Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Blue, White and Benjarong

Before moving to Southeast Asia, I was not a big fan of Asian-styled decor. I didn't care for the "Chinese" red lacquer that is applied to a lot of Asian furniture...
And, I really don't like to have people or alphabetic characters depicted on my furniture...

Although this type of furniture is still really not my style, I recently saw some pieces of antique furniture with the red lacquer finish that were so beautiful. The owner of one of my favorite antique shops downtown returned from a buying trip to China with several very nice cabinets and trunks finished in red lacquer.  The instructor of my interior design class had a couple of  pieces with the red lacquer finish that were gorgeous and fit so well into her home.  She told us that a design "rule of thumb" is that every room should have at least one "Asian" piece in it, even if it is just a small accent or accessory. I have found this rule to be held true about 85% of the time in the photos I see in the design magazines and blogs that I read.

Since there is so much furniture here that doesn't appeal to me, how to (inexpensively) incorporate an Asian piece into every room?  What I have fallen in love with since our arrival are the porcelain pieces produced in Southeast Asia.  Specifically, the blue and white patterned porcelain vases, ginger jars, bowls, etc. and the Benjarong pieces that are crafted right here in Thailand.  There are a few vendors near Nichada and in Chatuchack that have nice inventories of the blue and white porcelain pieces at very good prices and I have picked up several items for our home.

I was clueless about Benjarong until I went to Chatuchak with a friend who was searching for Benjarong crosses to give as gifts of appreciation.  Benjarong is a beautiful type of painted porcelain made in Thailand.  The style originated during the Ming Dynasty in China and spread to Thailand.  During the 13th – 18th centuries, Benjarong was made exclusively for the royal court but its use later extended to aristocrats and wealthy merchants.  Today, Benjarong is used all over the world for formal ware. Although Benjarong literally means 'five colors', the pieces are usually painted using anywhere from 3 to 8 colors. The "base" is white bone china which is painted using multi-colored enamels (including gold) in repetitive and delicately detailed geometric or floral patterns. The enamel is applied and then overglazed to create a swelling effect over the surface of the piece. Producing Benjarong is incredibly labor-intensive, as each color is applied individually and, after each color is applied, the piece is then fired in a kiln.  The firing in the kiln helps to brighten the colors of the finished piece.  A gallery I found in Bangkok allows three months for its' artists to complete a full dining set of Benjarong.  In order to ensure artistic unity, the same artist is used to paint each piece in the set.  Similar to fine china in the US, each design has a specific name (usually based on the decoration and the background color of the piece).

Here are a few pieces of Benjarong that I purchased at Chatuchak recently...
As is the case with most luxury goods, I am sure there are many Benjarong knock-offs that can be found around town.  I don't know enough about the different patterns and pieces to be able to identify an authentic Benjarong from a fake. I guess the style/skill of the painting and the quality of the bone china would be the most basic indicators but beyond that, who knows? If I was looking for something very special, I would probably go to one of the nicer galleries downtown for the purchase just to be sure I was getting the real thing.

So, where did the idea (and the title) for this post come from?  Saturday, the Community Liaison Office at the Embassy is offering a trip titled "Blue, White and Benjarong" which I signed up to go on.  I am not sure of the details but we meet at 8.00 am and do not return until 5:30 pm so it will certainly be a full day of activity.

Have a great Wednesday!

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