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Eastern Influences on Western Interiors: Japanese Decor

The topic of eastern influences on western interiors is a very broad one. Many countries, such as China, Japan, Tibet, etc., have had an effect. Therefore, I have chosen to focus on one country for this tip, Japan. Other eastern countries could, and may be, topics for future newsletters. Each has its own unique culture and characteristics, and therefore individual influences.

  • COLOR:
         Japanese interiors generally use neutral, natural colors, to provide a simple background. Interiors emphasize architecture, and as a result, provide a sense of geometric order. In addition, natural colors minimize a feeling of clutter, which is also essential to eastern design and its philosophy of simplicity. When a statement is made in a Japanese interior, it is usually through a single strong exclamation of color or a predominant texture.
         Eastern art colors are pure. Unlike western art, which mixes color and refines sketches, eastern art is original. This means the initial color and/or brush stroke is the final result. Western art is often complex, whereas eastern art is simple, strong, and graphic.
         Black is often considered a "non-color" in our society, yet, it is very important in eastern interiors. The use of black in oriental rooms lends definition and form. For example, black is a color in its own right, when used with white rice paper in a shoji screen.

         Some Japanese textures and materials that immediately come to mind are cedar, rice paper, maple, bamboo, stone, and woven wicker. One might also think of textured silk, tatami floor mats, and the elaborate needlework of kimonos and obi’s.
         Japanese culture seeks to balance opposites in all aspects of life (yin and yang), and interiors are no exception. Interior finishes can be highly opposing and contrasting, and yet achieve balance. Examples are, highly polished floors with heavily textured mats, a lacquered box displayed on top of a rough wooden table, or white pebbles on a polished black granite ledge around a tub.
  • These striking dessert plates boast a traditional Japanese peony design known as karakusa.

    In Japanese lore, rabbits symbolize longevity. Reproduced from an 18th-century ivory original by Toyomasa.

         Western homes typically use an object on the perimeter as a focal point, such as a fireplace, a painting, or an elaborate window treatment. Eastern interiors, on the other hand, focus on a central object, such as a hearth (irori), a garden, an altar, or an elaborate still life composition.
         Japanese homes also commonly have display alcoves, called tokonoma. Objects placed in these alcoves generate two types of feelings, either (1) a natural or organic feel, by displaying an odd number of objects together, or (2) an ordered and disciplined environment by using an even quantity. For example, three calligraphy brushes in a cup would be organic, and four pebbles on a dish would be disciplined.
         Japanese displays are fluid. In other words, a Japanese alcove may display a scroll one-week, and a set of pots the next. Eastern cultures tend to store and rotate objects. (This is probably for two reasons; (1) limited space, and, (2) visual pollution, outside the home, as the population increases.) Japanese displays are a reflection of the season, celebration, or honored guest. This minimal approach focuses on the quality and craftsmanship.
         Instead of rotating objects, westerners tend to "display it all." (I guess its because they we’re afraid someone whose given us something may come over and we won’t have it out?) A westerner would also tend to add to a display to create a balance, whereas an easterner would create harmony by taking away. To easterners, less is more, order is harmony, and there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

    The tea ceremony room is one of the most important areas in the Japanese home. It is a place for sharing, in silence, and contemplation. Typically, a tearoom has a pool surrounded by pebbles. I mention this because it signifies the importance of water, and its serenity, in eastern culture. A bit of this serenity can be achieved in our own homes through the use of rock garden and fountains.

    Furnishings tend to be minimal and multi-functional. For example a futon is used for sitting and sleeping, or serving trays double as place settings. To give ideas on how you might use Japanese furnishings or artifacts in your home, I would like to go onto the next topic, which is about antiques. (Reproductions of these objects can be found at reasonable prices, too.)

    *Note: For ideas about how to combine western furnishings, and eastern elements, please see the first book I have listed below.

    Here are some classic oriental objects, and interesting applications, one might use to add eastern influences to the home. Please consult the second book I have listed below for more ideas.

    1. A hibachi: A hibachi, in the true sense, is not a small tabletop grill as the western world defines it. It is a finely crafted, portable fireplace, used in old homes and shops to provide heat, warm sake, and boil water for tea. It was once also the emotional center and gathering place for family friends. Original hibachis were ash receptacles in low wooden boxes. They were also made from ceramics, lacquer, rattan and metal. Large hibachis can be used as display boxes, or bases for end tables. Smaller hibachis, which were once hand warmers, are now champagne buckets or flower holders.
    2. Kimonos: A kimono is to a Japanese artist, as a canvas is to a western painter. Wedding kimonos and fans are especially decorative and valuable. Kimonos can be displayed in a number of locations in the home by hanging them on clothing stands or decorative rods.
    3. Obis: An obi is a wide sash worn with a kimono. Obi’s make excellent table runners, or can be hung in a group, behind a bed, to create a headboard.
    4. Tenigui: These are rectangular cloths, which were once used as headbands, now function as placemats.
    5. Keyaki: This is an antique door that could be used for a desk or coffee table top.
    6. Sake Kegs double as planters, end tables, and lamp bases, depending on their size.
    7. Japanese clothing stands can be used as towel racks.

    Japanese kites make whimsical shower curtains, and ceiling or wall decorations for a children’s rooms. Smaller kites can also be used to make pillows.
    * Again, consult the second book below for additional information and ideas.

  • Sites for More Information on Japan and Japanese Culture
    a. Explore Japan.

  • Books:
    a. East Meets West: Global Design for Contemporary Interiors
    by Kelly Hoppen.

    The second part of the title is misleading. Kelly Hoppen illustrates not only how to combine eastern influences into western interiors of contemporary homes, but also how to create eclectic traditional environments. This book is not strictly for contemporary lovers.

    I like Ms. Hoppen’s interior design philosophy. Here is a quote, from her introduction, explaining her approach, "Rather than dictate a particular style to my clients, I see myself in the role of interpreter: I need to get inside a client’s head and discover their personality before I can guide them towards a style, a look, an atmosphere in which they want to live. It is absolute essential to give people the home thy want…" Five out of five stars on Amazon.com.

    b. Japans Accents in Western Interiors
    by Peggy Sanders Rao and Jean Mahoney.

    Shopping and introductory overview to culture, antiques and folkcraft. Illustrations of how 77 different kinds of antiques or reproductions can be used. Detailed descriptions of objects, found in Japanese culture, that can decorate the home, such as hibachis, kimonos, etc. Featuring an appendix of American and Canadian sources for Japanese articles.

    Article Printed with Permission from Catherine McGivern


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