Why I Love a Folding Screen

A look at the history of the folding screen and 8 ideas to use them in your home.

Do you feel a chill draught about the knees?

Mr. Woodhouse amongst his folding screens - film shot from Emma

Autumn de Wilde's 2020 Emma

Mr. Woodhouse certainly did! He found the perfect mobile yet decorative solution too...a folding screen or as the French called it a paravent (literally a wind screen)!

Folding Screens' Past

From room divider to work of art, the folding screen has been rocking interiors since the Han Dynasty that's a long time friends -- almost 2,000 years! The folding screen is a simple enough device featuring hinged panels allowing for a zig zag self-supporting stance. Over the years the materials grew more elaborate from carved wood to paper, silk and other fabrics, paint, lacquer, and embossed leather.

While European designed screens developed independently of Asian forms, the coromandel screen, created in the Ming Dynasty, raged in popularity by the end of the 17th century among Europe's wealthy and became a status symbol equal to blue and white Chinese porcelains. Coromandel screens are elaborate and sizable up to 12 panels (check out this behemoth sold at Christie's in 2017). Lacquered usually with dark backgrounds, the screens are then etched with decorative scenes and filled in with gold, colored pigments, jade, porcelain, and/or mother of pearl.

Coco Chanel famously adored this style screen, decorating her Paris apartment with some 30+ coromandels, and later the label created a jewelry line based on these Chinese designs.

Coco Chanel in front of Coromandel screen circa 1937

Coco Chanel in front of coromandel screen circa 1937

The allure of the folding screen is undeniable in part for its oft used functional purpose to conceal. Like a present one can't resist a desire to peek inside or in the screen's case around the edge. Just think of the dressing screen and its titillating usage in art and opera. I dare you to find an 18th century boudoir scene in art without a folding screen.

François Boucher La Toilette 1742

François Boucher La Toilette 1742

Ideas to Use Folding Screens:

I love a folding screen for its versatility and beauty. There are so many enchanting styles from the wallpaper panels with gilded frames to the hand painted silks and the bejeweled coromandels to the Japanese gilt landscapes. I have two in my formal living room: one highlighting the bar cart and another before the firebox.

Both are vintage and found while out antique hunting. The one is a light wood painted with Rococo-esque florals in a soft taupe, blue, pink, and green palette. The other is a painting on silk of a dreamy lotus pond with weeping willows and cranes. You'll see them below!

Now on to ways to use folding screens in your home...

No. 1 Divide Space

The Japanese first developed this idea of the mobile room partition, using folding screens crafted with paper panels to section off areas. In your home, try a screen to divide an open concept space, creating privacy or defining zones.

A floral folding screen accents the vintage brass bar cart with antique oyster plates above for a garden feel indoors

My painted wooden screen behind the vintage bar cart

No. 2 Highlight

A folding screen can be a great way to draw attention to a certain area and highlight a piece of furniture or activity. I used my three panel painted wooden screen in just this way to enhance the bar cart zone.

No. 3 Conceal

Use a screen to hide eye sores, utilitarian features or appliances, a messy desk, or a work in progress. Make a temporary door across a pass through with a screen while entertaining. You'll prevent guests from nosing about or seeing private areas.

No. 4 Aesthetic Appeal

There is no denying that these folding partitions have become mobile canvases for gorgeous works of art. I love to see one hung on the wall behind a sofa to really allow one to enjoy the beauty of the subject depicted.

No. 5 Dress in Style

Take your cue from those 18th century boudoirs and put one in your bedroom for a romantic dressing area!

A fireplace with Chinese silk folding screen

The Chinese silk folding screen in front of firebox

No. 6 Cover

Don't stare at an empty or unusable fireplace! Cover it up with a half screen like I did!

No. 7 Balance

A large screen can be the perfect furnishing to provide weight on one side of a room that needs balancing because of other architectural features or furniture. It won't take up too much space, but it will still provide dimension and character!

No. 8 Panel

Copy Coco and use large screens as paneling on the walls. It certainly creates a chic look!

Well friends, I hope I've revitalized your interest in the folding screen. Tell me...do you have one in your house? If so how are you using it?

Hunting for your very own folding screen? Check out these:

I bet you've got something to say! Comment below!