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During the 17th century, a time when travel was the privilege of a select few and China remained an exotic mystery, Europeans developed a strong fascination with all things Far Eastern.

Rare commodities such as carpets, porcelain and silks arrived in Europe via the Silk Road, along with stories and descriptions of the Orient and its ornate temples, pagodas, costumes and natives, whom few had seen.

Inspired by these exotic stories, European artisans adapted a fantastical, whimsical style in their work, which came to be known as Chinoiserie, meaning ‘in the Chinese taste’. Soon, detailed scenes of the Orient appeared on textiles, wallpaper, pottery, porcelain and lacquered furniture. The scenes were created in rich reds, blues and gold, and contained fantastic decorative details: elegantly attired Chinese ladies sporting Parisian hairstyles and carrying parasols, mingled with men wearing coolie hats, long plaits and trailing moustaches. Ornate pagodas floated in the background with monkeys, lions, leopards and elephants in abandon.

This style grew so popular that owning an item of Chinoiserie became the height of fashion; the craze swept through Europe and dominated everything from drapes and lamps to dinner sets.

Chinoiserie continues to fascinate artists and designers even today and has been reinterpreted to fuse with contemporary design. Several designers and interior design houses such as Ralph Lauren Home and Kelly Wearstler have used classic Chinoiserie patterns including the trellis, abstracted bamboo patterns, Asian florals and the iconic cherry blossom trees and exotic birds in their home interiors including chinaware, linens, upholstery and walls. Furniture too has been inspired by this style, the signature here being black lacquered furniture mounted with large medallion locks and latches and decorated with shell and mother of pearl inlay work.

Perhaps it is our endless fascination for places that makes this style so timeless and gives it relevance even today.

– Shehzad Dossa

The writer is an interior designer