Monday, February 20

the who, what, where and how of lacquer finishes in interiors: Part II add glamour with lacquer

Let's delve into the beautiful,
intricate work of Lacquerware
an ancient art form, with findings from more than 
8,000 years ago taken from archaeological digs in China

After my post about adding lacquer furniture to create a lil' glamour in your home, I received inquiries about the actual process. This lead me to write further about the idea and history of Lacquerware, an intricate process of decorating objects, which has been around for centuries. Let's delve in deeper and take a look at this ancient form of decorating wood.

One technique of making the lacquer solution is made from the sap of the Rhus vernicifera tree, which grows in China. The clear sap turns dark when contacts with air, then pigments can be added to create colors; throughout history red and black were the most common. The lacquer is painted onto the wood with a brush, and there are often many layers applied, allowing each one to dry first, sanding in between coats.  An added bonus of lacquer is it's waterproofing abilities of the wood.
The term lacquer originates from the Portuguese word "lac", which is a resin that certain insects expel (more about this below) 
In China,
lacquer mixed with powdered cinnabar is used to create
traditional red lacquerware.
Simply put, to "lacquer" something means to give it a smooth, glossy finish. Today the word is loosely described for many techniques, and even when spray painting a vintage piece of shabby furniture with a shiny can of paint.  But, let's look at the elaborate history behind the original Lacquerware techniques applied to wood and objects.
beautiful ancient lacquered box inlaid with mother of pearl,
currently on exhibit at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wikepedia description of lacquer
a varnish that dried by solvent evaporation and often a curing process and the end result is a hard, durable finish, in any sheen level from ultra matte to high gloss.  When you hear the word "lacquer paint", it usually means a paint that dries to a more than usually hard and smooth surface".
In terms of modern products, lac-based varnishes are referred to as shellac, while lacquer refers to other polymers dissolved in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as nitrocellulose, and later acrylic compounds dissolved in lacquer thinner, a mixture of several solvents typically containing butyl acetate and xylene or toluene. While both lacquer and shellac are traditional finishes, lacquer is more durable than shellac".
Lacquerware refers to the application to wood, metal and other surfaces, some involving carving into deep coatings of layers of lacquer. It is quick-drying The lacquer formulas vary and have changed over time, but generally are durable and glossy. Some believe it was invented in both India and China, yet there are debates it's roots are in Iran and even Japan. There are two distinct types of creating lacquer: one taken from the sap of a Rhus tree and other from an excretion from an insect - a red dye extracted from the insect, and later what was left of the insect was used for lacquering objects. In the tree version it's important to note the tree must be 10 years old at least before using to bleed the resin.
Important to note when looking at lacquer finishes:
Urushiol-based lacquers differ from most other lacquers in that they are slow-drying, water based, and dry by oxidation, rather than by evaporation. To set properly it requires humidity and warm temperature.
a modern lacquer finish - nods to the antique varieties
In China during the Shang Dynasty, the sophisticated techniques used in the lacquer process were developed and it became a highly artistic craft. Elaborate incised decorations were known to be used in a number of Chinese Lacquerware during the Han and Tang Dynastys. There was a great use of sheets of gold or silver detailed into many shapes depicted in nature - such as birds, animals, and flowers. These designed were applied on the surface of the lacquer body, after which new layers of lacquer were applied, dried, and then finely sanded, so the surface was polished to reveal the golden or silvery patterns beneath.

As I look at these exquisite designs, I giggle to myself and cannot help but think of the rough children's school projects of my youth of decoupaging art and photography to preserve it under a thick shiny glue substance.   But, this ancient technique was much more of a high art form and it was time-consuming and expensive, therefore lacquerware was highly coveted and pricey and often only seen in the most refined homes.

photograph from Wikipedia - Ming era lacquerware from 16th Century China

After the 10th century, various techniques developed such as the inlaying of different materials like mother-of-pearl in the Song Dynasty.  The Chinese also worked with inlaid ivory, jade, coral and abalone. The Chinese methods spread to Korea, Japan, and Southeast and each country put their own spin on this beautiful art form.  The Japanese made popular the gold and silver foil inlays of the Nara period. The lacquer substance is often colored by adding iron oxide and will turn either red or black, explaining the popularity of both of these colors in many historic lacquer pieces of furniture and objects in Asia.

As you can see this labor intensive treatment has morphed and adapted to modern furnishings.  The lacquer we often see on furniture today in the United States is a mere painted lacquer finish that is applied many times in layers, sometimes honed and sanded in between layers.  However, depending upon the Provence of the piece it can have a variety of coats and layers and techniques, so it is always a good idea to ask many questions from the manufacturer.
modern day lacquer bowls I spotted in a London flea market

I like the use of a shiny, sleek item in a room,
such as this coffee table added to the other textures
in the colorful space by

These modern nods to an ancient art form brings beauty, yet culture to our homes

It is quite interesting how many cultural influences are referenced in the American home today.  We can feel the tugs of artistry from around the world in almost every corner  -- as can be seen from this vignette from the Treillage shop in New York City - the lacquered (traditional Chinese red) cocktail table with European style tufting and an American flair of putting it together, adds a creative combination of colors, styles and balance.
 thorough art exhibits showcasing lacquerware at the
Washington, DC
the red and black lacquer exhibit
in New York City
designers today use lacquer in interiors on furniture, objects or walls like
this shot of Steven Gambrel's lacquered wall and ceiling - divine!
 Check out my Moderne and Glamour Pinterest board