A blue oriental design vintage cabinet by Cotswold Grey

What is Oriental Design?

One of the world’s most popular interior styles, oriental design can be seen in all areas of the home. But what does the term itself actually mean?

The truth is that oriental design can mean different things to different people, covering an almost infinite number of features and styles. Here, we take a closer look at the term, it’s origins in design and what it means in the modern home.

The Meaning of Oriental Design

Historically, oriental design referred to both artistic and functional features of items from the nations of East Asia. This catchment usually referred to products from China, Japan and other surrounding countries such as Vietnam or Thailand.

Over time, as the influence of Asian culture has become more noticeable in Western design, the term has been given a larger catchment. In the modern world, oriental design is commonly used to refer to products whose artistry or function is inspired by the cultures of Asia as a whole, regardless of where they were created. Nowadays, oriental design refers to common design characteristics seen in a massive variety of countries, from China to India and beyond.

 A tall white vintage Chinese wardrobe by Cotswold Grey

The History of Oriental Design

Tracing the impact and popularity of oriental design involves tracing the influence of Asian culture itself. When looking at East Asia, the majority of this can be located throughout the history of China, the region’s oldest and most significant civilisation. Throughout the early history of many other cultures in East Asia, including Japan and Korea, Chinese influence can be seen.

On the other side of Asia, many cultures can be traced back to India, particularly the proliferation of the Sanskrit language. This cultural development helped to promote ‘Indian’ styles and cultures across many other culturally-significant nations, such as Sri Lanka and Thailand. In locations such as Nepal, the blend between Chinese and Indian influence can be seen acutely.

 Small buddhist statues from Asia by Cotswold Grey

Common Characteristics of Oriental Design

In these early civilisations, design as we would think of it today was something reserved for the affluent. Often, these members of society viewed Western styles as being elegant and refined, opting for that style over their own. Oriental design as we know it was often created by the wider public and was influenced by two major factors: the environment and beliefs.

The environmental differences between Europe and Asia have made a substantial impact on differences in design. This contrast is most visible in the materials used but can also be seen in the entire construction of houses. Meanwhile, beliefs based on religion but also how one should conduct themselves throughout their life also drew Asian design down a path with distinct differences to the West.

Here are some of the most common characteristics found in oriental design:

Wood & Porcelain

Historic Asian design often relied heavily on these two materials. Wood is a common feature of much antique furniture from around the world, but Asian examples were famed for their intricate detailing. Moreover, lacquer, used to give a more robust and shinier finish to wooden products, originated in Asia, with roots in both India and China.

Porcelain is perhaps Asian culture’s biggest influence in the world of design, having been a secret of the Chinese civilisation for hundreds of years before reaching Europe.


Silk is another material that was first developed in China before slowly moving West, through India, before reaching Europe. Both India and China are the biggest producers of silk in the world, where it was and still is regarded as a luxury material.


Calligraphy, the art of writing, has been a part of many cultures across the world. However, in East Asia particularly, it is much more appreciated as an art form in itself.

In China, Korea, Japan and many more East Asian nations, calligraphy plays a large role in the modern art scene. These works are commonly done on paper with black ink, with multiple smaller factors giving each piece a sense of individuality.

Like culture itself, in many cases, Asian calligraphy can be traced back to Ancient Chinese writings which initially took the form of carvings on hard surfaces.


Throughout the history of many civilisations, flowers are used as a powerful method of symbolism. The English Rose or Scottish Thistle are two examples from closer to home. Again, influenced by the environment, the flowers used in oriental design are different and, as such, produce different aesthetics.

Some prominent examples in Asian culture are the lotus flower, which has many Buddhist connotations, and plum and cherry blossoms, which are prominent in the arts of China and Japan. In many cases, these flowers are used to represent the beauty and shortness of human life.

 Lotus flowers in a lake in Asia


Again, almost every culture across the world has certain animals to which it connects. However, some are more common in oriental design. The Chinese dragon is perhaps the most common example, although this image has been promoted by the West as much as by the East.

More subtle examples of animals in Asian culture can be seen in oriental design. In Indian culture, the elephant plays a significant role, both religiously and as a general symbol of strength. In East Asia, the crane is a more delicate animal, often used to represent harmony and longevity.

Using Oriental Design in the Modern Home

There are countless ways that oriental design can be incorporated into your interior. Often, the bright colours associated with Indian silks or Moroccan style rugs can be used to inject some energy and vibrancy into a space. On the other hand, using a traditional wooden chair or vintage dining tables from East Asia can help to bring a sense of luxury into a room.

However, including oriental design often goes beyond simple aesthetics. Often, we introduce these motifs into our home as a reminder of the way of life they represent. Whether it’s a lotus-inspired rug or a stunning lacquered cabinet with crane motifs, these items remind us of the importance of harmony and the values that mean the most in our lives.

We hope that our extensive collection of authentic Asian homeware and furniture will inspire you to introduce some oriental design into your home. If you want to know more about the emotional benefits of this style, why not read our blog on how to feng-shui your home?

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