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Coromandel sounds simple, but it’s not

Coromandel is a Chinese art form used to decorate furniture. The most commonly decorated pieces are screens, chests and occasional tables. The technique involves applying layers of wet clay to the wood, baking them to harden the clay and then applying several layers of lacquer.

Once the lacquer dries, intricate patterns are carved onto the furniture, which is then painted with a protective finish. Incidentally, the original reason for lacquer was to seal the wood so insects wouldn’t use it as a home. Now the lacquer finish is part of the look we expect to see in a coromandel item.

The process of creating a coromandel piece may sound simple, but is actually quite complicated. One screen takes four to six weeks to complete. Originally, the process took even longer when the pieces were created by only one craftsman. Now though, several artisans work on one piece, almost in production-line-type fashion, with the more complicated designs being done by the senior artisan. The less intricate parts are done by novices, but the finished product looks, or should look, like it was done by one person.

To complicate the process even further, the surface of coromandel is both hard and slippery, requiring a highly trained person to handle the carving knife with dexterity.

To determine the quality of the piece, examine the lines in the pattern. Are the curved lines flowing and smooth? Those curved lines are harder to carve than straight lines, so there you have one sign to look for. Also, look for the quality of fine lines; they are tougher to achieve than thicker ones.

If a piece has a lot of broken lines, it is less than desirable. The imperfections do not enhance this art, as is sometimes the case in other types of art. Broken lines in coromandel indicate that the artisan was inexperienced or that the mixture of clay had too much water in it, thus making it susceptible to chipping and cracking.

The most common and well-known piece of coromandel is the ebony folding screen with panels of incised black lacquer. These items are often painted gold or other colors and frequently decorated with jade and other semiprecious stones, shell or porcelain. Some screens have as many as 12 leaves.

Rosemary Sadez Friedmann, an interior designer in Naples, Fla., is author of “Mystery of Color.”

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