Quick History: Chinese Garden Stools

published Sep 11, 2012
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For the last few years, barrel-shaped ceramic stools have been a popular decorating accessory, adding luster, color or texture to a space while serving as little side tables or room accents. But where do they come from, and where were they traditionally used? Okay, the answer is in the title of the post: they come from China, and they were traditionally used in gardens. But read on to learn more about the fascinating origins of this familiar form.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Believe it or not, barrel- or drum-shaped garden stools have been used in China for at least 1,000 years. They may have evolved out of the Buddhist garden tradition, where natural elements like tree stumps and smooth rocks were used as seats.

Traditionally, Chinese homes were build around a courtyard, and with an emphasis on landscape and gardens, so outdoor furniture was essential. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), these types of stools were used both indoors and outdoors as casual seating (image 2). Indoor stools were typically portable and made out of wood, while outdoor furniture, needing to withstand the elements, began to be made out of stone (image 3), glazed stoneware (images 4 & 6), or porcelain (image 5).

The antique stools that are still extant tend to be from the late Ming Dynasty — early 17th century — and later, and they have a range of decoration, including fretwork, relief decoration, and pierced motifs. One common decoration is simulated nailheads, often around the upper and lower parts of the barrel form. The nailhead motif is left over from ancient Chinese drums, which had wood bodies with skins stretched over each end and affixed with nails.

Although these ceramic drum-shaped stools have been exported to the West for about 300 years, it is only since the mid-20th century that they have gained such currency in American interiors — and exteriors (images 7-12).

Sources: Wisteria carries a range of reproductions in various colors and designs, between $129 and $249. For a prettier penny ($295-$995), the stools at Mecox Gardens are a bit higher quality and more unusual in their designs. And for the prettiest penny of all, various vendors on 1stdibs carry authentic antique garden stools in stone and porcelain.

Images: 1; 2 Su Hanchen, Children Playing on an Autumn Day, c. 1150, in the collection of the Chinese Government, via Wikimedia Commons; 3; 4-6 Minneapolis Institute of Arts; 7 Thomas Loof for House Beautiful; 8 Mary McDonald interior from Domino via Bride’s; 9 Marcus Design blog; 10; 11 Jeremy Samuelson for Elle Décor; 12

Originally published 10.5.10 – JL