Thursday, June 9, 2011

You Say Chintz Like it's a Bad Thing.

A Chintz bedroom by Mario Buatta.  Recalling the traditions
of Colefax & Fowler, the room is filled with English furniture
and a cultivated collection of antiques and accessories.
Much to the chagrin of my most modern of friends, I j'adore Chintz.  I was giving a lecture at UCLA on the subject one night and a student, obviously intrigued by the idea of a 30 year old man with the taste of a 70 year old woman, asked simply 'why?'.  At first, I really didn't know, which is strange, because I know everything.  It was like asking why I liked money or why I liked monkeys to wear Fez.  I just did.  I was born loving Chintz just as I was born with blue eyes and a superiority complex.

A room of Mauve Chintz and dull green
by Elsie de Wolfe.  Early 20th Century.
I suppose, on a purely aesthetic level, I love the colors, the crisp imagery, the sheen and volume (a byproduct of all the sizing used to give the fabric added body and make it resemble fine silk taffeta).  On a monetary level, I love that for all it's pattern and decorative qualities, it's relatively inexpensive because it's just printed cotton.  It's also very easy to work with, be it drapery or upholstery, and it's very easy to keep clean; it's almost water repellent and dust seems to glide off of it.  I love how the English are the masters of Chintz, treating it with a cavalier almost humorous attitude and mixing numerous patters in the same room.  You'd think it would induce vertigo, but it's actually rather pleasant in a mad and charming sort of way.
 I think what I love most about Chintz is it's storied past; how something so humble in origin could become a coveted treasure of 17th and 18th Century Europe, and later a staple for Decorators such as Colefax & Fowler, Elsie de Wolfe, and Rose Cummings. 

17th Century Chintz from the
Victoria & Albert Museum.
The story of Chintz begins in India where the textile started as a simple block printed Calico cloth (Calico is a cotton cloth whose name is derived from the Indian city of Calicut, where it was originally produced) used for bedding, quilts and draperies.  The cloth was printed in the beautiful saturated colors India is known for; Henna, Pink, Curry yellow, Saffron, Cypress Greens; strong on their own, but when used together a symphony of color and pattern is created that almost hums with energy. 

The word Chintz, by the way, is derived from the Hindi word 'Chitra', meaning 'many colors' or 'speckled'. 

By the 1600's, Portuguese and Dutch traders were bringing the fabric into Europe where it became an instant status symbol; it's rarity driving up the price so that only the elite could afford it.  The fashionable sets of Society not only employed the exuberant fabric in their interiors as draperies and bedding, but also commissioned dress makers to turn the exotic import into gowns trimmed with handmade lace and embroidered linen.  This sent shock waves through the fashion trade as hundreds of wealthy women shunned silk and velvet and sought to have their gowns made from this novel material. 

Pamplores Chintz from the Cormandel
Coast in  aTree of Life Motif. 
Circa 18th Century.
By the 1680's England, Holland, and France were each importing over one million pieces of the textile per year.  This was great news for the patrons whose fashion fix would always be available, fabulous news for the Merchants in Europe and India whose cash boxes and order books overflowed, but horrendous news for the European Mills.  At the time, wool was the major textile produced on European soil.  Heavy, itchy, boring, monochrome wool.  Cotton had yet to be woven in Europe as the climate was ill suited for the crop and the Colonies were still too young to produce it.  As well, European manufacturers didn't know how to print on cloth with any success.  European mills were faced with a crippling blow as their wares became suddenly undesirable.
In the film Marie Antoinette, Costume Designer Milena Canonero pays homage to the Chintz fashion.  Kirsten Dunst wear a role a la francaise of cotton Chintz over silk.
In 1686, among the controversy and couture, France banned Chintz, and in 1720 England followed suit.  With all the unrest and red tape, a Black Marked roared to life with yards of the fabric being imported in secret and sold to the highest bidder.  The Court of Versailles, above the law in any matter you could name, was perhaps the greatest offender to the law as young courtesans and courtiers continues to frolic in the contraband cotton.

Chintz even traveled to the American Colonies.
Here, a hand quilted wool skirt is paired with an
Indian Chintz coat.  Circa 1750's.
Image from Colonial Williamsburg.
A Chintz dress c. 1770-1780.  English tailoring.
Fabric from the Cormandel Coast, India.
In 1759, the ban was lifted, but not before two Frenchmen (Naval Officer M. de Beaulieu who was stationed in Pondicherry, and Father Coeurdeux, who was out to convert the Indians to Catholicism) sent detailed letters of the Chintz making process back to their homeland.  By this time, the French and English mills were able to produce printed cotton successfully.  At first, they reproduced the original patterns of Indian Chintz (mostly stylized floral prints), but soon they were creating original designs that followed a more Western inspired fashion (ribbons, baskets of flowers, Toile de Jouey, etc).  

Chintz is one of those galvanizing fabrics for Interior Design; no one is ever on the fence about it.  I love it.  I love how Colefax & Fowler draped country estates in it.  I love how Mario Buatta upholstered all of the Upper East Side in the 80's with it.  I love how Michael S Smith is incorporating the look of original Indian Chintz patterns into his understated traditional interiors.  Chintz will always be with us in some form, like all great design, it's longevity is based on adaptation and evolution.  For those who loathe, give it time, exposure will weaken your resistance.  For those who j'adore as I j'adore, take gleeful delight in each piece of printed heaven and remember how it all started.

- Ian

An English Chintz dress with hand embroidered Linen apron and collar.
Circa 1780.  Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume.
Note how the pattern of the Chintz has become more Western.

Elsie de Wolfe Chintz by Scalamandre is a classic with it's quaint
Fern pattern and reserved color palette.  It's one of my favorites.

The Bedroom of Rose Cummings' Mother;
the colors for the Louis XVI furnishings and the
Lit a Polonaise all pulled from her Violet hued
Chintz Draperies, the pattern still in production today.

Little original 16th and 17th Century chintz remains. 
Here, an amusing pelmet dating to the 1850's.

A Chintz bedroom by Elsie de Wolfe, the half tester bed
done in the French style.

A Bedroom by Michael S. Smith, the walls covered in fabric inspired
by original Indian Chintz patterns.  The fabric is from Smith's
Jasper line of textiles.

A Kitchen eating area by Michael S. Smith.
The Drapery fabric based on original Indian Chintz patterns,
 is from his Jasper line.


1 comment:

  1. Chintz lover here, too. Hoping it makes a come back one day but either way, I still love it. You can never go wrong with classic style.