Shanghai deco

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2005, 12:00am

I love the look of Shanghai when it was the Paris of the East. Could you please tell me about the furniture of the era?


'The movement started in the 1920s and only went into the late 30s,' says William Chiang of China Art. 'Merchants, missionaries and ambassadors were bringing their fashions, tastes and possessions to China when the art deco movement was popular in Europe.'

'In the early 20th century, concession areas were established in coastal cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, and Europeans started setting up homes in greater numbers.

'They travelled by boat, and shipping wasn't as easy as it is today,' he says. Although some furniture was brought from Europe, it wasn't enough to furnish an entire home. 'In China, they couldn't buy European furniture because it wasn't available, but labour was cheap, so they just had them made by local craftsmen.'

Similarly, few pieces returned back overseas with them during the late 30s and early 40s.


Naturally, most pieces were made for the home. 'You see more cabinets, chests of drawers, storage units, chairs and sometimes things like coat racks,' says Chiang. 'You rarely find tables or accessories.

'The style had the lines and proportions of art deco, with fewer embellishments as it moved away from art nouveau. It was European with a hint of Chinese influence,' he says. 'That came from a combination of creativity and simply not knowing what it was supposed to be.'

The construction was Chinese, but 'they were trained in Qing style, so there was a minor carry-over, but it's unfair to make that comparison. This was modern and completely different.'

Chinese deco furniture was made with timber that wasn't available in Europe. 'Wealthier people used hard woods like rosewood and black wood. When interest spread in China, they used cheaper woods like teak. In Europe, there was a tradition of using veneer, whereas the Chinese used solid pieces of wood. They only started to include veneer later, and you still find most Chinese deco furniture is made from solid wood.'


'In the past five or six years, Chinese deco has seen more interest,' says Chiang. But it's difficult to find good pieces. 'In terms of production period, it was less than 20 years, limited to cities, and not all of that was made to collectors' standards.'

Chiang advises collectors to look at rarity, condition, materials and prices. 'Hardwood pieces are more rare, and you can tell if it's solid wood. It's heavier. If it's made from one piece of wood, the grain on the top should be the same on the bottom.' And fakes? 'It's too small a group. It doesn't command the prices for fakes to be made, so people can buy with that comfort.'

Chiang says prices range from about $30,000 to $100,000. 'Because the pool of supply, interest from collectors, and literature to document Chinese deco furniture are all limited, prices have stayed reasonable.' For collectors who'd like to learn more, Chiang says Shanghai cigarette poster catalogues are a good place to begin. 'They show the period and the domestic set-up.'


Selling Happiness: Calendar Posters and Visual Culture in Early-Twentieth-Century Shanghai by Ellen Johnston Laing ($295.80;

China Art: 15 Hollywood Rd, Central (tel: 2542 0982;

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