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Chinoiserie, or The Pursuit of Whimsical Exoticism

Ever fascinated by the exotic and unusual, we have always adored the Chinoiserie style, this fabulous decorative cocktail that was a vision of the mysterious Orient by Europeans, who hardly ever ventured out of good old Europe. A playful combination of its vivid colours, wild patterns and quirky shapes, possible thanks to the complete freedom from established design rules, make this design movement perhaps the most original of the 18th–19th centuries decorative trends, and one whose influence is still quite strong in interior decorating, although it had lost its initial connection with China.

Last year we were lucky to visit and compare the three world's most iconic monuments to this extraordinary phenomenon, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton (UK), the Kina Slott at Drottningholm (Sweden), and the Real Casina alla Cinese (Sicily). Having been similarly created between 1763 and 1823 as whimsical entertainment spaces for the royalty and being equally fabulous, these architectural confections couldn't have been more different in detail, and here we shall muse on how and why they are so different.

China had become a mythic land, a paradise, a fascination to Europeans and every nobleman wanted to have a Chinese room or just some objects to get a glimpse of this fabled, but to Europeans, forbidden land.

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton (United Kingdom)

Beginning in 1787, it was built in three stages as a seaside retreat for George, Prince of Wales, who became the Prince Regent in 1811, and King George IV in 1820. Between 1815 and 1822, the designer John Nash redesigned and greatly extended the Pavilion. The fanciful interior design, primarily by Frederick Crace and the little-known decorative painter Robert Jones, was heavily influenced by both Chinese and Indian fashion (with Mughal and Islamic architectural elements). It is a prime example of the exoticism that was an alternative to more classicising mainstream taste in the Regency style.

The Royal Pavilion being the 'youngest' of the three palaces, its chinoiserie interiors display a greater degree of boldness in forms and scale, appropriate to early 19th century fashions, heavily influenced by the French Empire designs, as opposed to the dainty neoclassicism of the late 18th century.

Kina Slott at Drottningholm (Sweden)

Commissioned by King Adolf Frederick of Sweden as gift for Queen Louisa Ulrika, the current Chinese Pavilion designed by Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz replaced the old wooden pavilion from 1753. Construction began in 1763 and was completed in 1769. The royal court's chief supervisor, Jean Eric Rehn, led the interior design work. The rooms of the Pavilion are filled with luxury items brought to Sweden from China by the Swedish East India Company: porcelain, silk, lacquerware, wallpaper, reverse-painted glass and mirrors.

The earliest of the three palaces that we look at here, the Kina Slott's architecture and general decorative scheme are essentially rococo, considered the height of fashion at the time, but with an exotic twist of Oriental iconography: dragons, pagodas, 'chinamen' and etc. This distinct rococo influence explains the rounded, flowing character of the building and its interior elements, with plenty of zoo- and phytomorphic decorative elements.

Real Casina alla Cinese, or Palazzina Cinese, Palermo, Sicily (Italy).

The building was designed in 1799 by the architect Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia on commission by the King Ferdinand III of Sicily, to commemorate La Favorita, the King's beloved residence near Naples, decorated à la chinois in 1798, when an ill-considered war against France sent the King and Queen of Both Sicilies into exile.

The architectural complex and its garden were completed between 1800 and 1806.

Restored in 2013 after decades of neglect, this design lover's dream remains the pride of Palermo. It is said that Marvuglia was a most eccentric man, and his Casina is no doubt a most eccentric building. With its blocky, proto-Bauhaus body, it's easy to mistake it for a building from the 1920s or even the ’80s, yet a closer look promises unexpected delights hidden inside. Indeed, prepare to be blown away by the exquisiteness of its decor, from murals and painted ceilings to dainty furniture and painstakingly recreated textiles. Despite the boxy and rather spartan outer appearance, the interiors is a riot of neoclassicism, creatively reimagined using Oriental decorative vocabulary. For example, the decorative scheme for the domed ceiling of the main reception room is oddly reminiscent of the decor of Pompeiian houses, dating back to early 1st century AD, only filled with oriental iconography.

Despite chinoiserie being the palace's main decorative theme, there are other rooms designed in different styles: the queen’s candy-coloured Turkish-style salon, the Etruscan rooms, as well as the totally mind-blowing little wunderkammer with walls covered in gemstone mosaics.

As London decorator Nicky Haslam put it, "the place is the perfect embodiment of Maria Carolina and Ferdinando’s strange reign: insanely romantic and so over-the-top".

Feeling inspired? Why not browse our CHINOISERIE collection, you might get lucky and find a dream object for your own Oriental fairytale! Here's a few examples of objects that we handled over the years, worthy of any of these palaces:

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