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Want to know more? This book is a good place to start

October 30, 2003|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

Yin and yang. Feng shui. Qi.

The principles underlying much of Chinese design through the centuries have become popular to bandy about these days, even if people don't really understand the concepts or their histories. But if you want to learn a bit more, author Bradley Quinn's "Chinese Style: The Art of Living" (Conran, $34.95) is a good place to start.

The book, published in July, begins with an overview of the visual traditions that emerged from various periods of Chinese history and explores the mystique that has long surrounded all things Eastern in the Western imagination.

In six subsequent chapters, it examines the underpinnings of architecture, from formal rooms to courtyards; furniture; decorations such as lacquerware, jade, fans and calligraphy; ceramics; textiles, including carpets, wall hangings and embroidery; and "living," which includes just about everything from symbols such as the dragon, to lighting elements, to table manners (whatever you do, don't drop your chopsticks, or you'll be sentenced to some seriously bad luck).

The main thrust here is the enduring appeal of ancient Chinese design, particularly how it applies to modern homes. In one of the book's more striking images, taken by Jan Baldwin, a low-slung table that is more than 600 years old blends seamlessly with a contemporary modular couch.

"I have always been intrigued by Chinese style's staying power -- how it has managed to remain so hip throughout the last three centuries and still cast an influence today, perhaps more strongly than ever," designer Ou Baholyodhin writes in the foreword.

The book makes the case that the contrasting aesthetics of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) are the two major influences of what we currently think of Chinese design. The Ming period was marked by spare, clean lines; the Qing, by ornamentation and striking reds and yellows. The two came closer together, Quinn argues, when Art Deco incorporated elements of both.

Ming styles are making a comeback, according to the book, their classical shapes regarded as contemporary today. This recent resurgence demonstrates how brilliantly the minimalist pieces work with modern trends. But the possibilities for injecting Chinese style into the home, says Quinn, aren't limited to the Ming's minimalism: the rococo extravagance of the Qing period can add warmth and exotic overtones that can "transform an interior into a shrine of Oriental splendor."

-- Scott Sandell

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