I experienced this firsthand. Some years ago, I visited my brother who was living in Hong Kong. He was ready to return to America, and as a token of his love and affinity for the Chinese culture, he wanted to purchase a very special set of rice bowls. In order to procure them, we traveled via several buses to a very Chinese part of Hong Kong, far away from the tourist sector. We entered a tiny shop filled with porcelain treasures. A beautiful Chinese woman came out to greet us from her back room. Alongside was her young daughter, a precious little doll about four or five years old. My brother seemed to be no threat as he chattered and bartered in Cantonese. But I apparently frightened the tiny girl who, when she saw me, slipped to her mother's side and clung to her dress, pointing fearfully to me and exclaiming, "Guilo! Guilo!" I smiled in ignorance as both the woman proprietor and my brother were embarrassed. I had been dubbed a "white devil."
Today, I still smile at the remembrance of that incident. It keeps me a little humble in the knowledge that there are wonderful cultures that have been not watered down through generations of intercultural influence. These Eastern cultures not only have treasured traditions, they also have unique artistic styles in all manner of textile application, porcelain, artwork and in all mediums from painting to carving to embroidery. I own a few pieces of art and accessories that are priceless to me because of their artistic merit and skill of the artisan.
Not only the Chinese are ethnocentric. So are many of the cultures that are found from the Near East to the Far East, including the vast plains of Asia. We also learned this firsthand when we adopted three beautiful children from Kazakhstan more than two years ago. This land, south of Russia, north of India and bordering on China, is a country of some diversity because so many Russians and Europeans were exiled during the reign of Joseph Stalin. The native Kazakh people are a mixture of Turks and Mongols dating back more than 1,000 years. They are decidedly Asian, but to suggest that they are related to the Oriental people of Mongolia or China is a great insult to them. Their own heritage is unique and highly regarded among themselves. Indeed, the artistry of the country, now the ninth largest in the world, is exquisitely beautiful.
One lesson I learned from my lengthy exposure to Kazakhstan, and to my much briefer visit to Hong Kong and Russia this summer where we adopted two more children, is that keen respect for each culture is of highest importance.
WHICH IS WHAT?
How do you tell what comes from which country, and how do you discern the cultural nuances from the Eastern half of the world? It does require a lot of effort and study to be precise, but some generalities do exist. First, think in terms of broad regions.
• The Near East—The Near East consists of the artisan works of the Islamic, Palestinian and Jewish cultures. This is the region east of the Mediterranean Sea and moving east and a little south. The Islamic culture is filled with complex and precise geometry. The designs are often overlaid so that the complexity is nearly mind-boggling. Islamic designs are seen in carved window screens, tile work, textiles, the rich tradition of Oriental rugs and traditional items made of brass.
Geometric items are based on the Sunni sect belief that only Allah can create life, so man blasphemes if he imitates it. However, many of the beautiful Persian rugs, made by Islamic peoples show a less rigid approach, as they freely represent living plant and animal forms. These rugs are available as one-of-a-kind originals, knotted or tied a single yarn at a time. They also may be mass-produced, although still hand-tied, in rug-making factories.
Imitations of fine Oriental rugs with many of the classic flora and fauna designs are made on machine looms in Western Europe and the United States. Among the beautiful rugs from Persia are the garden carpets, a symmetrical study of a geometric pathway surrounding squares of beautiful foliage. The Caucasian-style rugs are based on geometry, but are simpler. The Moorish or Islamic religion utilizes a crescent moon and single star, seemingly set inside the crescent—a delicately beautiful and important motif.
Jewish designs are founded on religious traditional motifs, including the seven-branched candlestick called the Menorah, the six-pointed Star of David and meaningful designs carved in wood and stitched onto fabric. Those who have traveled to the Holy Land also relate to the carved olive wood figurines; no doubt many Christians have crèche sets originating in regions surrounding Jerusalem.
• Central Asia—This is a vast region—much of it formerly parts of the Soviet Union—that now consists of many nations struggling for stability and to rise above the financial devastation left from communism and former regimes. What is amazing about all of these countries is how these sturdy peoples have preserved their arts through the decades of tyrannical oppression of despotic leaders.
Folk arts include charming flat or pile rugs, embroidered textiles, finely woven fabrics, folk costumes rich in tradition and colorfully beautiful and painted and sculptured works of art and folk art. Although some themes center around heroes of wars—so many have been fought on their homeland soils—many artistic themes represent cultural significance and the simple beauty of nature seen in plants, flowers and animals.
• India—Here, designs become very complex and often use overlaying geometry. Fauna, such as the elephant and camel, are included as well as some exotic birds, Indian tigers and the exotic historic dress of local men and women. Throughout the Near East, Asia, India and China, it is common to see paintings and textiles that depict heroes and heroines that are often the subject of great literature—a kind of folk documentation and a way to honor and remember the real or fictional characters.
The paisley, a tear- or pear-shaped motif with a whiplash neck, originates in India, and many of our calico (think Calcutta, or Kali-Ghatt as it is known locally) small floral prints came to Europe as early as the 17th century on fabrics known then as Indiennes. Indian fabrics also often display complex batik patterns and woven gold and silver threads. Many great designs in Oriental carpets or rugs come from India, Pakistan and other of the "stan" nations north of India, including Kazakhstan. Each of these nations has motifs that are uniquely theirs—many are based on simple folk patterns, especially flowers, that are simplified and conventionalized.
• The Far East—Sometimes collectively referred to as the Orient, it is divided into nations of the Oriental people and the Southeast Asian nations. For the past 300 years, the most revered interior design items have been from Japan, China and Korea. Today there is also a high interest in items from Southeast Asia because of their more primitive or exotic and unfamiliar design elements and the natural beauty found in its rain forest jungles and beaches.
Motifs that are traditionally Oriental include specifics from each country, some of which overlap. From Japan come the cherry blossom and branch, Fujiama, pine trees and branches, men and women in kimonos, black lacquered accessories, shoji screens, tatami mats and ikebana floral arranging.
Chinese motifs include flowers such as peonies and chrysanthemums, often stylized or on large, even old-looking branches, the lush flowers sometimes drooping downward as they do in real gardens. The water lily is also revered.
The recent surge in interest in Feng Shui has added many symbolic motifs to the list of well-accepted designs in Western interiors. A few of these include the old pine tree and Oriental men (older is better in each case), waves of water and clouds, deer, the phoenix, dragons, the turtle shell design, all designs that are rounded or octagonal and Oriental in origin, pagoda-roofed pavilions or gazebos with vertical rugged mountains and rivers at their bases, fish and rattan cages or fishing equipment (for success). All these are systematically and precisely placed to ensure the benefit of their symbolism in accordance to energy from the universe, the world and the humans that inhabit the interiors.
A visit to the Orient would be incomplete without a mention of the key role of color. Like motifs, color is sometimes symbolic, most notably in Chinese Feng Shui interiors. Traditionally, royal blue—as well as water and sky blues—was reserved for the emperor and denoted heavenly blessings. Greens are propitious and symbolize healthy, long life and prosperity. Red is the most favorable of all colors—the color of life, good fortune and the assurance of posterity with whom to share your wealth. Hot pink is considered a good color, especially if one is seeking a happy romantic relationship. Gold and yellow are both respected; gold represents wealth and connections with influential people, and yellow is the spiritual blessings that trickle down from the priests that dress in that color. Add bright orange to that from India and Southeast Asia, where hot pink is a common color of celebration of life. Steer clear of black, usually considered evil, and white, which symbolizes death—the color of cremation ashes. If you have Chinese clients, your good wishes to them should always be in red envelopes or red wrapping paper. Pale yellow safely replaces the white hue of the spectrum.
Shibusa is a concept from Japan that entails the example of nature in interiors—colors are interrelated and blended, in shades rather than matching tones, with bits of brightness among matte textures and flecks of bright colors among subtle shades of soothing, natural hues and neutrals. Materials from nature—grass cloth wall coverings, bamboo, natural wood and stone and hand-loomed textured fabrics—are examples of the natural qualities that make shibui interiors pleasing and rewarding to live with for many years. A shibui interior grows more beautiful as it ages.
SO NEAR, YET SO FAR
The Orient is more accessible than ever before, and many more are traveling there for design inspiration, often bringing back treasures for themselves or for resale. The supply source will likely never run out for two reasons: the design motif pool is deep and old; and the artisan skill levels remain high and the pay stays low with no likely change in the foreseeable future.
Yet with the political unrest and general suspicion of Westerners, particularly Americans, the people, as well as the culture still remain aloof, mysterious, occult and exotic. We seek to understand, but we never really will because as Westerners, we are not good at putting ourselves in others' anthropological shoes.
No matter—we still can admire from afar and bring home those things that we especially revere. We can find a plethora of Oriental-inspired textiles, wall coverings and artwork in today's marketplace to create a bit of exotic beauty wherever we choose to place it. It's ours for the taking.
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.