European Chinoiserie (‘chinese-esque’ in French ) style was born in the 18th century when the taste for the Orient became fashionable amongst the aristocracy. Inspired by art and design from China, Japan and other Asian countries, Chinoiserie designs were the interpretation by local artists and artisans of a romanticised vision of the distant land of ‘Cathay’ and the East. Some of the most elegant renderings of Chinoiserie were the creations of French artists such as Watteau, Boucher and later Jean-Baptiste Pillement who adapted the rococo style ornaments to their Chinese style paintings. Pillement's delicate designs of foliage, monkeys, pavilions and other fancies were very popular in Britain and were copied and adapted in decorative objects such as ceramics, wallpaper and textiles. You will find Chinoiserie in many stately homes and in recent times it has been a favourite of the 'rich and famous' - Coco Chanel was in love with this style and owned over 30 Coromandel screens. The fascination with Chinoiserie is easy to understand: the beauty of the designs is undisputable.
As Diane Hill, an artist who specialises in Chinoiserie painting, explains ‘it's that feeling of looking into a garden of the most beautiful things nature has to offer, birds, butterflies and winding trees. I love that nothing is too literal, the whole idea is a complete fantasy, birds of all species, flowers and plants of all kinds. The design is such that it can be coloured and styled in so many ways, to suit any interior. The level of detail can be endless, and I love that viewers are immediately stunned, then look very closely and continue to say wow. I also love that it is non repeating, each tree is a new scene - you feel you can walk yourself around a room and become lost in the beauty.’
Where and how to use it
Chinoiserie can give elegance to any interior. There are also many ways to use it and adapt it to your surroundings. You don’t need to live in a regency style home to enjoy it and in fact Chinoiserie is so versatile it goes well with both antiques and contemporary furnishings. It does not need to be used all over either, just covering one wall with your favourite design is enough to give a touch of chic or you can frame it as if it were a painting. If you want a subtle effect, you can choose a toile design or a subdued colourway. Many designs are also available on fabrics so instead of wallpaper you may opt for cushions and curtains combined with geometrical or plain wallpaper or painted walls. There are no rules in fantasy land but, according to Diane Hill, you should ‘ideally look at the colours within the room already, the soft furnishings etc and be sure to either include accents of those colours, or use colours that complement. Don't be scared to hang pictures or mirrors on the walls too, Chinoiserie works as a great backdrop. If having something designed bespoke, then you are able to create a mural where any beautiful parts of the design will be perfectly tailored to avoid any furniture or pictures etc. Either go for a feature wall, or a full room. I feel feature walls work well in more modern interiors and full rooms in the more classic interior. If having a feature wall, think carefully about the colours on the adjoining walls - will you be bold and contrast, or will you match the colour! I have a very light white on pearlescent Chinoiserie in my home that I have contrasted with a bold teal wall.’
What type of wallcovering to choose
There are many options to choose from, both in terms of design and budget, from handpainted silk panels and murals to the many wallpapers and fabrics.
Handpainted silk panels
Companies such as de Gournay, Fromental and Misha specialise in the traditional Chinese silk panels which are handpainted as single panel patterns (scenic) or as multi-panel patterns (panoramics). The designs are customised and a number of techniques can then be applied to the panels, including de Gournay's ‘rose antiquing’(that adds texture and depth) and Fromental's silk embroidery.
Wallpaper is a popular option that is less expensive than silk panels and there are a myriad of beautiful designs and colourways to choose from. Some popular designs include ‘Romney’s garden’ by Zoffany which was designed by botanical artist Kelly Higgs who creates gorgeous paintings of Chinese vases, flowers and birds. The Asian village design in Anna French's ‘Willow Wood’ wallpaper has a charming naïvety. Jean Monro's ‘Geisha’ is a fabric inspired by rococo style. Nicolette Mayer's ‘Blossom Fantasia’ - available as wallpaper and fabric - is a modern interpretation of a classic theme.
If you are up for it, you can create your own Chinoiserie panels with stencils but the ultimate treat is to commission an artist to paint your own custom design directly on your walls. Based in Hertfordshire, Diane Hill worked as senior designer for one of the leading handmade wallpaper companies in London and now she works on her own on custom projects all around the country and worldwide. Her lovely designs can be tailored to suit a range of budgets, and can be applied to bare walls or wallpaper. As Diane explains, the advantages of painted Chinoiserie are that you will not have any seams and will avoid any installation costs and problems, such as the design not joining perfectly. A painter working on site means that they are able to create a fully bespoke and unique artwork, the layout, colours, specific birds etc can all be designed.
She tells us that you can add your favourite birds, flowers or even include your pet cat... Now that’s an idea!
Images from top: Romney's Garden by Zoffany, De Gournay's Badmington, De Gournay's Jardinieres Citrus Trees, Classic Collection panel by Misha Wallpaper, Papillon wallpaper by Harlequin, hand painted wall mural by Diane Hill