Have a Seat!

Within the last 10 years or so, there’s a decorative item I’ve been seeing frequently — Chinese garden stools — and I’ve wondered what the story was with them.

From HomeGoods & TJ Maxx to high-end home décor magazines and fine antiques shops, Chinese garden stools are everywhere. The ones you see most frequently are porcelain or some other type of stoneware and they’re usually about 16 inches tall.

Similar to the carpet balls I wrote a piece on a few weeks ago, the most common ones I see are blue and white with intricate Asian designs. There are tons of different ones on the market, though, so you can find one that would fit just about any décor. But what are they? And why are they called garden stools? I can’t imagine dragging one out to the garden for a good session of weeding!

I fired up the old laptop and did a Google search. There were lots of ads on where to buy garden stools but only a handful on the origin of them. According to “The History of Garden Stools, Part 1” (sotempted4u.wordpress.com), Chinese people started migrating from a floormat-style of resting or relaxing to a raised seat such as a stump or a rock three or four thousand years ago. They began crafting their own low seats that were a wooden drum style, often with an animal skin stretched over the opening. These would be the precursor to the garden stool we know today.

Chinese gardens were often enclosed courtyards and garden stools were meant to be decorative yet utilitarian at the same time. Stoneware versions could stand the elements and be left outside, though they weren’t used in garden labor. Instead, they were to add beauty and provide a handy place to sit down while in the garden.

The interesting thing about “Part 2” of that aforementioned article was an explanation of how garden stools are manufactured today. The least expensive ones, including those we see in HomeGoods and other such stores, are made in assembly-line fashion using press molds and man-made glazes. This is the level that you’ll find the most vivid color and distinctive shape varieties. And the stools will all be uniform because they’re made on a production line.

They tend to be smaller than traditional Chinese garden stools and somewhat lightweight, usually made out of porcelain. The “step up” from those are still made in a production line but with much thicker walls and, though still colorful, the colors will be a tad duller and less perfect to mimic the old style of the original stools.

Finally, there are garden stools made the old-fashioned way… on a potter’s wheel and fired in a wood-fired kiln known as a Dragon Kiln. The glazes are mineral based, and the hand-painted designs have imperfections. Again, the walls will be thick and the piece will be quite heavy.

The stool I’m showing here I got at a moving sale. It was obvious the homeowner had an eye for higher-end things, and I believe this stool is in the middle tier of qualities and it’s got some age to it. It has one of those “Japan” stickers on it and a maker’s mark. I’m guessing it was made during the post-WWII-occupied Japan period, in the late-1940s or 1950s. It weighs a ton and has lots of glue repairs, but it was well worth putting it back together. On the inside, it does appear to have been thrown on a potter’s wheel but I’m not positive. Adorned with exotic birds and flowers, it’s a gorgeous piece. I doubt I’ll be putting it out in the garden but a great side table it will make.

So, go out and get yourself a Chinese garden stool. Maybe even meditate for a while.