Like Marco Polo

In 2005 Opos launched the project Made for China, asking Italian designers to think about the new balance that was happening on the economic-political stage thanks to the reawakening of China’s power to produce and distribute.

The question was crucial: can China become a cultural and aesthetic model, besides being a leader on the commercial plane? A generation of Italian designers, still in their thirties, replied both seriously and facetiously, indicating a number of the most urgent themes of the hypothesis of oriental dominance. At the center of their thoughts there was the question of the copy, or of what can really be considered ‘original.’

Today, 12 years later, the practice of counterfeit goods is still commonly associated with Chinese production. At the same time, the Orient has spread across world markets with its icons, from porcelain to lanterns.

Nevertheless, the influences do not almost move along a one-way street. Often in the past, and sometimes in the present, it is the West that has ‘copied’ archetypes from Chinese material culture. The phenomenon of the importation of oriental references has a very long history that goes hand in hand with the flow of trade.

But it was starting in the 1600s, from the Baroque to the Rococo, that westerners acquired a taste for interiors, objects and even entire works of architecture with oriental influences. The fashion of Chinoiserie spread across Europe, and in the late 18th and early 19th centuries every royal palace had at least one room decorated with its typical stylemes, pagodas, lanterns, peonies, carp, figures in traditional garments, even fantasy ideograms.

China became a country of pure imaginary invention, populated by off-scale objects, in a range of colors to reproduce lacquer and imitate jade. The forms are often hybrids with elements of the neoclassical language, as in the pagoda of the Château de Chanteloup in the Loire valley, where the building almost 60 meters in height features a typical sloping roof over Doric and Corinthian columns.

Throughout the 1900s the fields most impacted by oriental imagery were cabinetmaking and ceramics. Not only decorators and illustrators were captured by oriental charm, but also rationalists above suspicion, masters of Nordic sobriety.

In 1933, for example, Marcello Piacentini made a room for Fiammetta Sarfatti that was full of Chinese influences: lacquer red is the dominant hue, and the chairs are variations, with a circular or square base, of Chinese classics, as are the consoles.

About ten years later, the Danish master Hans J. Wegner, commissioned by Fritz Hansen to create a new seating series, designed the so-called Chinese Chair destined to be the first of many very successful variants.

Whether it is a Y-shaped form or a vertical bar that marks the axis of the back, the morphology precisely evokes the classics of Chinese furniture making. Cleansed of ornament and decoration, these lines form a sort of early ergonomics, which we might almost call ‘anthropological,’ in a natural interface with the functionalist perspectives of the masters of 20th-century design.

And it is no coincidence that a designer like Wegner, a leading exponent of Scandinavian design, was the one to trace back to elective affinities with the Chinese classics, because Danish design – we should recall – comes from a solid base of craftsmanship, and generates serial production of forms based on a balance between good looks and comfort.

While in some cases the appeal of the Orient was driven by the functional sobriety of the parts and the production processes, in others the appeal came from the narrative impact channeled by Chinese culture.

In 1997, for example, Marcel Wanders designed the Ming Vase for Moooi, an exact copy of a vase from 3100 years ago found at the bottom of the sea on a sunken merchant ship. The antique vase is thus imagined as if it had been taken back from its resting place under the sea to its pure morphological essence, therefore reproduced in simple white porcelain.

An operation carried out by subtraction of the original decoration, to bring the age-old story of a surviving object to the surface, bearing witness to the past. Everything thus becomes reflection on the concepts of copying, imitation and falsification, which take on many new nuances of meaning.

More recently, in 2010, Max Lamb has applied his speculative acumen to the production processes of an object made in a quarry in the province of Fujian: the China Granite Project II. For the occasion, the English designer spent many weeks in China, living in close contact with the quarrymen, in order to learn their practices and their ways of working with the raw material. The result is a collection of seating with a decidedly archaic, sculptural look, taking into account the time shared and the cultural exchange in the creative process.

A true operation of translation from Chinese to a more universal language has been carried out by Konstantin Grcic, who has always been interested in the study of historical archetypes. His Mingx collection for Driade is a in fact a perfect case of integration of a Chinese classic in a cosmopolitan society.

“I am a great admirer of the wooden furniture of the Ming dynasty,” the German designer explains. “What I find so convincing is the combination of logical structure and formal beauty. (…) The transposition from wood to metal tubing opened up a contemporary, industrial and – actually – European interpretation of a classic theme.”

Which expresses reasoning on the importation of models of reference that in terms of culture is light years away from abject imitation.

Article Domitilla Dardi