Asian lacquer objects made in East Asia first reached Europe in about the early 16th century. They were highly prized for their flawless finish and light-reflecting qualities.
Portuguese explorers discovered a sea route to the East around the southern tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. That’s why Lacquer became available to European elites, along with other luxury items including silk and porcelain. The flow of goods increased in the early 17th century when the Dutch and English East India Companies began to bring goods to markets in Amsterdam and London. By 1700 many European country houses and palaces contained examples of East Asian export lacquer.
Asian lacquer in French 18th century furniture
The taste for oriental decoration grew in France in the middle years of the 18th century. Therefore the demand for lacquer was so great that dealers in luxury goods (marchands-merciers) dismantled Japanese cabinets and Chinese Coromandel screens imported in earlier years, in order to re-use the lacquer panels on new French furniture. The expert Parisian craftsmen were able to cut and bend the lacquer. They balanced then the decoration on the finished piece with japanned additions. Mounts of gilded brass were often applied to disguise the joins. They provided a rich contrast with the black lacquer. The demand for East Asian lacquer for use as veneer was great. As a result, very few Japanese cabinets survive intact in French collections.
Art Deco period
East Asian lacquer continued to influence European art throughout the later 19th and the 20th centuries.
By the early 1900s ways were devised to successfully transport Asian lacquer to Europe for application there. Japanese craftsmen with the knowledge of how to use it had also arrived in Europe. The Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray studied the art of Japanese lacquer working in Paris with Seizo Sugarawa. Sugarawa was a Japanese artisan who had come to Paris to repair lacquer work exhibited in the Exposition Universelle of 1900. Gray became one of the first Westerners to work with true East Asian lacquer, which she applied to her own contemporary furniture designs.