symmetrical.
Colors from Chinese dynasties have been handed down reverently and carefully through the centuries. They include Ming blue (just darker than true or royal blue), cinnabar red (a warm, vibrant red), dark mahogany red, chrysanthemum yellow (clear or muted yellow), peacock blue (greenish blue), peony pink (a bright, celebration pink), both jade and pine green (soft, light and dull, dark greens) and gold (both bright and antique). White or cream, and lacquer black are used for accents.
Japanese design is generally smaller in scale and more humble or less assertive appearing then Chinese design. Traditional patterns seen in artwork and textiles include Mount Fuji, cherry blossom branches, cloud patterns, elegant Japanese women in elaborate headdresses, pine branches and pine cones, fretwork design, and some pictorial architecture and garden motifs.
Japanese designs, especially contemporary designs, may be abstract and always asymmetrical. They often appeal to us as related to the Art Deco period, which they certainly played a role in developing through their influence on modern artists. Tie-dyeing techniques go back many generations in Japan, and finishes such as crackle-finish and pearled finishes are Japanese.
Black backgrounds also may be Japanese, as the coromandle screens influence. There is inherent drama in Japanese textiles, impeccable quality (there are few if any “flawed” Japanese fabrics), and highly artistic designs and finishes.
Japanese colors also are less forceful than Chinese colors. Although bright colors are used in traditional Japanese settings, they are reserved for holiday apparel and only occasionally for the home except for accents where bright colors play a key role. Interiors are unassuming and unpretentious with keen discipline and orderliness.
Japanese interior colors are based on nature, arranged in the same ways and ratios as nature. Hues are blended and interrelated with no one color more important than another. This subtleness is accented with tiny areas of bright color and bits of sparkle. This concept is known as shibusa, or the shibui aesthetic. Its timeless appeal is because it does not demand attention and is easy to live with for many, many years. In fact, shibui interiors become more lovely as time passes. They reverence and feature furnishings that have respect for time-honored beauty.
Elements in Common
Both Japanese and Chinese designs have some elements in common. One is fabric textures. Both cultures use silk, both cultivated or refined and wild or coarse. Silk textiles are used for draperies, bed appointments, pillows, upholstery, as hanging scrolls and painted screens. The silk-like shantung texture with small slubs is used as background for many beautiful fabrics from embroideries to complex woven design.
Cotton textiles, printed in traditional designs, also have been used by both cultures. However, because Japan has Westernized its manufacturing, it produces amazingly beautiful polyester fabrics with a smooth or nubby silk-like textures and fabulous finishes such as metallic and pearled. Largely, these are not available from China.
Another common element are sliding screens used as window treatments -- in either simple or complex grid patterns. Chinese designs are either lattice (diamond pattern) or complex fretwork, whereas Japanese designs are simple squares, rectangles or asymmetrical contemporary designs.
Both cultures developed beautiful vases, hanging scrolls and aesthetically pleasing floral arrangements. Both cultures produce highly artistic art and accessories. Oriental design influences include art and accessories, exquisite textiles and wall covering patterns and textures. Asymmetrical design is skillfully used by both cultures, and the sensitive use of both positive (filled) space and negative (empty) space in artistic compositions is inherent to both Japanese and Chinese artisans.
Designs from the Orient can enrich and add charm and mystique to today’s interiors. Using fabrics, wall coverings, art and accessories and accent pieces of furniture can enrich and give depth to our interior designs.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.