Text: Jennifer Boles

Few furniture types are as chameleon-like as the folding floor screen. Hinged, upright panels that are typically made of wood, paper, or fabric, folding screens are believed to have originated in ancient China, where their heavy, carved, wooden frames rendered them stationary room decorations.

The furniture form was later introduced to Japan, where craftsmen refined the design of the folding screen and elevated it to an art form. By employing lightweight paper as the primary material, Japanese artists crafted screens that could be moved easily, thus establishing their role as mobile room partitions. But it was their exquisitely painted scenes that burnished their decorative status, earning them the distinguished position as backdrops for tea ceremonies and even imperial coronations.

The Asian screen style that most influenced Western decorative arts, however, was that of the lacquered screen, a design developed first in China and later adopted by the Japanese. Entailing a laborious process that involved the application of multiple layers of lacquer and painted, incised, or gessoed decoration, lacquered screens were made for both the Asian domestic market and, thanks to the seventeenth-century proliferation of commercial trading with the West, Europe—where a mania for all things Asian took hold.

Like Chinese porcelains, lacquered screens became status symbols among the European upper classes, with the most coveted being Chinese-made Coromandel screens, a misnomer which was the result of trade routes that took these screens through ports along India’s Coromandel Coast on their way to Europe.

Sometimes made of three, five, or even twelve panels, lacquered screens of Asian origin became so esteemed that they were sometimes dismantled so that the panels could be incorporated into wall paneling, thus spawning yet another design trend, that of the lacquered room. In time, Europeans began creating their own versions of the Asian lacquered screen, and although sometimes crude in comparison, they, too, won over Westerners with their fanciful chinoiserie-style designs.

Although the Chinese were first to conceive the notion of screens, medieval-era Europeans appear to have developed their own concept of the floor screen independently. But in the West, it was chilly, cavernous rooms that were the impetus, with rudimentary wooden screens designed to protect residents and their guests from cold drafts. As architecture and technology grew more sophisticated, so, too, did the floor screen, which adopted a mostly decorative role, particularly in eighteenth-century France.

There, the folding screen, frequently bearing formal giltwood or elaborately constructed frames, was a prominent feature of a then-innovative style of decorating, in which a room’s bed, windows, seating, and screen were covered in the same fabric. Over time, screens came to be adorned with wallpaper, including scenic papers, embossed leather, needlework, decoupage, and painted finishes. In fact, a number of prominent European artists, including Pierre Bonnard, treated floor screens as blank canvases on which to paint.

From a contemporary standpoint, what might be most impressive about floor screens is that unlike so many other decorative art forms, they remained an important furniture style well beyond the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, one could argue that examples produced in the 1920s and 30s are every bit as compelling as those crafted centuries ago, and the roster of those who designed them are a veritable who’s who of early 20th-century design.

Before she became a renowned modernist architect, Eileen Gray designed Art Deco-style furniture and floor screens using the Japanese lacquering technique. Her screen designs became the toast of 1920s Paris and remain highly collectible today. In the 1930s, French designer Jean-Michel Frank created minimalist screens covered in luxurious materials, such as straw marquetry and parchment. But as high-style as many of these screens were, it is the Asian lacquered screen that has perhaps elicited the most ardent devotion among connoisseurs, most notably Coco Chanel, who was so enthralled by Coromandel screens that she eventually owned a whopping 32 of them.