The spirit of China The designs of that distant land are finding a place in American interiors.

January 25, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Now that mandarin collars and frog fastenings have swept the fashion scene, can a passion for Chinese home furnishings be far behind?

For the last few seasons, a mix of Asian motifs and materials has been the most important ethnic influence in home furnishings, says trend forecaster Michelle Lamb. But with the recent shift to more refined, even formal looks, Chinese has stepped into the spotlight. Think black lacquer. Fretwork. Silk. Gilded edges. Tassels. The sheen of satin. And details like embroidery and decorative frog closures.

And then there's Chinese red. "We're seeing a return to red as a rival to green," says Lamb.

Paradoxically, Chinese design also offers the clean lines of minimalism, geometric references and a lack of clutter -- no knickknacks here. Designers speak of its beautiful simplicity, its calming character. One of its great strengths is this yin-yang quality of simplification that isn't stark.

And in their detailing and motifs, Chinese and Chinese-inspired decorative pieces, fabrics and wall coverings can add a touch of whimsy and fantasy to a room. Consider the charming lack of perspective of a Blue Willow plate, or curvaceous dragons flowing across an intricately patterned chinoiserie fabric.

Recently the high-end furniture company Henredon reintroduced Chinese elements into its Aston Court collection, a best-selling line of reproductions based on Chippendale and other 18th-century English designs.

"Chippendale and Chinese go hand in hand," explains Stephen Giles, Henredon's vice president for design. "It was time to give the collection a face lift, so we looked at what's happening in the marketplace, in fashion and accessories."

Chinese was what was happening.

With the furniture industry in something of a slump, manufacturers are slow to jump at trends. But what's good about chinoiserie is that it never really goes out of fashion, especially at the high end.

"As a style this time round, it's not gaudy; it's a good 'linkage' [style] between traditional and contemporary," says Brian Carroll, a reporter for the trade magazine Furniture Today.

In many ways it's as perennially appealing as the English reproduction furniture that sells well year after year. Think of the new appreciation of Chinese style as a resurgence of something that never quite disappeared.

It's spurred in part by fashion, in part by our current fascination with things global, in part by two contradictory trends in home furnishings: minimalism and a return to opulence and formality.

"Chinese design is exotic, eclectic," says Howard Shattuck, historian for Maitland-Smith, manufacturer of high-end furniture and decorative objects. "The current, softened version talks of another era when things were beautiful."

Its spiritual quality is appealing, too. Westerners have for several years been intrigued by feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of improving one's spiritual as well as physical environment with interior design.

Add to that the flashiest opening of a store in recent memory -- Shanghai Tang, the New York emporium filled with Chinese-inspired fashion and home accessories -- and you have a renewed interest in chinoiserie, at least among trendsetting Manhattan designers and magazine editors.

Chinoiserie is a term used loosely to refer to any Western interpretation of Chinese decorative elements. It was coined by the French in the 17th century, although Europeans had been fascinated by the Orient since Marco Polo's visit to China in the 13th century.

In spite of trading missions (China kept its doors open to foreigners, unlike Japan), Europeans couldn't get enough of the exotic silks, porcelains, lacquer and other furnishings and began creating their own Oriental-inspired fabrics, furniture, architecture and gardens.

By the 1800s, Chinese decorative accessories were the height of fashion in English drawing rooms. These imported accent pieces "were status-giving and shouted wealth," says Shattuck. "It was the first period of independent wealth, and the first real eclectic period since the Renaissance."

The word eclectic should ring a bell for anyone up on today's design trends. The '90s are likely to be known as the mix 'n' match decade. Chinoiserie fits right in. It's extraordinarily versatile and goes especially well with both classic English and contemporary furnishings.

"It's a great blending style," says Michael Delgaudio, vice president and creative director of Century Furniture. "Of course it fits with 18th century, but it's also a wonderful complement to contemporary upholstery, which has softened. Linear Chinese is a great contrast."

"I use it as an accent," says Bill McGee, a local designer with Alexander Baer Inc. "A beautiful screen, for instance, in a room with contemporary and traditional pieces blends very well. It's a nice transition in an eclectic room."

Like all enduring design influences, Chinese is multifaceted and flexible.

So is there any furniture style it doesn't go with?

"It would be kind of tough with Mediterranean," says Delgaudio.

Chinoiserie

Look for these Chinese design elements in 1998's home furnishings and accessories, says trend forecaster Michelle Lamb:

* Dragons

* Bamboo, both as a material and a motif

* Satin, embroidered

* Calligraphy

* Wicker

* Thin contrast piping

* Long, thin tassels

* Ginkgo leaves

* Jacobean florals

* Chinese reds, blacks

* Brass accents

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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