One day the teacher tells her students that God made all things. One young girl raises her hand and says, No ma’am, China makes all things. Well, the WTO might be quite new, the MFA might have expired and American ports might be jammed with Chinese hosiery, and all consumer goods might be imported from China, but one should not presume from this overload that the Chinese precocity is a product of globalization. The Chinese have been original artists and scientists for millennia, and even today many of their art forms and other designs are seeing resurgence, competing with Lenovo for desk space.
Of course we have the Chinese silk, their china works, their artworks with bone and ivory, which are known around the world, but what has attracted the attention of scholars, auctioneers and consumers equally, is traditional Chinese furniture.
Chinese furniture is a happy amalgamation of varied influences. At times nature philosophy inspired design and material, at times foreign influence or the peccadillo of an emperor inspired a new school of design. An interesting story around the Ming dynasty perhaps best displays how strange events can change a whole lifestyle. Austerity being a government policy during the early and middle Ming period, minimalism in aesthetics and materials was the artistic credo, as well as a survival policy that ensured the wealthy escaped high taxes that follow ostentation. Later, when the tax rates were reduced, the natural inclination of an artistic people were released which found expression in luxury and fashion, but went much beyond it as more extravagant designs and more artistic woodwork found acceptance not just among the royalty and ranked, but also among the rich and middle classes. Interestingly, even the Ming scholars showed extreme interest not just in the documentation in furniture styling, but also as inspiration behind newer designs.
While decoration without an objective was looked down upon, decoration really did become an intrinsic part of all furniture and woodwork design, from small tables, stools, vases, bibelots and incense burners. Designs were also dictated by utility, and as foreign influences invaded the far north and north-west that inspired portable furniture, bamboo and cane became part of materials. One bed made with wood and bamboo was devised so that the scholar could dream of Dongting Lake; another chair made to order for another scholar would accentuate his experiences so that he could feel he lived double the actual time. Maybe the fascination with human form that afflicted Renaissance European artists was not there, but ergonomics formed an essential part of the design philosophy, and details such as lines, height and size would bear testimony to the scientific attention to bodily postures.
Chinese philosophy and culture emphasizes the importance of the interface between natural forces and human beings (remember Feng Shui!). The ideas of Zen, Tao and Buddhism came to affect different aspects of furniture design and were instrumental in creating the Golden Age of classical furniture design. Like porcelain, Ming period remains etched in the mind of connoisseurs, and forms the epitome of traditional Chinese furniture. The Ming philosophy and designs still inspire much of traditional Chinese furniture design.