Provenance Columns

Provenance: Inlay

Walnut with boxwood, rosewood and bone inlay, the trestle support with iron chains made 1500-1550 Italy V&A

prov-e-nance ˈpräv-nən(t)s, ˈprä-və-ˌnän(t)s
noun. the place of origin or earliest known history of something.

In my first Provenance column since my move, I am turning my attention to the art of inlay, which seems extremely apropos as it is one of the high arts of the Islamic world. I was also lucky enough to spend some serious time this past summer with the extraordinary collection of inlaid furniture and objects found at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Even the best photos can only do this kind of detail so much justice and I will confirm for you that the 16th century Italian trestle table made of walnut with boxwood, rosewood and bone inlay shown above in the banner, was even more spectacular in person. That said, this is the kind of post in which all the photos are meant to be clicked on so that the detail can truly be appreciated.

The desire for ornamentation is universal and in the case of inlaid furniture, has transcended both time and geography. From the earliest known Mesopotamian example to those from ancient China, Egypt and the Roman Empire, artisans employed the technique of hollowing out cavities on the surface of an object and filling it with a different material – the inlay – to create contrast and pattern. Wood is most often the base material used for furniture, with other woods, ebony, ivory, bone, horn, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl and other shells being used for the inlay. Over the centuries the basic techniques have stayed the same, although the tools used have progressed hand in hand with technology, from early simple carving sticks to modern-day computerized cutting. More recently inlay materials have expanded to include the man-made, such as resin and other composites.

Inlaid furniture also tells the story of cross cultural influences and trade across borders. Inlay techniques were already perfected in North Africa before they were introduced by the Moors into Europe through southern Italy and Spain. Italian Renaissance artists carried the techniques further with their incredible detail and precision as the technique spread from northern Italy into Germany and then on to London via Flemish craftsmen in the later 16th century. It’s fascinating to compare the detail on this early 14th century Mamluk door from Cairo, inlaid with ivory, ebony and other woods, with this Venetian coffer made around 1520, also inlaid with the same materials. While the style of the inlay on the Italian piece is Islamic, the overall shape of the chest is most definitely Western European. This is not so surprising as strong trading links between Europe, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East were already in place.

mamluk door detail inlaid coffer ebony ivory venice italy 1520

For the purposes of this post, I am going to neglect the development of similar indigenous European techniques such as marquetry and parquetry, in which pieces of wood veneer are applied to furniture (not inlaid) for decoration and pietre dure/pietra dura, in which semi precious and other colored stones are inlaid into marble. Equally compelling, they perhaps deserve a post of their very own.

french-marquetry-desk-via-1st-dibs annotated italian_pietra_dura_2_annotated

As European exploration and colonization of India, the Middle East and Asia expanded, the Portuguese, Dutch and later English traders and then settlers arrived with a need for furniture and other objects such as sewing boxes and lap desks as there was little domestic furniture available. They had their European furniture and other imported pieces copied in native woods and then ornamented with traditional inlay techniques. Over time bustling export trade markets developed. Nowhere was the fusing of practical European pieces with local design more successful than in India and the Anglo-Indian furniture style – often referred to as British Colonial – was born. Bone inlay, as an alternative to the rarer and more valuable ivory and ebony, became the inlay material of choice because it was plentiful and readily available. Examples include this late nineteenth century colonial teak dresser inlaid with bone after it was made and what became an almost ubiquitous piece of colonial life, the planter’s chair. Both are highly collectible, extremely decorative and would look very at home in any global eclectic interior.

Victorian teak dresser with bone inlayBone Inlay anglo-Indian 19thc planters chairs

In North Africa and the Middle East local pieces such as dowry trunks and small tables were purchased and added to western style interiors, this being particularly popular in the latter half of the 19th century when exoticism became the rage during the Aesthetic movement.

northa african mother of pearl inlaid tables and dowry chest

late 19thc inlaid Syrian table

They have cycled around to being incredibly popular again in today’s interiors and it is rare to find an interior photo spread these days that doesn’t include at least one octagonal Syrian or Egyptian table in this style. I could choose from hundreds of photos, but I love the unexpected combination and color play in this Tom Scheerer interior. The table is tucked in the corner and it demonstrates its versatility well in this unusual mix.

Interiors of Tom Scheerer for Book

And let us be sure not to neglect Eastern Asia, where the art of inlay had been flourishing since before the 8th century. In Japan, mother-of-pearl was the most popular material, in addition to mixed metals and other techniques on lacquer pieces. While Japan’s production was domestically focused, the Portuguese began commissioning local workers to produce objects designed to appeal to the European market, like this tankard, in the latter half of the 16th century. Again we see a traditional western shape decorated in the local style. By 1635 the Portuguese were expelled and Japan remained closed to foreign influence for 250 years. Once reopened, design ideas from Europe were rapidly absorbed (as were design ideas from Japan in Europe). This elaborately inlaid curio cabinet or shodana, in the high Victorian/Aesthetic taste, was made for export in the late 1880s.

17th-century-mother-of-pearl-on-wood-lacquer-japan-tankard japanese-meji-period-shibiyama-shodona-cabinet

Elaborate inlaid cabinets were not limited to Japan and I cannot resist including these two absolute tour-de-force pieces that I was lucky enough to see at the V & A. The late 19th century Korean chest on chest used for storing clothes and bedding is decorated with phoenixes, cranes, peach trees and fish and utilizes stylized butterfly shaped metal fittings. The fully inlaid South American bureau is more of a mystery. It has been dated to around 1820, but little is known of it. It’s fascinating to see the European shape and techniques imported to the new world. More on each of these extraordinary pieces can be found here and here.

korean-1890-1910-inlaid-wood-lacquer-mother-of-pearl-and-brass-with detail

mother-of-pearl-inlay-bureau-mexico-c1820-with detail V & A

Inlay continued as a popular technique in the 20th century being perfectly suited to stylized designs appearing on Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces. The modernist movement found a use for it as well, often simplifying from elaborate obvious pattern to accent and texture, best epitomized in these contemporary 1970s bone inlaid pieces by Karl Springer.

art-deco-ivory-inlaid-dressing-table annotated karl-springer-bone-inset-ottomans annotated

Interiors that feature inlaid pieces are irresistible – adding vibrancy with their mix of materials. Here are just a few examples from designers who are masters at using such pieces, including in clockwise order Anna Spiro, Katie Ridder, Amber Lewis, Schuyler Samperton and Ashley Whittaker.

anna-spiro- katie ridder pink-curtain-inlaid-chest ashley-whittaker-schuyler samperton amber lewis inlay

Pieces from every era are pricy out in the marketplace. Well made new items are also expensive as even with advances in technology they continue to require a high level of craftsmanship. Bone and mother-of pearl are most commonly used on new inlaid furniture in the light of 20th century bans on the use or import of ivory and other precious commodities.

So where to find it? Antique pieces can be sourced from 1stdibs and auction houses, always a great place to look price wise if you know what you want. I’ve been quite lucky at flea markets and local shops, finding a small inlaid Indian table at a Japanese shrine sale, a colonial era set of tables at a run-down New Jersey antiques mall and most recently, an antique Syrian piece at a small shop here in Doha. Pretty global distribution if I do say so myself. Major online retailers like WisteriaSerena & Lily and even Pottery Barn, as well as the drool-worthy UK-based Graham & Green carry the very figural mother-of-pearl and bone pieces we see a lot of these days, both in furniture and lovely accessories. Numerous online importers ship straight from India as well, although I don’t have any personal experience ordering from them.

retail inlay pieces collage

The appeal of inlay is timeless as it adds a luminous and luxurious layer to any space and a whiff of exoticism and far off lands. On that note, the next few weeks will be devoted to the art of inlay here on Tokyo Jinja. From my own personal collection to contemporary interpretations of the craft, watch for numerous upcoming posts on the subject over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, if you would like to catch up on my previous Provenance posts you can find them over at Cloth & Kind as well as my related Provenance pieces here on Tokyo Jinja.

Victoria & Albert Museum, 2. My photo, Mamluk doors part of the The Museum of Islamic Arts collection, 3. Italian coffer from Victoria & Albert Museum, 4. Marquetry desk via 1stdibs, 5. Pietra dura via 1stdibs, 6. Chest photo via Wisteria, 7. Planters chairs via 1stdibs, 8.Table pair Christies, 9. Trunk Christies, 10. Syrian table close-up my own photo, 11. From Tom Scheerer Decorates by Mimi Reed, photographed by Francesco Lagnese, 12. Tankard Victoria & Albert Museum, 12. Shodana cabinet Bonhams, 13-14. Korean chest Victoria & Albert Museum, 15. Mother of Pearl chest Victoria & Albert, 16. Mother of Pearl detail close-up my photo, 17. Art deco desk 1stdib, 18. Karl Springer ottomans 1stdibs, 19. Anna Spiro in Absolutely Beautiful Things, 20. Katie Ridder in Elle Decor March 2008, photo credit: William Waldron, 21. Amber Interiors, 22. Schuyler Samperton, 23. Ashley Whittaker, 24-27. Tray and mirror via Wisteria, Commode and nightstand via Graham & Green, Bone inlay bathroom set via Pottery Barn,

A Little More Toran Goodness

Since writing my Provenance column on toran, I can’t resist sharing a few images, most off of Instagram, of toran I have stumbled across lately. It may be the usual selective perception, but I am noticing them everywhere. Anna Spiro, Australian designer and well-known author of the blog Absolutely Beautiful Things has one as a curtain valence in her new studio space. I love the way she has made coordinating curtains for it using a simple solid fabric trimmed with small tassels. As always, her spaces are an absolute cornucopia of colors and fabrics and her shop is one I have always wished to visit.

Toran instagram annaspiro office

I had forgotten that designer Katie Ridder had done something very similar in her “zam zam room” (better known as the den) using a toran she and her husband found in Paris (of all places) hung with some custom designed portiere curtains made to match. The trim on the edges picks up the embroidery colors in the vintage textile and makes a cohesive whole. The entire mix with the Moroccan rug, poufs and mid-century furniture is great fun. Take a moment to notice the pom-pom trimmed lampshades covering what must be recessed lighting in the ceiling. That’s certainly one great idea for me for dealing with those ugly can lights in the new house in Doha!

Katie Ridder toran lampshades

On a totally different decorative note, ceramicist Frances Palmer posted this room up in Maine, with two similar but not matching toran hung in the windows of a bedroom with peeling crusty painted walls. So very John Derian!

Toran Instagram francespalmer Maine

And while these are all people I actually follow on Instagram, there are others out there posting toran, like this one in a teenage girl’s dreamy bedroom. It’s also an excellent reminder to all of us to remind our own kids to keep their accounts private!!!

Instagram toran bedroom

And I spotted one recently as well. On my last outing to the Kawagoe shrine sale before leaving Japan, we had to eat in our favorite Indian restaurant of course. I had never noticed before, but there was a toran hanging over the doorway that leads to the bathroom.


There’s just nothing like a beautiful old textile to bring life and joy to a space. Don’t you agree?

Related Posts:
Toran on Provenance at Cloth & Kind
Provenance: Toran

Provenance…Byobu and the Race to Acquisition

provenance byobu

prov-e-nance ˈpräv-nən(t)s, ˈprä-və-ˌnän(t)s
noun. the place of origin or earliest known history of something.

This month over at my Provenance column on Krista & Tami’s blog Cloth & Kind I could not resist writing about byobu, those wonderful folding Japanese screens which have been entrancing the world for centuries. I have long loved them and purchasing an antique one was on the top of my list when I moved to Tokyo almost nine years ago.  I knew the perfect spot to hang it, just above my 18th century Shanxi region bamboo altar table. Early on I found many byobu of the right age and patina to be priced beyond well beyond my reach, but perhaps in my second year I stumbled across this small one, made from the fragments of a very very old screen, at the Heiwajima Antiques Fair. This instagram photo does not begin to do it justice as it doesn’t highlight the delicate gold leaf confetti in the left corner or the fencing around the chrysanthemums in the right. Unfortunately, everything is all packed now, so I can’t show you a better photo – you’ll have to wait for the unpacking at the other end.

antique Chinese bamboo altar table byobu blue and white procelain

It seems like perfect closure then that at the very last Heiwajima show I would be attending for a while this past May, that I found my dream byobu! I’ll give you a tantalizing detail but for more on it and on byobu in general, please click over to read the post on Cloth & Kind.

pine byobu detail

I know these last few posts have been all about my stuff, but there is something about leaving a country that one has lived in for a while that sends everyone on a frenzy of acquisition! I can’t tell you how busy I was with antiques for other people this spring (antique stone statue everyone!) and along the way I caught the bug myself. Honestly, while hundreds of items have passed though my hands these last years, I have always been good at letting them go on to their new homes. Here at the very end, I felt the need to tick off some boxes for myself. Has this ever happened to you? What did you buy when abroad, either living or traveling? Are there things you regret not buying?

Related Posts:
Beautiful Byobu…Japanese Screens at The Nezu Museum and at Home
Ogata Korin’s Iris Masterpieces Reunion Postponed
The Altar Table Reimagined…From Worship to Workhorse
Shrine Sale/Antique Show Schedule

Toran on Provenance at Cloth & Kind


prov-e-nance ˈpräv-nən(t)s, ˈprä-və-ˌnän(t)s
noun. the place of origin or earliest known history of something.

My obsession with ethnic textiles continues, this time in a new Provenance post over at Cloth & Kind on toran, the embroidered and embellished door hangings from Northwest India. There is nothing I like better than a little repurposing and they are ripe for it. Why confine them to the entrance doorway? What about a window valence…

Toran as window valence

…or a divine bed canopy?

photo via tumblr

Please head over to Cloth & Kind to read the full details – I know this is a column you won’t want to miss! Leave a comment there if you are so inspired!

On the same note, if we are talking obsession or inspiration, I realize I have not mentioned Australian stylist, author and self-proclaimed bowerbird Sibella Court enough. Her books and her Sydney atelier, The Society Inc, so vividly encapsulate everything I love about life as a global nomad and collector. In these last weeks, every time I think of an image or an item I want to talk or write about, I turn to her and she has it! Toran as bed canopy? Yes. Giant abacus? Yes. Unlike many, she has spent time trolling the markets of Japan and never ceases to amaze me with what she picks up and how she uses it. Can we just stop and ogle this photo for a moment?

sibella court from Nomad

Copper rain chain, Sori Yanagi’s Butterfly Stool, temple book and old black and white photo portrait (this one Chinese though) all set against a faded bamboo fence. Sigh…

Related Posts:
Provenance…My New Guest Column on Cloth & Kind

Image credits: 1-2. Pinterest, 3. Sibella Court, Nomad: A Global Approach to Interior Style

Provenance…My New Guest Column on Cloth & Kind

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 10.10.55 AM

prov-e-nance ˈpräv-nən(t)s, ˈprä-və-ˌnän(t)s
noun. the place of origin or earliest known history of something.

I am so excited to announce my new gig as a monthly guest columnist on Krista Nye Schwartz‘s blog Cloth & Kind. I’ll be penning the Provenance column and it’s a match made in heaven. Krista and I had long been admiring each others aesthetic – she describes herself as a “self-diagnosed textile addict”  – and I basically stopped bothering to Pin once I discovered her Textile Files on Pinterest. I’ll be joining forces with two other talented bloggers, Tami Ramsay, an interior and floral designer from Athens, GA and Bonnie Berry, a wedding and food photographer from Austin, TX, who will also be writing new columns on art, flowers and you guessed it, food! Although the internet knows no geographic boundaries, I often toil away here in Japan feeling a little bit isolated, so I am so thrilled to have a team of great women to work with.

kasuri banner

My post this week is on the origins and techniques of Japanese kasuri. For my readers, it would mean the world to me if you would head over to Cloth & Kind and read the post and leave a comment to show you’d been there – here’s the link straight to it. I know it’s just the kind of post you would like. For those coming to my blog via Cloth & Kind, welcome! I think you’ll find lots of content here to enjoy and I’d love to hear from you. I have category tabs down the right side of the blog and I use tags pretty freely as well. Search away!

One photo that didn’t make it into the post is these kasuri work pants. I am constantly tempted to buy some of these old work clothes with an eye towards wearing them and then the voice of my 13, soon to be 14-year-old daughter pops into my head. So unfortunately (perhaps fortunately), I left these as the market last week.

kasuri workpantskasuri workpants detail

In addition to Krista herself and her content on Cloth & Kind, I just adore the physical design of her blog.  She takes such care with the art direction and this has confirmed for me what I have long known and talked about before. I need to get out of my standard blog platform and move to a design that matches the quality of my content.  So if you know of any great graphic designers with skill (or are one yourself), please let me know. And if you want, instead of the usual currency, there is the opportunity to be paid in antique textiles, porcelain or whatever else!

It truly has been an indigo trifecta over the last week or so, with the long-awaited post on the amazing Amy Katoh and her treasure filled shop Blue & White. The giveaway for the LuRu Home pillow was a huge success with 83 entrant spaces. I am excited to announce that Loi Thai, proprietor of Tone on Tone Antiques in Bethesda, MD is the winner. Loi also writes a beautiful blog, he’s a dear and his taste is impeccable so I can’t wait to see what he does with the pillow as it is a little bit outside of his usual palette.

Screen shot 2013-03-20 at 1.33.17 PM

Once I knew he had won I made a bet with myself – I was sure he’d choose the pillow in Babyteeth – and he did!

babyteeth pillow luru home

Please join me over at Cloth & Kind today!

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