***Written by Jess Bunge
I generally like to think I’m a reasonable woman. I almost always try to see both sides of most any argument. My least favorite currently (nonpolitical category) is that my best friend’s fiance is convinced that In-N-Out Burger isn’t actually as good as us West Coasters make it out to be. His argument is that its taste is mostly wrapped up in the nostalgia of happy childhood/teen memories. While my immediate initial response was to tell him to go back to Ohio and leave our sweet In-N-Out alone, I do SLIGHTLY see his point. The food tastes like home and regardless of how overcooked the fries sometimes are, I love them. But in terms of design trend arguments, if you would have told me a couple of months ago that chinoiserie was coming back in a pretty awesome way and that I, Jessica A. Bunge would really be into it, I would have been like, sorry you are incorrect. Chinoiserie is WAY too decorative for me and can be nearly offensive to my slightly colorful but otherwise minimalist loving soul.
To be fair, the same sort of situation happened when the CONTROVERSIAL topic of lilac hit the office. With my right eyebrow raised so high that my hairline asked for space, I was convinced that I was unconvinceable (in terms of it being done well, not being a trend, because a trend it was). While lilac was nice in theory, I was staunchly standing by the fact that I was NOT a purple person. This could probably be traced back to the third grade when my then best friend told me my royal purple crushed velvet bell bottom leggings were tacky. THEY WERE FROM THE LIMITED TOO. I was more crushed than the overpriced velvet I was sporting. Also, what third grader says tacky?? Anyway, Arlyn felt strongly that she could convince me that lilac had a place in interior design and by the end of the post she won me over. My eyebrow returned to its proper location on my face and I conceded to the fact that when done well, lilac could be kinda great. Which is really the case for anything in design, right? If a style is done REALLY well, most people can and will change their tune…which is what brings me here writing about a look I could have never guessed I’d be diving into with enthusiasm.
So, are you ready to start singing that chinoiserie tune? ::insert romantic ballad here::
This is how it all went down. At first, I was seeing little bits of modern chinoiserie accents popping up on my Pinterest and Instagram. I thought okay sure, designers are wanting to mix it up a little. Then an email from a reader showed up in my inbox asking if EHD happened to know of an affordable wallpaper alternative to de Gournay, a classic chinoiserie textile company; their panels are hand-painted in place and usually $1,000+ a panel. This prompted me to ask myself if readers (and the design world, in general) were starting to really search for and wanting this style in their homes…or maybe it was just a one-off occurrence? Well, then the final confirmation came, solidifying the chinoiserie trend for me—the goop x CB2 collaboration (pictured above). I didn’t know what I was expecting when I opened that promotional email, probably a variation on California Casual, but to my surprise, it was a fresh and modern take on this very old and classic style (with a heap of Art Deco elements sprinkled in).
But before we really dive into all the ways chinoiserie is coming back into the modern world, I feel like we should learn a bit about its origins. Ready to take notes? Chinoiserie is a French word (I’m sure you could have guessed that) and is the European interpretation of Chinese and East Asian style. It first became very popular in the 18th century as trade between Asian countries and Europe grew. Having a piece in this “new” and “exotic” style showed your friends you had it going on/were very wealthy. Similar to having a self-destructing Banksy now would show you are VERY wealthy.
As you can see in the next few photos, chinoiserie in a classical sense can be VERY ornate. The art, lighting, textiles, furniture and accessories are all equally curvy, detailed and colorful. There are a lot of patterns, colors, finishes…your eye doesn’t really get a chance to relax.
I do want to be clear that I don’t totally hate this. It’s definitely not my style but it is unapologetic in its boldness and I can admire that.
This lavish and ornate style had its first comeback (after its creation) in the US in the early 19th century and lasted until the mid-1920s. It also popped up again in the ’80s and ’90s (well, and also again about eight or so years ago), but is mostly now just a regional thing—hello Palm Beach. This is not to say it totally flatlined after that, but I think it’s fair to say that its widespread popularity dwindled for several reasons. Besides being incredibly pricey (remember, it originally said “I’m so RICH!” and not without justification), this overtly decorative and explosive style just wasn’t a thing anymore for most people in recent decades…until now. Why do you ask? Well, we have some ideas. In case you missed Arlyn’s post about Modern Maximalism, she talked about her breakup story with white walls and minimal design. And people, she is not alone.
The design world has been craving that shot of Fernet Branca…at first, its licorice scent is offputting but then after a quick swig, you are slapped across the face with the feeling of what can only be described as being truly awake and dare I say inspired. Modern chinoiserie is my Fernet shot. Pretty opposed at first but then after a few hours of seeing its new cool look, completely inspired and drunk on possibilities.
This dining room installation at Casa Decor in Madrid by Virginia Gasch is a very glamorous, modern interpretation. It may not be for everyone’s dining room but it is undoubtedly a visual breath of fresh air (I mean, there are plants growing from the “rug”). The simple yet bright color palette and modern furnishings take it out of 1920 and right into 2020.
What I really loved seeing in my research was actually how versatile “toned down” chinoiserie is. Take the photo above. Arlo & Sons styled their modern upholstered sofa in a Memphis like fabric, a bright yellow industrial lamp with an updated moody chinoiserie wallpaper. While definitely not a quiet design it works, feeling fresh and cohesive.
Let’s stop and admire this stunning master bedroom of Miranda Brooks and François Halard featured in Vogue. It perfectly marries the natural elements of boho, organic style (hello beautiful wood headboard I wish I owned) with the quite detailed elegance of their custom de Gournay wallpaper. I could easily move in.
Are you singing louder now?
But let’s not forgot its traditional European roots. This modern English pastel kitchen (the home of Michelle McKenna) really comes alive with the addition of the chinoiserie wallpaper on that open panel of wall. Tell me this isn’t a romantic kitchen.
Wallpaper is wonderful but screens were also a very big part of the chinoiserie explosion in Europe and are a great way to incorporate this style into your home in a less permanent way. As a design relationship-phobe myself (aka I don’t want to be tied down to a certain style forever) I am very into the screen look. Plus, think how functional they are when you can’t possibly make it all the way to a closet or bathroom to change. There is a private area right on the other side of the screen. They are also wonderful covers to hide ugly wall vents and can be great room dividers. Wait, I think I just convinced myself I need one immediately.
While having insanely expensive hand-painted wallpaper or a one-of-a-kind vintage screen is certainly the dream if chinoiserie is the style you want, it’s not the reality for most of us. But do not fear because small yet purposeful accents will still give you the romantic feelings without the completely empty wallet.
Take Emily’s vintage canister in her kitchen. It’s a touch of chinoiserie that sparks visual interest with its bright blue color and ornate design but doesn’t define the space in the trend. Blue-and-white ginger jars are easy enough to find at thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales. While some can be super pricey (depending on what its made of), you can usually get them for a fair price that won’t shock you.
Another example is in this modern and very bright room that feels like the happiest minimal Scandinavian kid’s desk area that ever lived. But with the addition of the chinoiserie lamp, the design is instantly elevated, bringing in complementary colors and sophisticated detail. It takes the vignette from simple and minimal to simple and minimal BUT WITH A SHOT OF EXCITEMENT. It’s just enough to add visual interest to a really quiet space.
So in conclusion, if modern chinoiserie means more inspired rooms like this one from Arent and Pyke (one of our favorite Australian design firms) then bring it on. I am singing the praises of this hopefully resurrected aesthetic loud and hope you are, too. My eyebrow may still involuntarily rise up from time to time when faced with new trends or the repackaging of old ones but I will do my best to Pinterest before I make any final judgments. Who knows, my makeover takeover is almost complete and I might need to shake things up, so stay tuned.
Before I sign off, let’s see if I did my job. Are you on the chinoiserie train? Or are you at least feeling a little inspired to step outside of your white-walled world? Are you interested in seeing some shopping to help you achieve this look? Let us know what you think in the comments.