When the worlds of design converge

Exhibition reveals the striking similarities between French court and Chinese imperial furniture at the same time in history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2015, 6:00am

When French antiques dealer Mikael Kraemer visited the Liang Yi Museum in Sheung Wan shortly after it opened last year, he found himself crouching down on the floor, armed with a flashlight, examining the underside of precious 17th-century Chinese cabinets.

"I'm not an expert in Chinese furniture, but even I could see the similarities between what I was looking at and the French furniture that I deal in," said Kraemer. "I thought it was fascinating."

So Kraemer, a fifth-generation scion of the Paris-based Kraemer Gallery - one of the world's specialists in European antiques - contacted Liang Yi's managing director Lynn Fung and ended up collaborating on an exhibition that will display the shared styles of two disparate cultures on opposite sides of the globe, at the same time in history.

"We found there was a lot to investigate," said Fung. "We decided to go back and do the research, and speak to furniture experts. We put French court and Chinese imperial furniture side by side and noticed all the similarities. As far as we knew, nothing of this scale had ever been done."

The general public will have an opportunity to see some of these surprising design coincidences at an exhibition at Liang Yi next month.

Titled Great Minds Think Alike: 18th Century French and Chinese Furniture Design, the exhibition, which will include a recreated French salon beside a Chinese salon, will showcase about 60 pieces, many of them paired to illustrate their similarities. These run from intricacies such as hinges to more obvious parallels, such as bamboo being used for fine French pieces at the court of Versailles, when it was considered the domain of the Chinese peasant classes.

The pieces on display are roughly from the eras of King Louis XIV (1643-1715) and his Chinese counterpart, Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722).

"In that period, the French and Chinese empires were respectively the largest and most important on each side of the world," said Fung.

"For both, it was a period of prosperity and increased trade. While the two kings never met, they were aware of each other and sent ambassadors and diplomats and gifts to one another's courts. The French were completely taken by Chinoiserie while the Chinese court was introduced to paintings of horses and other pieces with a European perspective. Both countries were stable, wealthy and prospering, and at the time they were looking towards the external world, at the height of their empires, it made sense that they were looking directly at each other."

Antique furniture experts agree that being able to position pieces from two disparate cultures is an intriguing idea for a design-led exhibition.

London-based antiques expert Curtis Dowling said the similarity in craftsmanship and styles, at a time when it could take a year to get from one end of the world to the other, was startling.

"We think we have a monopoly these days on travel," said Dowling. "But French craftsmen were journeying to Japan and China, and artisans from China were going to Europe and it's obvious their techniques were going to rub off on each other. It's something that is interesting and lovely and relevant to look at."

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to compare one of the star pieces in the repertoire, a rare, 18th-century bamboo table from France featuring chased gilt bronze mounts and a black-and-gold lacquer tray, with a similarly styled 18th-century square table from China made of rosewood but carved to look like bamboo.

"During the Ming dynasty in particular, no matter how rich the people, they wanted to appear humble and so would commission tables made of expensive wood but resembling bamboo," said Fung. On the other side of the world, French artisans assumed these noble pieces actually were constructed of bamboo and made some for their king.

"It was filtered knowledge of what the Chinese were doing," said Fung. "Somebody saw a bamboo table and assumed that was what the Chinese imperial court used."

Other examples, said Kraemer, included lacquer work on screens imported from China, which was then adapted to French furniture, and Chinese versions of boulle marquetry - wood inlaid with materials such as brass and tortoiseshell. Both empires had their own versions of gambling tables - mahogany in France and rosewood in China.

"There were an awful lot of ambassadors between these two countries," said Dowling. "They would buy something locally because they fell in love with the style of the country and ship home what they had bought, and that would cause a sensation. People would try to replicate these new works … you could walk into a magnificent home in France that was stocked to the gills with Chinese art and furniture and porcelain. In that sense, the world really hasn't changed that much."

Great Minds Think Alike: 18th Century French and Chinese Furniture Design runs from February 3 to May 9 at Liang Yi Museum, 181 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, tel: 2806 8260