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Chapter One: Points of Departure
Travel broadens the mind--and our visual frame of reference. As the world shrinks, ideas for decorating are likely to come from sources halfway across the globe, and what were once the exotic souvenirs of a grand tour can now be found by armchair travellers in markets and stores much closer to home.
As with current trends in cooking, music and other creative pursuits, this new approach to decorating is less about reproducing distinctive national styles and more of a vibrant cultural fusion, merging design elements from around the world. The result is an eclectic blend of ingredients and flavours that brings a new sense of vitality to the home.
Spicy palettes of colour, exuberant patterns, earthy materials and original handmade artefacts provide a richness and depth of character. As an antidote to the sheer predictability of mass-market products, the style is anything but dull and uniform. But unlike the cluttered free-for-all of previous incarnations of ethnic style, today's 'fusion' look retains a focused, modern edge. With each aspect working to create an integrated and harmonious effect, contemporary notions of space, light and comfort are not compromised.
From Mexico to Morocco, India to Indonesia, the sources of inspiration are truly global. African stools carved in dark wenge wood, glittering saris woven through with silver and gold thread, luminous Moorish tilework and the powdery pastels of cotton dhurries add the vigour of colour, texture and pattern to the interior. But the verve and flair these elements bring to daily life is only part of their appeal. Equally persuasive is the fact that such ingredients are oftenexceptionally economical, and many are available right here at home.
For centuries, ever since regular trading links were established around the world, there has been a creative cross-fertilization of decorative influences. Today, with the accelerating pace of communication, the process has intensified. The exotic look today is a vivid expression of the energy and spirit of that global melting pot.
In the past, ethnic inspiration was frequently displayed in layers of textiles and collections of curiosities from around the globe, an approach that was often more museum-like than home-like. Today, the look goes deeper to create surroundings that are charged with passion and power. A literal interpretation is unnecessary; the creative abstraction of a look--a palette of colours, a suggestion of texture or finish--goes to the heart of the matter and allows personal expression to come into play.
The clean lines of modern rooms make a good foundation for the style, while contemporary design focuses on the basic qualities of light, space, colour and texture. In the modern exotic fusion, the restraint of modernism is tempered and the theatricality of ethnic decorating is given a sharp, new edge. It is the perfect style marriage.
For Northerners and Westerners, 'exotic' immediately conjures up the remaining two points of the compass. Distant and mysterious, the natural and man-made wonders of the Far East and the South have long exerted a powerful sway on our imaginations. This intense fascination may originally have been based on ignorance, leaving plenty of scope for the imagination to extemporize, but even the cheap flights and mass communication of the modern era have not dispelled the mystique.
Exotic decorating is as old as travellers' tales. Ever since Roman times, spices, silks, porcelain and lacquer have been imported from the East, but it was not until the sixteenth century, long after Marco Polo's largely fictitious account of his 'discovery' of the old Silk Route, that regular trading links between Europe and Asia were established. At that time, the 'mysteries of the Orient' demonstrably lay in knowledge and technique--skills of silk-weaving, dyeing, porcelain-making and lacquering hitherto unknown to Europeans.
From China came lustrous and embroidered silks, fine blue and white porcelain and intricate inlaid or lacquered cabinets. From India the great trading companies imported entire cargoes of block-printed and painted cottons, the first textiles seen in the West to combine brilliant permanent colour with the ability to be washed. Hugely decorative and appealing, and displaying an incredible degree of finesse, such goods were luxuries of their time and became instantly fashionable, so much so that, in the case of textiles particularly, embargoes were occasionally placed on their importation to protect home-based industries.
Almost from the beginning, however, the decorative traffic was two-way. Eastern producers learned to create designs that would appeal to their new Western customers, or sometimes they were commissioned by traders to copy European patterns, prints or decorations. The result was often charming anomalies--animals, buildings and people depicted by craftsmen thousands of miles away who had never seen them. In the West, too, once approximations of these Eastern techniques were mastered, a whole range of artefacts featured stylized oriental scenes in the same curious hybrid of East and West. Real or authentic, imported or home-grown, chinoiserie took Europe by storm.
Empire-building in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries served only to heighten the taste for the exotic. The British presence in India--the Raj--together with the French colonization of North Africa and the long-established Dutch links with Indonesia brought many diverse influences into play. In the Victorian age of stylistic free-for-all, the innate eclecticism of exotic decorating had a particular relevance.
In Britain, exotic imports such as elephant's foot umbrella stands, big game sporting trophies, fringed paisley shawls, elaborate wickerwork chairs, fretted or latticed screens, and a whole range of other ethnic artefacts were added to the melange of trinkets in overcrowded parlours. Whether they were mementoes of a colonial tour, evidence of an amateur interest in anthropology or simply odd curiosities, such elements displayed the Victorian mania for collecting, and provided a powerful expression of the British Empire's dominance in the world at that time.
The decorative influence of the Raj was inextricable from political and economic realities. 'Moorish' style, on the other hand, was less obviously a colonial look, appealing more particularly to the Victorian sense of fantasy. Leighton House in London, with is luminous tiled Arab Hall, was a classic example, but countless country house billiard rooms and smoking rooms--chiefly male domains--were also decorated in a similar mode. The loose informality of cushions piled on divans and ottomans, and layers of Turkish rugs on the floor, generated an ambience of worldly sophistication.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, industrialization in Britain had begun to pose a significant threat to the trade in handmade textiles from the East. Raw Indian cotton was grist to the satanic mills of the Midlands, where it was woven and printed in imitation of traditional designs. 'Paisley', which was originally a pattern characteristic of hand-woven Kashmiri shawls, takes it name from infinitely inferior machine-made cloth produced in the Scottish town of the same name. With inexpensive imitations readily available at home, trade in authentic textiles and artefacts unsurprisingly dropped off.
However, by the end of the nineteenth century, such ersatz manufacture had succeeded in promoting another great wave of Eastern influence as artists and other progressives became more and more disenchanted with the soulless and often tawdry products spewed out in their thousands by factories and mills. Oriental art, in particular Japanese woodcuts, which reached Europe for the first time during the late 1850s, was to inspire a whole new decorative and aesthetic style.
Japonaiserie, chinoiserie's successor, was superficially identifiable in many middle-class homes by vases of peacock feathers, spindly bamboo furniture and japanned finishes or lacquerwork, with the Imperial symbol, the sunflower, a pervasive motif. Such fashionable tastes, along with the excessive sensitivities of aesthetes such as Whistler and Wilde, were widely parodied, notably by W. S. Gilbert in The Mikado. But away from the mass market, in more serious circles, the products of both the Near and Far East began to be revered for their authenticity and integrity, qualities also ascribed to medieval craftsmen. The gothic architect William Burges remarked that the Japanese 'appear not only to know all that the middle ages knew but in some respects are beyond them and us as well'. Artists avidly collected blue and white 'Nankin china', as Japanese porcelain was known. Contemporary paintings, such as those by Tissot, show the artistic taste for the exotic in full flight--animal-skin rugs, painted screens, oriental rugs and textiles, as well as the much coveted porcelain.
Arthur Lasenby Liberty, founder of the influential London store that bears his name, was a key figure in popularizing the look. He began by importing coloured Eastern silks and progressed to the marketing of a wide range of goods from Egypt, India, Japan and China: fine oriental rugs, Indian furniture inlaid with ivory and Middle Eastern ceramics. 'Benares metalwork, Lucknow jars, Indian dhurries and Chinese bronzes jostled one another in half the windows of Regent Street,' commented a magazine in 1880. Handmade, idiosyncratic and made of high-quality materials, such products made a powerful contrast to the essentially repro-style of much Victorian manufacture and were instantly fashionable among an artistic and intellectual elite.
To meet the growing demand, Liberty commissioned 'Anglo-Japanese' designs in bamboo and imported furniture from Cairo and Syria: Indian-style occasional tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, screens and Moorish-style furniture with musharabeyeh latticework panels. Like many exotic interiors of the day, such pieces retained a fundamentally European appearance.
The twentieth century has seen its own versions of the look come and go. The louche environment of the turn-of-the-century artist's studio prefigured the rather racy interiors of the Roaring Twenties, with their vivid colour, divans piled high with cushions, animal skin rugs and tinted Chinese lanterns. Africa also joined the East as a source of exotica. Before the First World War, the colonial look--all whitewash, planter's chairs, dark wood and leopard-skin--signalled another take on the style, while modern artists in search of inspiration found the inchoate forms of African masks, carved heads and totems to be powerful points of reference. For North Americans, it was the pre-Columbian art of Mexico, Central and South America, with its stepped ziggurat forms, that provided the necessary stimulus on the immediate doorstep.
But the ethnic style with which most of us are familiar dates from a more recent time. The counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and early 1970s represented its heyday, when hippies, trailing eastwards in search of spiritual enlightenment, brought back a whole kit bag of ethnic paraphernalia. Embroidered textiles, printed Indian cottons, bronze pots, mirrored and tasselled wall hangings, carved and pierced wooden tables and screens were loosely flung together in darkened rooms that were pungent with the scent of patchouli oil and burning joss sticks. The succeeding generation of global trekkers, travelling the outposts of the world with more obvious political agendas, focused on whatever was indigenous to a region--real, handmade products to act as a counterpoint to the cynical marketing of multinational corporations.
Thus, for Northerners and Westerners, the 'exotic' in decoration has always had something of a subtext. In the seventeenth century, it spelled luxury, mystique and intense desirability, and it is very difficult today to imagine quite the impact that goods such as lacquerwork and porcelain made when they first arrived from the East. The effect was undoubtedly electrifying. For Victorians, the exotic had distinct imperial undertones, mixed with a tantalizing and seductive 'otherness'. In the twentieth century, decorating in an exotic way has often been valued as an expression of protest against established mores. Through the medium of exotic decorating, each period has found something quite different to say.
The exotic look today is no exception. At the end of the twentieth century, it has finally lost all taints of cultural imperialism. Neither is it particularly synonymous with the luxurious display of arcane skills; it is the primitive we value, rather than the esoteric. Cluttered and unfocused 'hippy' rooms and the self-consciously right-on ethnicism of the early 1970s are completely out of fashion. But the look has taken a new twist to meet the demands of the age. In pared-down contemporary rooms with their free flow of activities, the exotic influence provides the human touch and is evidence of the universal thread of creativity that binds different cultures together.
As the pace of technological change accelerates, as computers and electronic wizardry invade more areas of our lives, exotic decorating has come to represent the lost dimension of handmaking. Exotic, for us, is less a statement of difference and more an expression of continuity and shared human values: the pleasure of vivid colour, the sensual tactility of natural materials, the rhythmic satisfaction of simple patterns and forms. It is an emotional response as much as an aesthetic one, and it speaks to a basic need. In our post-industrial society, which seems to alienate producers and consumers alike, it is a way of restoring soulfulness to our everyday lives.
Creating the Look
Many of the previous incarnations of the ethnic style of decorating have had something of a period feeling about them. With exotic's strong ties to the eclecticism of the nineteenth-century interior, this is not surprising. The more recent 'hippy' version of the look was similarly associated with a generally retro approach to design that harked back to the early decades of the century, to the sinuous curves of Art Nouveau in particular, while the ethnic styles of the early 1970s coexisted with a renewed interest in all forms of Victoriana.
The modern insight is that exotic can be contemporary. For those who are keen on authenticity, it is worth pointing out that spare, uncluttered, modern rooms are very close in spirit to traditional ethnic interiors, where possessions are often of necessity minimal, and a certain elemental quality of surface and form is at the forefront. Such an emphasis chimes perfectly with the contemporary instinct for light and spacious surroundings where furniture and furnishings have room to breathe.
Exotic decorating in the past has often taken the form of re-creations of distinctive cultural or national styles, however loosely executed. To our eyes, a Victorian Moorish-style smoking room may well remain indelibly Victorian, but the attempt was nevertheless to create a look specific to a particular region. Similarly, japonaiserie often resembled a curious European interpretation of traditional Japanese design, but there was no doubt where the influence came from. In more recent decades, a whole host of styles has appeared in books, magazines and on television programmes, virtually in the form of decorative blueprints to be copied detail by detail in the home. Mexican-style kitchens lead onto Moroccan-style living rooms, Japanese-style bedrooms adjoin Caribbean-style bathrooms: the world in a terraced (row) house.
The exotic look today, however, is less site-specific. A new confidence is emerging that enables us to cast off the security blanket of stylistic labels and devise our own more imaginative fusions of colour, pattern and form. The aim is to achieve a unified look, with everything working together, whatever its origin.
Such an approach recognizes that the world is shrinking fast and that achieving an 'authentic' cultural style, given the global cross-currents of influence, is increasingly difficult. In fact, some of the most resonant styles have always been hybrids. What is nominally 'Moroccan' is in reality a blend of African, French and Moorish influences; Mexican style represents a vivid collision between Spanish and Aztec cultures; while the long entanglement of East and West is almost impossible to unravel. Ultimately, it is the fundamental similarities betraying the human instinct for decoration and expression that are perhaps more interesting. We are much better travelled than ever before, and as such are better equipped to spot these connections--the often surprising echoes that can be found between the patterns and artefacts of one culture and another on the opposite side of the world.
Equally important, the modern version of exotic decoration acknowledges the fact that Moroccan or Mexican style can be faintly ridiculous thousands of miles from its natural surroundings. Recreating a look wholesale betrays, at best, a certain timidity; at worst, it can be almost patronizing, with artefacts displayed like a collection of trophies in a museum. Today, the look does not deny the Western framework, nor does it insist on absolute authenticity. But it does depend on achieving a basic understanding of other cultures so that influences can be translated in a personal and meaningful way. In this context, it is interesting that many of the most successful interpretations of the style have been made by designers transplanted miles from their homeland, drawing on faint childhood memories of particular places they once knew--themes distilled by time and distance and woven into the fabric of their new lives. In the work of Christian Liaigre, Spencer Fung or Bowles and Linares, the same integration can be seen between modern and primitive approaches to design. Hide-covered stools and tables, hand-forged metalwork, stoneware seats and chunks of unfinished timber marry a purity of form with the evocative power of basic materials.
In creating an exotic look today, you are free to be inspired by whatever takes your fancy, without being driven into the cul-de-sac of cultural pastiche. You can make connections and mix and match decorative elements that might have originated on different continents but nevertheless share a basic affinity. You can remain up-to-date and contemporary, but, at the same time, respond to the visceral directness offered by what is simple and handmade.
The look is all about discovering new types of expression within the broadest possible frame of reference. Above all, it is a point of departure, not a destination.
Exotic decorating highlights the unavoidable issue of ethical shopping. We may be charmed by the idiosyncrasies of handmade artefacts from halfway around the world and thrilled to pay rock-bottom prices for furnishings made of natural materials, but the onus is on us, as consumers, to ensure that such stylish economies are not achieved at the expense of others. The price can be extremely high. The ill-paid labour of underage workers toiling in sweatshops, the destruction of fragile ecosystems or the extinction of endangered species can be the unlovely reality behind the bargain buy on the market stall.
Given the economic disparity between what used to be called the Third World and the West, the low cost of exotic imports remains a significant factor in their appeal. But there is no reason why the gulf should be vast. It is, of course, not always possible to establish the provenance of imported goods, but it is worth going out of one's way to source products from the growing number of retail outlets and suppliers who take care to minimize exploitation. Many of these support and encourage community projects around the world; some even plough a high proportion of their profits back into local development so that traditional skills are kept alive. Training is also provided for local people, and rates and working conditions are above mere subsistence level. In the United States, for example, efforts have been made to restrict the sale of Native American craftwork to reservations, where goods are fairly priced and authenticated by certificate, and those who have produced such work are the direct beneficiaries of the revenues earned.
Such organizations realize that it is in everyone's interest for ancient skills to be preserved, but in no one's ultimate interest if maintaining such skills entails cynical profiteering or the production of tacky souvenirs. Many of the best dealers in exotic furnishings, furniture or artefacts are also deeply knowledgeable about the cultures whose products they market and have links with villages and craftspeople that promote sensible and sustainable exchange.
Similarly, it is up to the global shopper to steer well clear of materials, such as mahogany, teak and ivory, whose continued use poses a serious threat to the environment. The demand for exotic hardwoods has been particularly destructive of natural habitats. In many cases, alternative materials are available, either other species with similar aesthetic qualities or the same wood that has been produced on sustainably managed plantations. In either case, the product should be clearly labelled stating its provenance; if it isn't, don't buy it.