Home & Garden

Know what's behind global-inspired design

A series of five tiles creates nature scenes on each side of the fireplace. These tiles appear to be inspired by chinois
A series of five tiles creates nature scenes on each side of the fireplace. These tiles appear to be inspired by chinoiserie. The lotus flowers, birds and blue-and-white design are chinoiserie characteristics. (Erin Owen)

One idea seemed to keep recurring in design articles last year: grandmillennial style. I was unfamiliar with the term that originated in House Beautiful in September 2019.

The grand in grandmillennial refers to grandmothers, who often had fancy sitting rooms that were for looks but not for use. Twenty- and 30-somethings today have a renewed appreciation for the beautiful things in those rooms. This updated traditional style, which also may be described as granny chic, has elements such as needlepoint, milk glass, chintz fabric, pattern wallpaper, wicker and chinoiserie.

Just as the Arts and Crafts movement was in reaction to the opulence of the Victorian era and mass production of the Industrial Revolution, grandmillennial style is a move away from the minimalist midcentury modern and black-and-white farmhouse.

I applaud young adults for bucking design norms and expressing themselves with unconventional choices. However, of the style elements, there is one I find problematic. That is chinoiserie, which is a European interpretation of Chinese culture and decorative arts.

Global trade in spices and tea brought Europeans to China and East Asia starting in the 17th century. Unknown, faraway lands became enticing and exotic. Europeans wanted to bring this exotic imagery home. Instead of buying from Chinese artisans, Europeans enriched themselves by replicating Chinese techniques.

They created porcelain vases and ginger jars painted with blue and white designs, lacquered furniture and painted wallpaper. Imagery in chinoiserie includes pagodas, nature scenes, floral designs, dragons and foo dogs (which are actually lions).

Yes, chinoiserie spread awareness of previously unknown countries, but it also distorted culture like a game of telephone. As chinoiserie motifs spread like a message to artists, the original art form became obscured or inaccurate.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Just as other industries have faced criticism for whitewashing people of color, appropriating culture and profiting off the work of others, the design world needs to acknowledge where authenticity is lacking and to whom credit should be given. Designers also have a responsibility to share the history and cultural significance of items.

Another more recent example is the popularity of mud cloth (bogolanfini) in the United States. This African textile from Mali is being made into pillow coverings by shops on Etsy. From what I can tell, many are white women. Many sellers claim to offer authentic fabric but lack details on their sources and compensation for artisans.

No matter how gorgeous buyers say their purchases are, mud cloth’s cultural significance is connected to an ugly, violent practice. Women in Mali are wrapped in mud cloth after their initiation into adulthood, which involves genital mutilation, because it’s believed the fabric can absorb dangerous forces. That isn’t the Instagram-worthy image sellers want, but it’s one that can’t be ignored.

Design is an international industry and it imports materials, cultures and styles from everywhere. It matters who creates the art. Hopefully millennials will incorporate that principle in their style.

Erin Owen graduated from the interior design program at Kirkwood Community College. She has worked as a commercial and residential interior designer. Comments: erin.n.owen@gmail.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.