‘The Ming dynasty is very much seen as the golden age of furniture production in China,’ says Marco Almeida, International Senior Specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art. ‘When you look at a piece of Ming furniture, the first thing that strikes you is its simplicity. Their designs are not divorced from function: Ming pieces were made with a purpose, and their clean lines celebrate the material used.
‘The artisans who produced these pieces used the wood in very clever ways,’ Almeida continues. They sometimes used the grain to ‘give an idea of design,’ the specialist explains, ‘but it’s all very natural. You do find playful details, mostly dragons, and a lot of inspiration from the natural world.’
Made for scholars and the elite, Ming-era pieces were created using precious woods which furniture craftsmen went to great lengths to find. ‘Among the most sought-after materials was a wood called huanghuali,’ explains the specialist. Prized not only for its aesthetic qualities, it grows incredibly slowly. ‘It would take a long time to find a huanghuali tree you could actually use,’ Almeida adds. One of the traits of the wood craftsmen looked for is what’s known as ‘ghosting’: the appearance of ‘ghost faces’ in a panel.
Perhaps the most significant hallmark of Ming-era pieces, however, is their impeccable construction. Ming artisans used ‘very simple but highly effective joinery,’ Almeida says. ‘No nails were used; instead, they looked for pressure points.’
Ming-period furniture is characterised by a few iconic shapes, such as the horseshoe-back armchair. ‘They are quite calming,’ says Almeida, ‘because the lines are clean and continuous, without any drastic juxtaposition of forms. When you look up close you realise that nothing was left to chance — every millimetre of these pieces was carefully planned.’
Ming pieces were produced 400 years or more ago, and have really stood the test of time — indeed, they are still influencing design today. ‘These are beautiful objects,’ Almeida continues, ‘but at the core they had to function, to serve a purpose. It’s a great example of beauty and function working together.’
Key examples of Ming furniture will be offered on 7 November in the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale at Christie’s in London.