Chinese dinnerware patterns are gaining in popularity, but it often takes a certain amount of background knowledge to appreciate them fully.
Historically, while the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries yielded many hallmarks of Chinese porcelain in technique, color, and breadth of design, the Chinese later produced a great deal of over-decorated porcelain, much of it inferior copies of earlier types.
The China trade began as early as the 16th century, when the Portuguese landed in Canton. By the mid-18th century the Dutch, French, and English had established strong trade relations with the Far East. The American market opened in 1784 with the sailing of the ''Empress of China,'' just as the European demand for export porcelain was beginning to soften.
According to porcelain expert Mildred Mottahedeh, the lively interchange between East and West resulted in a great hybridization of styles. Wealthy Europeans commissioned chinaware made to order, often designed around their family crests. The Chinese were fairly indiscriminate in executing requested designs. In efforts to please European buyers, they attempted to paint figures with Western features and even used Christian motifs.
Chinaware created for export to America generally relied on more stock patterns, but sometimes incorporated symbols of the young country, including eagles and scenes of the Delaware River, New York Harbor, and Mount Vernon. The American demand for Chinese blue and white chinaware was particularly strong, and pieces of Blue Canton are now cherished heirlooms in many families.
While a pattern such as Blue Canton may be immediately recognizable, there are a number of unusual and striking designs on the market that would make a distinctive setting.
Mrs. Mottahedeh, working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and other museums around the country, has supervised the reproduction of some of the most famous and popular designs taken from porcelain in the museums' collections.
Palace Blue, reproduced for the Metropolitan Museum, is a pattern originally made during the Hung-chih era (1487-1505) of the Ming dynasty. The blue and white designs perfected during that period are highly prized and, according to Mrs. Mottahedeh, the Chinese still believe the essence of good taste is the appreciation of blue and white.
Two more reproductions commissioned by the Metropolitan - Famille Verte and Tobacco Leaf - represent another epoch in Chinese design. The Chinese learned the technique of enameling from the Europeans, and the resulting polychrome wares dominated the Ch'ing period (1644-1912).
Famille verte refers to a family of finer porcelains decorated with semitranslucent enamels in graceful patterns primarily in shades of green. The original pieces produced from 1700 to 1730 are counted among the classics of ceramic art.
Not for the timid, the Tobacco Leaf pattern displays the vivid coloring of the famille rose palette that replaced the more subtle famille verte designs. A complex design of 27 colors, featuring the distinctive plum shade for which famille rose is named, Tobacco Leaf has been a favorite pattern for over 200 years.