Chinese Famille Rose Medallion porcelain garden seat, early 20th century
Barrel- or drum-shaped garden stools have been used in China for at least 1,000 years. They may have evolved out of the Buddhist Garden tradition, where natural elements like tree stumps and smooth rocks were used as seats.
Traditionally, Chinese homes were built around a courtyard, and with an emphasis on landscape and gardens, so outdoor furniture was essential. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), these types of stools were used both indoors and outdoors as casual seating. Indoor stools were typically portable and made from wood, while outdoor furniture, needing to withstand the elements, began to be made from stone, glazed stoneware, or porcelain.
The antique stools that are still extant tend to be from the late Ming Dynasty (early 17th century) and later, and they have a range of decoration, including fretwork, relief decoration, and pierced motifs. One common decoration is simulated nail heads, often around the upper and lower parts of the barrel form. The nail head motif is left over from ancient Chinese drums, which had wood bodies with skins stretched over each end and affixed with nails.
Although these ceramic drum-shaped stools have been exported to the West for about 300 years, it is only since the mid-20th century that they have gained such currency in Western interiors and exteriors.