British empire rises again in style

January 16, 1994|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

At the pinnacle of its power, England ruled an empire that embraced more than one-quarter of the globe. When the British flag flew over steamy jungles in Africa, sweltering Indian plains, plantations in the West Indies and the American Colonies, England tried to flex its cultural as well as political muscle.

But in those distant and foreign lands, the British also were fascinated with native lifestyles. In India, for example, that meant wearing irresistible Kashmiri shawls and collecting dhurrie rugs and Benares brass for their homes away from home while importing their wicker, maintaining the tradition of high tea, and setting up polo fields and croquet.

Colonization, by nature of the vagabond lifestyle of officers and traders and their families, sometimes dictated a new genre of furnishings. For example, being on the move necessitated taking your chairs with you. Folding steamer chairs became familiar sights on ships that traveled to foreign ports. Later, they appeared in tents and on verandas as plantation chairs.

Although the British holdings stretched from the Far East to Hispanic America to Australia and New Zealand, three areas have captured the eye of designers and furniture manufacturers: India and the West and East Indies. The merging of cultures produced distinctive furnishings. Native styles coupled with genteel English sensibilities came to the fore with pieces adapted for the British by local craftsmen.

In India, for example, people weren't accustomed to chairs. They sat on rugs, mats or cushions. The steamer chair, with its curved arms, heavy turned legs and caned seat backs, was one of the first designs that the British gave to local craftsmen to reproduce. When East met West, interpretations of traditional English furnishings from pattern books that defined Regency, Chippendale, Sheraton and Adam anatomies produced some of the most intriguing furniture, a genre known as Anglo-Indian, British Raj or British Colonial style.

Raj refers to the British dominion over India, from 1757 to 1947. It is short for rajah or maharajah, an Indian prince. The maharajah of the Mughal Empire ruled India from the 16th to the 18th centuries, during which time a flamboyant and lavish style of Indo-Islamic architecture, painting and decorative arts dominated court life.

"The freedom given to Indian craftsmen resulted in furniture that looked simultaneously functional and lavish, familiar and foreign," said Chad Womack, vice president of product development for John Widdicomb. Mr. Womack spent several years doing research to develop his British India collection, which features both reproductions and adaptations.

Mr. Womack pored over documents in London at the East Indian office library. He inspected originals that came up for auction at Sotheby's, and he traveled to India.

A year ago, he introduced his own British India Collection. At the October furniture market in High Point, N.C., where twice a year manufacturers trot out their new wares to retailers and the press about six months before they're unveiled to shoppers in the stores, there were five major British Colonial Collections.

The West Indies were the focus of two manufacturers, Milling Road, a division of Baker Furniture, which teamed up with the Whim Museum of St. Croix to assemble a fine representation of Caribbean-inspired designs, and the Hickory Chair Co., which looked to interior designer Mark Hampton for its reinterpretation. The Lane Co. showed off its Indian-inspired "Raffles" collection. The Pearson Co., one of Lane's divisions, and the John Widdicomb Co. added to existing Anglo-Indian collections.

Even the plantation chair, with its wide arms that extended out for planters to prop up tired feet while servants removed their boots, found several adaptations, including a winsome one with a woven seat-back from Milling Road.

) Why the growing interest?

Exotic images

The period itself conjures mesmerizing and exotic images from the film "Passage to India" and the TV series "Jewel in the Crown." The designs are eclectic, so they mix with a variety of styles from traditional to contemporary. Much of the furniture is practical. Designed for travelers who had to pack up their belongings, the furniture sometimes is as lightweight and portable as the originals.

Of course, a number of elements of British Colonial style, as simple as ceiling fans and shutters, already have been entrenched in the mainstream.

Now, other distinctive examples of British Colonial style, particularly with Indian accents, are finding their way into home furnishings. Bold colors are being incorporated into interiors, usually in gaily patterned fabrics, such as one called "Beauport Promenade" from Brunschwig & Fils. The cotton fabric depicts elephants and camels on a bright red ground. The cotton can make a strong statement as upholstery on a wing chair or sofa, or even as a bed cover.

Color, pattern and texture

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