Why It’s Time to Think Differently About Chinoiserie

·11-min read
Photo credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Foo dogs. Ginger jars. Yin-yang tables. Pagoda motifs, fiery dragons, and bamboo stalks. See it in architecture, gardens, interiors, furnishings, products, graphic motifs, and at just about every scale of design. Chinoiserie, a genre of reproduction design dating back to 17th- and 18th-century Western Europe, has had a long history. From Louis XIV’s decor at Versailles to Ettore Sottsass’s pagoda-topped postmodern shelving, Westernized versions of Asian motifs have long been a mainstay of interior design.

These days, chinoiserie is regaining popularity as part of an Instagram-friendly, “grand-millennial” lifestyle aesthetic based around a mix of shabby-chic decor that harks back to its last craze in the 1930s. You can find a mix of vintage and modern mass-produced chinoiserie items from retailers like One Kings Lane, ABC Home and Carpet, and Chairish, or cheeky high-street versions at World Market, a California-based purveyor of “global” goods. On the luxe end, firms Gracie and De Gournay produce historically informed reproductions of chinoiserie silk brocade panels and textiles, many of which feature East Asian–inflected floral patterns and scenic landscapes—sometimes marketed, to this day, as part of “exotic” collections.

As a style of decor, chinoiserie is ubiquitous, even beautiful. But as an Asian American, chinoiserie has never sat well with me—as a motif or as a word—and, to varying degrees, I’m not the only one. “My reading of chinoiserie is that it’s ‘Asian’ in facsimile,” the architect Michael K. Chen says. “The way that chinoiserie is deployed in interiors is something that I am a little reflexively allergic to. As a component of a ‘traditional’ interior, it seems to highlight the question: Whose tradition are we talking about?”

Chen’s question is one that many Asian Americans in the design industry often wonder, even if behind closed doors. For a decorative design object is never just an object. It is a stand-in for what is valued, what is heralded as beautiful, and, when staged as a prized possession in one’s home, it becomes more than a conversation piece. It is a tacit endorsement of the labor and culture that produced it—and of the taste of its owner.

Photo credit: Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo credit: Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A History of Exoticism

The origins of chinoiserie go back to the 17th and 18th centuries, as trade routes connected China to Western Europe for the first time. Chinese exporters of everything from fine porcelain and tea found a new consumer audience in European aristocracy. The craze for authentic Chinese goods gave way to a market of copycats, and gradually to its own European-made “inspired-by” style. Whole palaces and pavilions, from King Louis XIV’s Trianon de Porcelaine at Versailles to Frederick the Great’s Chinese House at Sanssouci, were created in the chinoiserie style by European monarchs who found the ornate decorative motifs complementary to their Rococo tastes. In England, Thomas Chippendale adapted Chinese lacquer furniture into a hybrid style now referred to as “Chinese Chippendale.” In 18th-century France, the esteemed Sèvres manufactory sought to achieve the quality of “fine china”—a now commonplace term for the porcelain that the Chinese had been producing according to a closely guarded formula for 2,000 years.

The term chinoiserie is said to have entered French popular culture in Honoré de Balzac’s 1836 novel L’Interdiction, to describe decor made in the Chinese style, and more formally into the French lexicon with its addition to the Dictionnaire l’Académie française in 1878. Directly translating to what we might call “Chinese-esque” or even “Chinese-ish,” the term couches a twice-removed gaze that has been met with little challenge in the decorative arts canon, let alone popular culture—even as terms such as “Orientalism” have long fallen out of use, largely on account of Edward Said’s landmark 1978 writings. Like orientalism, chinoiserie carries an etymological stamp of otherness, mimicry, and approximation baked into the word itself.

In the West, the idea of chinoiserie has long been perceived as benign, liberally used in popular culture to apply to a generic “Asian” aesthetic that freely borrows elements from a range of visual cultures, not just Chinese. “Scholars tended to think of the term chinoiserie as a kind of ‘neutral’ stylistic device,” says Iris Moon, PhD, an 18th-century scholar and assistant curator in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “There was a genuine fascination and a kind of love and desire for this other culture in the West.”

But the imagery of chinoiserie is hardly benign. “It’s an incredibly destructive and troubling way of looking at the other,” Moon says. She cites the example of a 1755 porcelain work called the Chinese Musicians, a piece she finds both “magical, beautiful, and incredible” in its craft and execution, and yet downright disturbing, with slant-eyed Chinese figures placed into a subservient decorative arrangement that one might compare to a blackamoor motif.

For August Editions founder and editor Dung Ngo, chinoiserie has always been “a Western thing that has nothing to do with actual Asian culture.” In the beginning, he notes, Western interpretations were based on Chinese exports that were designed to cater to European audiences. “Chinoiserie is a little bit like chop suey,” Ngo says. “It was wholesale invented in the West, based on certain perceptions of Asian culture at the time. It’s very watered down.”

Photo credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Bamboo, Birds, and Butterflies

If you ask Dallas-based interior designer Jean Liu, a former antiques dealer who’s married to a seventh-generation Texan, chinoiserie is also a bit like Tex-Mex, existing at the intersection of multiple cultures. For the most part, she sees the style as a historical artifact. “I don’t feel we can just erase chinoiserie because it may not be convenient,” Liu says. “We have to understand the context in which these things were created, and we have a responsibility today to make sure that a lot more is done in a way that promotes the culture with sensitivity.”

In the world of decor, it’s hard to escape the fact that chinoiserie—especially wallcoverings with colorful, all-over patterns embellished with pastoral landscapes, flowers, birds, and butterflies—are a perennial favorite. “It’s a really loaded topic,” interior designer Young Huh, a first-generation Korean American, told me in an email. On the one hand, she notes, there are historically based wallcoverings that respect Chinese artisans. “Then, there are all the weird, fetishistic things that people make and call chinoiserie. Cultural appropriation is also an issue.”

As we later spoke on the phone, she articulated that the aesthetic and objects themselves must be seen through the lens of power dynamics. “It’s one thing to admire from afar and purchase products as equals—such as buying an Hermès bag and revering it. It’s another thing if you are in a position of power looking down at the cultures that you’re replicating.” As a historic style still popular today, Huh added, “yes, chinoiserie is nostalgic. But who and what is it nostalgic for?”

The cultural gaffes associated with chinoiserie can range in degrees of severity and harm. Recent examples include redrawn mah-jongg sets that erase the rich visual culture of the tile game, overly caricatured Chinese figures appropriated as motifs, and lampshades blithely marketed as having a trendy silhouette of a “coolie” hat—a derogatory term used by European traders in the 16th century to refer to low-wage Asian laborers. What’s often missing in the desire for this commodified “historic” aesthetic is an interest and curiosity for history itself. Ignorance breeds insensitivities, and offenders can often be unaware.

Whose History Is It?

Nothing exists in a vacuum—especially amid the never-ending visual game of telephone that is design. So why do I have such a hard time accepting an imitation ginger jar any more than I do a poor knockoff of a Louis XIV armchair?

“Chinoiserie is so reductive, it flattens culture to a series of motifs,” says the industrial designer Amanda Huynh. As the first woman of color to hold a full-time faculty position at Pratt Institute, Huynh is keenly aware of the role that representation plays in what design histories get told and who gets to tell them. “But that is for sure not happening with historic French design; it’s always going to be connected to the people, and we learn about their history, the French Revolution, and everything else in school.”

When it comes to chinoiserie, she adds, it’s a matter of asking and challenging dominant Eurocentric narratives: “When does something become valued? Is it when it’s filtered through a white European lens? It’s very easy to see and pick motifs as just ‘pretty’ without any awareness of the history behind them. In that way, [chinoiserie implies] a romanticism for a different time—of not associating the style with the struggle, the process, and the joy of the culture and people it borrows from.”

For design curator Aric Chen, “It all really depends on the context, and that doesn’t let people off the hook, by the way,” he says. “It takes them to task.” Chen has spent the last 13 years as an Chinese American expat in Hong Kong and Shanghai—much of them as the lead curator at the M+ Museum, where he established a modern architecture and design collection.

“Historically, it’s kind of explained under the rubric of a naive ignorance rather than anything more nefarious. I think we can look back at that as a sugarcoating of history,” Chen says. “At the same time, I’m still not convinced that every artist or designer who appropriated Eastern motifs was doing it with a racist intent. In many cases, there was an element of exoticization, in the same way that some Chinese people exoticize the West these days.”

Photo credit: Zander & Labisch/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Photo credit: Zander & Labisch/ullstein bild via Getty Images

A New Discourse

Authenticity is a particularly loaded subject in design, and one that I’ve experienced directly in not-so-generous ways, as a Korean American design journalist on assignment to trade shows in design capitals around the world. By and large, the design industry is a warm and welcoming one. But I would be remiss not to acknowledge the dissonance between the industry’s celebration of one “historic” era of Chinese design and its stereotype that contemporary “made in China” design goods equate to knockoffs or counterfeits of Western design classics—even as contemporary Chinese design continues to rise in prominence.

“The design industry needs to have a more self-conscious look as to meaning and origin,” furniture and product designer Robert Sukrachand says. “Would the person who says they are appreciating a Chinese aesthetic through chinoiserie also want to investigate the vast array of contemporary Chinese and Asian design? Something like chinoiserie can take up so much space, it completely marginalizes what’s new.”

From high-end to high-street, the pervasive presence of chinoiserie is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon—and manufacturers are only part of the equation. Equally accountable are the various players within the industry ecosystem that bolster its visibility, its fashion, its desirability, and ultimately, its sales. Marketers, retailers, and magazine editors ought to be held equally to task for steering the conversation around cultural appropriation—and without a diversity and inclusion of voices in their decision-making ranks, that is less likely to change.

“One thing interior design needs is a discourse, a real discourse,” says Michael K. Chen, the architect. “It’s high time to question traditional forms. There are voices, histories, and dimensions of design that really need to be explored.”

Importantly, it’s also up to the designers themselves not to be complicit and to step in and inform clients when a potentially problematic decision may come into play. Difficult, private conversations are necessary, as Jean Liu says. “I always need to make sure my clients understand all the ramifications of using a piece like that,” she says. “Because selfishly, whether it’s for private use or a public space, my name is on it.”

Speaking up against power—whether a client, a brand, or a popular trend—is never easy. Often, there are only audiences who will listen, and speakers who demand to be heard, in the wake of a tragedy. As Ngo, of August Editions, said to me, “If you had called me a few months ago, it probably would have been a very different conversation.” Through the lens of the present, when anti-Asian prejudice and hate crimes have been reported at an all-time high, in large part a ramification of the senseless assertion that Covid-19 equates to a “Chinese virus” or “kung flu,” it’s harder to swallow the ridicule of a word, a misplaced motif, or a slant-eyed caricature; and we shouldn’t have to.

For while a cartoonish pagoda design might rank lower on the growing list of battles to fight, it’s part of the backdrop that upholds harmful stereotypes and a status quo that often only questions the notion of cultural counterfeits from one vantage point. It’s time to rethink our conversations around the objects we love and why—and move forward to a place that welcomes all. As Sukrachand says, when done with care and respect, “Design, whether it’s an interior, a room, a piece of furniture, or an object, is such a beautiful vehicle for connection.”

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