You’re probably familiar with stripes and polka dots, but a unique pattern name like chinoiserie is a little harder to pin down. This delightful pattern, along with toile, Otomi, ikat, and shibori, has far-flung roots. Each print has a history and a distinct, intricate design that adds visual interest to just about any space.
“Beige is boring—why not have a little fun with your home’s storyline?” asks Jason Oliver Nixon, an interior designer at Madcap Cottage who co-authored the book “Prints Charming.”
If you’re feeling print-shy, there’s no need to commit to an entire room of nesting birds or dancing ladies. Small splashes of a single pattern can liven up a look.
“Don’t try to mix and match all of these styles together, or you’ll have a giant confused mess on your hands,” says Drew Henry, founder of Design Dudes in San Antonio.
Below, we dive into the history of these time-honored patterns and share some of the best ways to incorporate them into your home.
Photo by Scala Construction Inc.
Chinoiserie—based on the French word for “Chinese,” chinois—is a fantastical combination of classic Far Eastern motifs mixed with rococo style elements to suit Western tastes, explains Julie Muniz, an art consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chinoiserie first appeared in the 17th century, and gained popularity in the 18th.
“Designers decided to interpret Asian scenes in a whimsical, nontraditional way, and soon the look marched its way across Europe,” says Nixon.
Fast forward to today, and the style hasn’t lost its luster in any corner of the globe.
“We’re still crazy for this pattern, whether on wallpaper, casegoods, or decorative objects,” Nixon says.
Henry says chinoiserie can work in a formal space, especially if you’re going for an over-the-top luxurious feel, but he also recommends trying it—in small doses—in a modern room.
Named for an indigenous group in Mexico who traditionally used this style in their embroidery, Otomi features bright colors and bold graphics of flora and fauna.
“Many believe the artists responsible for Otomi were inspired by ancient cave drawings as well as more recent traditional designs seen in fabrics and pottery by the peoples of Hidalgo and Northern Mexico,” explains Beverly Solomon of Beverly Solomon Design.
Otomi is definitely a hot print, and Nixon says it’s taken over ikat and shibori prints in popularity in recent years.
So where will this print look best in your home?
“The vivid hues and fantastic animals (fish, deer, birds, coyotes, and armadillos are commonly featured) suggest an ideal theme for children’s rooms,” says Solomon.
The bright colors have a Mid-Century Modern aesthetic, which make Otomi prints a smart match for modern and Southwestern home styles, Henry says.
Toile is a decorative print developed in the 18th century by the French-German industrialist Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf.
Toile was all the rage as a material for dresses, but made a transition to interiors in the 19th century as roller printing replaced more expensive engraved copper plates. According to Muniz, Benjamin Franklin commissioned toile designs in France to bring home to the U.S., and the British also designed patterns featuring George Washington, along with Franklin, for export to America.
Toile works well on wallpaper, but if you want something more subtle, try furniture upholstery, pillows, or drapes—particularly those that are opened and closed frequently so the design can be revealed and appreciated each time.
“It’s most successful in a traditional, country cottage or French provincial–style home,” says Henry.
Nixon found success with toile in modern settings as well: “The scenic pattern lent a nod to history that warmed up what could have been a cold space,” he says.
Hailing from Indonesia, with variants in South America, Central Asia, and the Middle East, ikat—from the Malay word for “tie”—is a type of complicated tie-dying. Ikat is created not by stamping a pattern directly onto fabric, but by “resist dyeing,” which means parts of the fabric are tied off and prevented from taking on color. Yarn or bundles of yarn are tightly bound, dyed, and then woven to create a design.
Ikat comes in many different colors and can be found on a number of different decor items.
“We love the look of ikat pillows on a sofa or scattered on the floor, ready for a round of board games,” Nixon says. Henry would pick ikat for a rug or table runner and recommends using the design in a home with a boho chic aesthetic.
The pattern has become ubiquitous, popping up in all sorts of decor destinations, from upscale interior design showrooms to popular big-box stores. Look for this wavy pattern on shower curtains, bedding, pillows, rugs, and tablecloths.
The thousand-year-old Japanese art of shibori also uses the resist dying method. But unlike the ikat method, shibori is made by twisting and folding the fabric into bunches and then coloring it using a traditional indigo dye.
Shibori, from shiboru, which means “to squeeze or press,” can be designed using wood blocks, rubber bands, clamps, or twist ties to resist the dye.
Nixon and his team at Madcap Cottage recently crafted a headboard with shibori. They’ve also used the pattern on table coverings, European pillow shams, and “a kicky ottoman that added just the right panache to a space that was absolutely forlorn.”
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