Old Shanghai furniture can be roughly broken down into three categories, which correspond to the stages of the city’s development as well as to the style of buildings in which the majority of the population resided. These started with the shikumen longtang, which dominated from the mid Nineteenth Century up until about 1920, through the yangfang longtang, or foreign-style alley houses, of the 1920s and early ’30s, and ending with the high-rise apartments of the mid ’30s up to 1949. Of course, these periods and styles overlapped significantly, and the furniture and housing of earlier periods continued to be used and manufactured throughout the later periods, but the standard division holds.
The shikumen longtang, or stone-gated alley houses, are an architectural form found only in Shanghai; only a few years ago, they still housed a majority of the city’s residents, and they remain a Shanghai trademark, although they’re rapidly disappearing. The furniture of the shikumen is the most “Chinese” of Shanghai’s furniture. While general structure of shikumen furniture varies, with about half following Chinese lines and half more Western, their detailed decorations are invariably Chinese.
The most common example of shikumen furniture is the rectangular stool, similar in shape and design to traditional Chinese tables and alters, but smaller, more practical, and more portable. Decorations between the legs follow traditional patterns. Rectangular stools were once ubiquitous in Shanghai, but are becoming ever less so. Also common are small, wooden chairs with square backs reminiscent of traditional Chinese chairs, but with rounded edges and beveled seats more Western in style. Vertically centered in the backrest is a column of detailed carvings depicting animals, birds, flowers, hearts, and other designs based in Chinese folk art. Other types of shikumen furniture, such as beds, tables, and cabinets, are similarly distinguished by detailed carvings drawing from the folk tradition. Beds throughout all three periods used woven matting, covered with cotton pads, which is typical of Southern China, contrasting with the heated brick kang typical in the North. With the advent of electricity, most shikumen houses were illuminated by a bulb hanging from the ceiling and covered by a white, round, flower-shaped glass shade. These shades are easily found at the Fuyou Lu and Dongtai Lu antique markets and should cost Y20.
Shanghai entered its period of modernization in the 1920s. J.B. Powell, who arrived in Shanghai in 1917, recalled in his memoirs how the city was transformed in the early 1920s by widespread plumbing, sewage, and other infrastructure essentials. Foreign-style lane townhouses — xin shi li nong — emerged in this period, merging the lane neighborhood and garden-and-courtyard structure of the shikumen with modern amenities. Two floors taller, with metal rather than wood fittings, and with indoor restrooms, these were the homes of middle class Chinese and the less-wealthy foreigners. The furniture of these townhouses was predominantly European classical. These subtle yet ornate pieces would have been perfectly at home in an English sitting room or French parlor of the same era. While frilly, flowery, French designs prevailed, Chinese elements could still be found in the smaller details, such as the crescent-shaped pull handles on the drawers.
Many international trends, including in the areas of art and design, tended to converge in Shanghai. The late 1930s and the 1940s were Deco decades for the city, as theaters, hotels, and apartment buildings, dominated by the inspired designs of Laszlo E. Hudec, altered Shanghai’s face. Single family flats, in Art Deco buildings between four and twenty stories, provided an alternative to the multifamily lane dwellings. Paralleling the rise of the apartment buildings emerged a strain of Art Deco furniture, but like previous styles it came with uniquely Shanghainese characteristics. The majority of Shanghai’s Art Deco furniture continued to use the general forms of the earlier styles, but with Deco flourishes taking the place of Chinese or classical details. My Yuyuan Lu stool, for example, is derived from a simple round, four-legged stool that is almost as much a Shanghai staple as the square stool mentioned earlier. Later incarnations added Chinese-style carvings as decoration under the seat and between the legs; examples of these are found in the site of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The Deco version merely curved the legs and the supports and added Art Deco “teeth” next to the legs.
Interestingly, the standard Chinese square table remained the norm for dining in Shanghai. Cramped living conditions precluded the possibility of a separate dining room for all but the most wealthy, so the longer, rectangular Western dining table never caught on. Versions of the multi-purpose square table, however, can be found in designs featuring the full range of Shanghai furnishing history.
After 1949, the furniture industry like much else shifted focus to function over form. Shanghai families, ever thrifty, continued to use the fancier furniture of an earlier era, and only now with increased prosperity are they looking for replacements. But the Shanghainese inclination to inundate their homes with cookie-cutter Ikea imitations provides the opportunity to grace you home with a waft of the mystery and history of Old Shanghai.
This article is a reprint from https://www.chinanow.com/english/shanghai/city/features/furnitureprint.html Photos are from ACF China