Saturday, February 9, 2008

Style Guide: Oriental

The Oriental style is mystical, meditative and calming, from ornately decorated palaces and temples to minimalist interiors of the common man. Though the Orient spans countries from China to Indonesia, certain elements are common to the diverse styles of each. Materials are natural, bamboo being a staple. Craftsmanship of furniture, ornaments and textiles is splendid. Lacquerwork and batik are distinctive. Colors are subdued or vibrant. And there is a respect for spirituality inherent in the symbolism for patterns, colors, artifacts and placement of objects.


Modern Variations

  • Less is more when accessorizing a minimalist Oriental dcor. Ruminate on the grace and beauty of each piece. Carefully select them for elegant, dramatic, even artistic impact. Stand larger pieces alone so they make their own statement. Group together smaller pieces, like Japanese lacquered, miniature furniture.

Blue-and-white porcelain, red or black lacquer ware, painted mask, shadow puppet, bamboo-handled teapots, carved jade, boxes with mother of pearl inlay or stoneware pottery with painted imagery are common.

Some special items include Chinese bamboo wedding baskets, 18th-century chinoiserie, fan-shaped lacquered stacking boxes. Mirrors with ornately carved frames that hail from Burma or Bali and look almost Indian, are a fusion of colonial and native styles.

Modern Variations

  • Don't forget a sculpture or two, uplit for extra effect, such as a Lahu hill-tribe musical instrument, essentially a primitive harp. Choose also a cho-fa roof ornament on a pedestal or a Japanese netsuke, a carved belt toggle used to secure pouches through the sash of the kimono.

Screens can function as a backdrop to a statue if they are solid colored, laminated surfaces or simply designed. Or they can be accent pieces unto themselves if more elaborate. Consider the 18th-century carved-jade table screens or axonometric cityscape on an eight-paneled screen.

Wall Hangings
Modern Variations

  • On walls, hang framed hand-made paper or, for higher style, the striking black brushstrokes of Chinese calligraphy. For drama, place an antique Japanese kimono or embroidered Chinese shawl.

Other Dcor
Modern Variations

  • Enhance a calm aura by displaying a statue of Buddha, a vase with a lone plum or cherry blossom branch, a bonsai tree. Use Chinese "scholar" rocks – a flat circular basket filled with pebbles, medium-sized rocks and one large rock.
  • Achieve balanced energy and promote good fortune with such feng shui artifacts. Try a pair of carved-wood mandarin ducks to enhance marriage prospects, fish for prosperity, and a small water fountain for luck.


Elegantly plain, the Oriental floor is made of wood planks, stone, terra cotta or natural fabrics like jute, coir or sisal. The Japanese are noted for covering floors with tatami mats – rice straw outlined by black linen tape or brocade.

Modern Variations

  • Create the same visual effect using small matted rugs with bounded borders.

Modern Variations

  • If every other element in the room is without pattern, including furniture, walls and accessories, employ an Oriental rug as a design element. Symbols of lotus flowers, dragons, tigers and snow lions typical of a Tibetan rug can add a little spice to an otherwise austere room.


Less is more when it comes to furniture. The pieces themselves are simple and unadorned, with woods color-stained or varnished. Small pieces like screens, chests, trunks and cabinets are lacquered and/or inlayed with very elaborate designs of nature or trade themes.

Modern Variations

  • Keep furniture low for the minimalist modern style. Long benches, plain stools, large floor cushions and large coffee tables should be as close to the ground as possible. Upright furniture is more in keeping with a traditional style stemming from colonial and native influences.
  • Include typical materials like hand-carved teak and tropical hardwoods, especially rosewood. If painting is desired, do so only with layers of black lacquer, though traditional Chinese lacquer-makers use richer colors of cinnabar red, yellow, crimson, vermilion and olive-green.
  • Use bamboo or rattan furniture as an alternative. Woven cane is popular in the Philippines today and China is producing bamboo and split cane furniture.

Screens can be simple, for example, a bamboo frame and rice paper sheathing. Elaborate screens have wooden fretwork panels. Eight-paneled lacquered pieces sport nature or cityscape designs.

They use space more efficiently by filling up an empty corner or creating intimacy in a seating arrangement.

Storage Cabinets
Oriental storage cabinets and chests are solid, rectangular forms with inventive detailing and workmanship. Designs include light-relief carvings of dragons chasing pearls or lacquered surfaces with asymmetrical designs of nature themes.

One standout piece is a Japanese storage chest shaped like steps to fit under stairs. When not stowed away, the chest steps become shelves for displaying of accessories.

The Japanese futon, a soft cotton mattress, epitomizes simplicity and comfort. Used as a bed, it is spread out directly on the floor.

Highly adaptable, it can be rolled and stored in a cabinet during the day or serve double duty as a sofa cushion on a sofa bed frame.

Modern Variations

  • Enterprising Western manufacturers have designed a rectilinear "four poster" futon – a mattress on a very simple four-poster metal frame draped with simple white fabric.


Paper Lanterns
The classic lighting for Oriental style is also the most widely recognizable and popular decorative piece: the paper lantern.

Modern Variations

  • For an upscale look, check out the powerful modern designs of Isamu Noguchi.
  • More affordable pieces can be found in chain stores and lighting shops. Choose from spherical, cube, beehive, drum and box shapes. Natural parchment is preferred to capture a soft glow and carry out the overall subdued feeling of an Oriental room.
  • For unique effects try red or different colors. Other lighting options: metal lanterns with tea caddy base, lamps with ceramic ginger jar base, coolie-hat shades and any sleek modern design with hidden lights.
  • A low-level rectangular, box floor lamp with white shade, accented with slender metal perpendicular stripes functions perfectly in rooms with low furniture – or as an uplighter with more traditional, upright furniture.


Walls are typically understated for the minimalist Oriental style. Plain colors, usually white or beige, though sometimes spice tones like jade green, offer a nice contrast to furniture and accessories.

Modern Variations

  • For subtle interest, create texture by mixing sand or fine grit with paint, or "stipple" the job by applying the paint in small brush strokes. Try tactile hessian or rice paper as wallpaper, too.

Modern Variations

  • Achieve a little drama through sheer simplicity. Display a colorful kimono hanging from a pole pushed through the sleeve. For more daring dcor, hang wallpaper with motifs of pagodas, flying cranes, bridges or waves in separate panels.
  • Make walls the focal point.Mount an antique lacquered screen in brilliant and resonant colors with an elaborate design, such as an overhead view of an Asian palace.
  • Use screens to divide rooms or space within a room, thus acting like walls.

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