Classical Chinese furniture – simple, clean with geometric lines and graceful curves – has been the rage in China since at least the 16th century. The same descriptions can also be noted for the Art Deco and modern furniture I love. So when I was reminded about the upcoming Asia Week in New York from 13-19 September, I made it a point to trek over to Sotheby’s for a private preview of the offerings of Chinese furniture which include some magnificent examples.
When we think of what was happening in the West during the 16th -18th centuries – think heavily carved and over decorated furniture – you realize that the Chinese furniture craftsmen were certainly ahead of their times.
Unlike in the West, no matching sets of chairs or suites of furniture were made. A typical Chinese room would have pieces fashioned from different hardwoods and lacquer and arranged parallel to the walls and at right angles to each other. The pieces were always multifunctional and were used in various rooms including outdoor patios and gardens for different occasions.
Classical Chinese furniture, also known as Ming furniture, became particularly appreciated in the 1920s and 30s by the Westerners in Beijing and Shanghai who were influenced by the simplicity of the Bauhaus aesthetics and who bought the furniture and took it home.
One of the most prized woods used in classical Chinese furniture, huanghuali, is a tropical hardwood that varies in color from amber yellow to a deep reddish brown. The wood has a striking grain that sometimes forms eccentric patterns, which are incorporated into the design of the pieces. Always a valued possession, this furniture was used in the homes of the wealthy merchants and political elite as well as in the Palaces of the ruling dynasty. Centuries of hand polishing by their owners allow these pieces to glow with a warmth that invites you to keep caressing them and adding your own “marks” to the piece.
Sotheby’s has some great examples of classical furniture coming up in their Asian sales in New York. The graceful huanghuali altar table (lot 190, estimate $60,000-80,000) has just a hint of decoration, but it’s the bold clear lines that give it its striking look – perfect for an entry hall or as a sideboard in a dining room.
The pair of sublime stands (lot 191, estimate 7,000-9,000) are wonderful pieces crafted in hongmu wood. Hongmu is another exotic hardwood that was used for Chinese furniture. It is often confused with huanghuali, but has a darker color, which has given it the name “blackwood” in English. These stands can be used as pedestals for exhibiting sculpture or objet d’art.
The Official’s armchairs in huanghuali wood (lot 220, estimate $500,000-700,000) are beyond chic and are always great for using as sculptural objects in a living room. Perfectly balanced with strong vertical lines to define the pieces, the gentle curve of the top rail and underside support add elegance. This play of curved and straight lines is typical of Chinese furniture. Amazingly, the wood is never bent as in Western furniture construction. A curved piece is always carved from a single piece of wood.
I have to finish with another absolutely “perfect” and astonishingly beautiful huanghuali altar table (lot 235, estimate $200,000-300,000). In this case I think the lack of decoration IS the decoration. This would be a stunning addition to a library or office with a contemporary painting hanging above. And how many of your friends would ever guess this table is over 300 years old!
If this type of aesthetic is of interest to you, do stop by Sotheby’s New York. Only by looking at furniture in the flesh and comparing the various hardwoods can you really appreciate how exquisite Chinese classical furniture can be.
richard rabel: interiors + art
interior design and art advising
new york city
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