Folding screens are unique furnishings that, much like ornate carpets and vases, are actually pieces of functional artwork. In their basic functions, carpeting serves as insulation and vases serve as containers. Highly-crafted and ornate examples of these two home wares, however, are often elevated in our consideration to the level of artwork. Folding screens are comprised of multiple vertical panels that are conjoined with hinges. Typically, these screens are decorated with beautiful paintings or prints that depict ornate images or scenes.
The purpose of a folding screen is to separate a space and create privacy. For example, a folding screen might be used in a bedroom to create a space near the closet or dresser where one might disrobe or dress in privacy from others who share or frequent the room. Folding screens are very useful because they stand alone and are generally not attached the the floor, ceiling, or wall. Therefore, they are mobile and can be used for numerous purposes within the home or business. Furthermore, the hinges in folding screens give them an amorphous shape; the number of possible shapes that can be made with a folding screen grow exponentially as the number of panels increase.
In addition to their uses within sleeping quarters, folding screens are also used in hospital wards to separate the space between patient beds, in restaurants to conceal the waiter’s station, and in studio spaces to carve out rooms, just to name a few functions. While folding screens that are used in restaurants and homes are generally both pretty and purposeful, those that are used in hospitals and medical offices are generally quite plain.
Perhaps we have found so many uses for folding screens because they have been around for such a long period of time. Historians widely agree that the folding screens were first created in Asia. In fact, prototypes of folding screens have been dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD). Although they were first developed in China, folding screens are generally considered to be a Japanese craft as they have been in frequent use in Japan for many hundreds of years.
The word for folding screen in Japan is byōbu, a term which figuratively means “protection from the wind.” They were introduced to Japan in the eighth century and have been designed and manufactured there ever since. In days of old, many of the folding screens that were produced were beautiful and sturdy. While it is still possible to procure special handmade folding screens, many screens that are produced today rather flimsy.