As we approach the Chinese New Year of the Ox, we celebrate the contribution of Chinese culture to interior design and home décor. While Chinese interior design isn’t talked about as much as Mid-century, Scandinavian, or Baroque styles, it is one of the most powerful and expressive design styles there is. It is ever-evolving and strikes a harmonious balance between traditional and contemporary design - a mix of cosy minimalism and eclectic styles.
What is Chinese Interior Design?
With a country as vast with as rich a heritage China, it’s difficult to narrow Chinese interior design to a single defining feature. If we think Chinese interiors, we imagine sleek surfaces of dark, lacquered woods, dimly lit, decorative lanterns, meticulously hewn latticework furniture and screens, and colour palettes that blend often warm neutrals with punchy, saturated tones of red (considered the most lucky colour in Chinese culture), blacks and golds.
Chinese design-style is unsurprisingly noted for its zen-like aesthetic and simplicity - it’s about clean lines and character of shape. The key element to Chinese interiors is that spaces reflect a sense of harmony, intricate decoration mixed with a blend of warm colours.
Below we have enlisted some key elements that makes Chinese Interior Design truly unique.
The Use of Bold Colours
Traditional Chinese décor incorporates vibrant, bold colours. The most popular combination is red and black which are traditional paint colours used in Chinese interior design. The red hue is a bright lipstick red, which the Chinese associate with good luck, fame, money, happiness and joy. It's also the traditional bridal colour and represents longevity of life. Black is connected with power, stability, knowledge and trust. Enhancing red-painted walls with black doors and wooden trim provides a striking contrast in a Chinese-inspired colour scheme.
Photo credit: Pinterest
Bamboo Elements - A Turn to Organic and Sustainable Décor
Bamboo is a versatile plant in China - not only is it a food staple to the giant panda, but it is also a Chinese symbol of virtue. It’s upheld as a symbol of traditional Chinese values and the potential harmony between mankind and nature. Every part of the bamboo plant has spiritual meaning attached to it – the deep root, for example, denotes resoluteness and the tall, straight stem equals honour. These attachments to bamboo have rendered it a must-have in all spheres - in the form of photo frames, blinds, and other furniture. Chinese architects are beginning to turn to bamboo more and more as a sustainable building material too.
Photo credit: Bungalow Blue Interiors
Lacquer techniques are synonymous with Chinese interiors and were made popular during the Ming Dynasty. It’s a skill that’s over 1400 years old and takes a huge amount of time and discipline.
On elaborately decorated luxury furniture - the makers would build up layers of different lacquers to carve into and create impeccably artistic scenes. More recently, lacquering has been applied to wall finishes too.
Antique red lacquer traditional wedding cabinet
Screens are commonplace in Asian interior design. Chinese interior design uses screens as well as folding screens adorned with incredibly detailed murals, often mythological or historical in theme. One of the most famous examples were the Chinese Coromandel screens that used a vast combination of lacquering techniques. The folding screen originated in ancient China and was later interpreted by other nations such as France and Sweden.
Because of the respect for detail, precision and decoration, latticework is often seen in Chinese interior design. Lattices can be seen on anything from cabinet doors to shutters. In screens, they also add an element of privacy and seclusion. Traditional canopy beds can have lattice or fretwork on the interior and exterior of the wood panelling too with the patterns they trace being geometric and more contemporary or floral-based.
Photo credit: Holloway Li Manor House, Nicholas Worley
Utterly magical, Chinoiserie wallpapers were (and still are) often painted by hand using lustrous hues and intricate detailing.
Although not traditional to Chinese design — instead a European creation to represent the beauty of Chinese art and scenery — they flourished in the 18th century and became more widespread in the 19th – there are original examples in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and in the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace.
Deemed one of the most covetable wall coverings available, Chinoiserie wallpaper (real or imitation) can be used in panels, to line the inside of a closet or as a backdrop to display fine china or crystal and are known for fading slowly and elegantly.
Photo credit: House and Garden Magazine, UK
Ming Dynasty Furniture
Ruling China from 1386 to 1644 A.D., the Ming Dynasty is renowned for many things, such as the population doubling, trade expansion, drama, literature and for creating world-renowned porcelain. Amongst these, furniture characterised by the period became one of the most revered examples of Chinese interior design, particularly the Ming Dynasty tables.
Made from precious wood and showing superb displays of craftsmanship and joinery, these tables would often be simple in terms of structure with minimal decoration. This would allow for the natural beauty of the wood to shine and for what decoration there was to be appreciated fully.
It’s often referred to as the golden era in the development of Ancient Chinese furniture so to unearth a Ming Dynasty antique table is one of the richest ways to celebrate Chinese interior design in your home.
Two late-Ming-dynasty lacquered tables with mother-of-pearl inlay. By Pieter Estersohn as seen in Vanity Fair.
Like most considerations in Chinese-style interiors, history informs the path. Cloisonné is another ancient technique used for decorating pieces made from metal.
Metal wires are soldered to the form, such as a vase or piece of jewellery, in decorative patterns and then filled in with enamel, coloured glass or gem inlays resulting in a mosaic-like quality to the finished piece, although much more fine.
The delicate nature of cloisonné appealed to Chinese taste and by the 14th century was being used in China to decorate items such as vases and bowls. Today, you can expect to see at least one cloisonné piece in a Chinese interior, be it an ornament or a trinket box.
Photo credit: Canva Pro Images
Traditional Chinese Garden Stool
Stools are a staple in oriental room sets and one of the most iconic designs is the barrel-shaped Chinese garden stool. Originally, it was used in China purely in outdoor spaces.
Many Chinese homes place emphasis on the landscape and the courtyard or garden, but where this isn’t possible, elements of the outdoors were gradually brought inside. Or, even if the garden were visible, the garden stool moving into the home was a way to build a bridge between the indoors and outside world.
By the Song Dynasty, these stools were habitually being used inside and out, for seating and as a side table. Now, they’re available in carved wooden designs, as the traditional garden stool was made, and glazed stone or porcelain which were deemed more suitable for our interiors. Lattice work is not uncommon on stool designs either.
Photo credit: Decoist