Some prognosticators forecast that China’s economy may overtake ours as soon as this year, almost a decade sooner than most predicted just a few years ago. What’s just as astonishing is the rapid pace at which China has morphed from a country caught in an aesthetic time warp to one that’s now on the leading front of design.
On my first trip to Beijing, more than 25 years ago, I marveled at a country that seemed uncomfortably positioned with one foot firmly committed to Communist ideology and the other lunging toward a society where private wealth was not only tolerated but encouraged.
Back then, the faded lobby of the Beijing Hotel was considered one of the more stylish hangouts, with its glass cases of Western cigarettes for sale and smoke-choked floor-to-ceiling curtains framing windows onto the city’s most notable avenue. Bicyclists dominated the roads, and only the homes of the elite sported refrigerators and televisions.
Now China is a formidable economic powerhouse, and those throngs of bicycles have been supplanted with bumper-to-bumper Porsches making their way to chic shopping streets and one of the globe’s most interesting contemporary art zones. The Beijing Hotel is still there (revamped, of course) but now competes with every top luxury hotel brand in the world.
And, like many who’ve recently come into money, China’s taken a circuitous route to identifying a sense of personal style. Having experimented with an eyebrow raising more-is-more sensibility for the past decade, new Chinese style has confidently settled into a more restrained and elegant influencer of global home design trends.
Of course, it’s of little surprise that the best examples of this new Chinese style reside at the two Chinese Aman outposts: the Aman at Summer Palace in Beijing and at sister property Amanfayun in Hangzhou, which I recently had a chance to visit.
The Aman Resort Group has long pursued aesthetic perfection at its properties, notably incorporating centuries of local culture into the creation of environments that are both genuine and remarkably fresh. Recent headlines have bolstered its reputation even further with its Venice outpost, Aman Canal Grande, chosen as the site of the recent nuptials of George Clooney to Amal Alamuddin. Its two Chinese properties (a third is due later this year) showcase this new Chinese aesthetic and, more importantly, provide a clear-cut guide to capturing this chic and trending look in three easy steps:
• Search out clean and classic Chinese furniture: Avoid the fussy and embellished Chinese furniture popularly seen in Chinese restaurants and, instead, search out plain pieces with clean, classic lines and simple hardware. Chinese domestic furniture, made for everyday use in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, features clean lines that easily adapt to nearly every style.
Less is more with this look, so avoid furniture pieces with excessive detailing, such as painting and other adornments, which can quickly overtake a space. If you can’t find (or can’t afford) antique Chinese domestic furniture, new production pieces are available in the marketplace. Look for well-crafted pieces in natural wood tones (solid is preferable to veneer) and avoid kitschy lacquered finishes for a more timeless feel.
Both Aman properties manufactured new pieces to accommodate modern functions (cabinets sport safes and mini-bars) but with traditional lines in mind. The properties generally feature lighter wood tones, introducing another element of modernity, but any natural wood color will work as long as the finish is more matte than shiny.
• Smartly employ timeless and graphic Chinese geometrics and calligraphy: Chinese geometric patterns can be traced back thousands of years and are widely seen throughout the country’s most popular sites, including the Summer Palace (where Aman’s Beijing outpost is located) and the Forbidden City. Often based on mathematical principles, incorporating these geometric patterns can bolster the architectural integrity of an otherwise shapeless room.
Inherently graphic, Chinese geometric patterns have the ability to add timeless sophistication to almost any space. Use these patterns smartly by employing them in a series of wall hangings, on a feature pillow on your bed, or through a singular, large accessory. Avoiding overuse is critical in creating more livable spaces that aren’t over themed.
If the Chinese geometrics don’t appeal to you, consider a graphic piece of artwork sporting Chinese calligraphy.
Calligraphy is considered a high art form in China, with masterpieces commanding top dollar at auction. Most commonly seen as black characters against a white background, Chinese calligraphy, like the geometrics, is modern, bold and best employed sparingly for maximum effect.
• Use a neutral color scheme as your foundation: The subtlety of clean-lined, classic Chinese furniture paired with bolder Chinese geometrics and calligraphy necessitates a partner willing to be a respectful backdrop. This look doesn’t work with attention-demanding colors. Luminescent neutrals, like soft whites, light tans and pale grays, work as perfect supporting players in this new Chinese style. Having a neutral color scheme as a foundation (on walls, floors and ceilings) showcases Chinese domestic furniture, geometric patterns and calligraphy in a new and completely different light than how they’ve traditionally been seen, creating a fresh and modern outcome. Bold color (the Chinese love red), injected minimally through a single colored lamp shade or accessory, can then accent in a more striking manner.
For decades, our homes have largely been influenced by the West, with Tuscan-inspired kitchens and Parisian-like chandeliers pervasively infiltrating every neighborhood. European aesthetics in our spaces referenced cultured and revered societies with great influence.
As China overtakes the United States as the globe’s top economy, extending its particular brand of influence, we may see aesthetic aspirations in the United States shifting eastward, too.
By harkening back to its revered historical past, folding in a few lessons borrowed from the West and finally embracing the art of restraint, interior design in China is finally emerging to overtake the world’s design stage.
Before you know it, the clean lines of a Chinese cabinet will be harmoniously sitting alongside the intricate lines of your French chandelier, reflecting our ever-changing world and the new economic order.
Vern Yip is an interior designer and star of “Bang for Your Buck” and “Live in Vern’s House” on HGTV.