Monkey business is big business in decorating world

  • During the 1700s, decor style had a strong Chinese influence, which included monkeys.

    During the 1700s, decor style had a strong Chinese influence, which included monkeys. Stock photo

  • Traditionally, monkeys have been a symbol of good luck in Chinese culture.

    Traditionally, monkeys have been a symbol of good luck in Chinese culture. Stock photo

By Joseph Pubillones
Posted10/3/2021 7:00 AM

Editor's note: This column was first published in 2017.

The adage "what's old is new again" couldn't be more true. It wasn't too long ago that we saw monkeys in every accessory, lamp and dish towel. We all thought that it was a passing trend and exhaled as the next "trend" or theme in decor appeared. But how wrong we were. It seems that far from a trend, monkeys are a bit of a classic in interior design.


Americans, especially in Palm Beach, adore monkey decor, which they associate with visionary architect Addison Mizner's sidekick Johnny, present at every client meeting. However, monkey decor goes way back before then.

In France, from the 1720s to the 1770s, the Louis XV style was developing as a light and feminine decor with a strong Oriental influence, a little looser from the gilded exuberance and straight lines of Louis XIV. This Chinese influence brought forth the style now known as Chinoiserie, which means "in the Chinese manner." Of course, most of the designs were French adaptations of Chinese designs at the hands of French artists. In this mix, vivid colors from red to black replaced the golds and silvers, which from that point on were used more often as accents.

Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's chief mistress, gave an immense support to artists and artisans. She favored the Chinese influence and design as a foil for the fluid and curved lines of French furniture at the time. Madame de Pompadour was instrumental in the importation of Oriental art. What some consider an absurd development from this was another style: Singerie. This style was from the hands of artists Pillement and Christophe Huet, who brought forth the Mandarin pagoda, ladders, parasols, Oriental foliage and the iconic monkey, which was a symbol of luck in Chinese culture. The French rococo period saw singerie flourish.

These artists were seeking the court's favor and introduced these Oriental patterns to just about every decorative surface -- from furniture embellishments to china to fabrics. Needless to say, these motifs can be seen in the famous French fabrics known to this day as toile de Jouy.

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Singerie playfully depicted monkeys fashionably attired in clothing and frocks of the day and partaking in human behavior such as playing an instrument or sitting at a banquet table. This was an incredibly discreet way for an artist to highlight with satire the customs of that time.

In 1932, during the age of Jazz, Edward Sorel painted a mural at the Hotel Elysee in the Monkey bar where celebrities were depicted alongside monkey servers dressed in liveried attire at the height of the glamorous Art Deco period. Although the mural has been restored several times ... I don't think liveried monkeys would fly these days.

From wallpapers to bookends, monkeys have adorned our lives throughout the ages. Manufacturers from Meissen, Scalamandre, De Gournay and Mottahedeh have all contributed to our love of all things monkey, and they are fun sometimes. So, next time you see monkey decor, I hope you won't guffaw at it, but instead understand its place in history.

• Joseph Pubillones is the owner of Joseph Pubillones Interiors, an award-winning interior design firm based in Palm Beach, Florida.

2021, Creators Syndicate

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