Chinese export furniture is typically categorized into two main groups: pieces designed to reflect a Westernized interpretation of Chinese style and furniture crafted after European prototypes. The former category often includes traditional Chinese design elements, such as intricate carving, bold colors, and motifs inspired by nature, while the latter category may feature simpler designs that reflect European taste. Although the second group of furniture may resemble its European counterparts, it is often constructed using Chinese timbers and may have subtle differences in construction.
The English fascination with the Orient can be traced back to the late 16th century when trade with Asia began to increase. With the establishment of the East India Company in 1600, British nobility had access to Oriental goods for their homes, including Chinese export furniture. This trade relationship continued to grow, and by the 18th century, Chinese export goods had become fashionable throughout Europe and the Western world.
It’s worth noting that during this time, most British buyers of Chinese export goods couldn’t distinguish between Japanese and Chinese pieces. Early references to “Oriental furniture” or “lacquer-ware” were ambiguous, but it’s likely that the majority of pieces came from Japan rather than China. House inventories from the period often referred to “India” or “Indian” furniture, which added to the confusion. Additionally, Chinese export wallpaper was commonly referred to as “India paper” throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Overall, the history of Chinese export furniture is intertwined with a Western fascination with the Orient and the growth of global trade. The furniture itself reflects a unique blend of Chinese and European design elements, making it an intriguing area of study for collectors and scholars alike.
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