Japanese design hard to replicate

Design Line

November 25, 2007|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Tribune Media Services

Because so many Americans travel abroad, we're seeing frequent attempts to replicate other cultures' interior designs here at home. It isn't easy to transplant a setting from Europe, Asia or Latin America to a typical American home.

Traditional Japanese interiors may be the most difficult to reproduce. American travelers who stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse, are often smitten with this look, and some want to transform a den or basement into a replica of the room they booked in Tokyo or Kyoto. They don't realize that a room's decor needs to be in synch with its architecture.

One irony is that few Japanese actually live in traditional settings these days. In our times, it's much easier -- in Japan as well as in the United States -- to build a steel-and-glass, contemporary-style house than one made with bamboo, straw, stucco, wood and no nails.

I don't mean to suggest it's impossible to replicate traditional Japanese styling in an American home. A sure understanding of this type of design is essential, however.

Our two-story wood-shingle house has a finished attic with a pine floor and dry-walled ceiling and walls. We want to turn it into a restful retreat for meditation, free of clutter and electronics. What do you suggest in the way of furnishings, materials and colors?

One model you may find inspiring is featured in Manspace, an amusing book written by Sam Martin and published by the Taunton Press.

We're told that it was, appropriately, a male crisis-management consultant who arranged for the pictured tranquil setting to be carved out of his saltbox garage. It's presented as an example of the men-only interiors that Martin, half-jokingly, celebrates.

The design is the work of Peter Wechsler, a craftsman trained in Japanese temple architecture. He clearly has the needed knowledge to make this look succeed in an American interior.

Tatami mats cover the floor of this setting. Its ceiling is made of bamboo and peeled reed, while straw, clay and stucco have been used for the walls. All the colors are those of the materials themselves, with the exception of the black accents on the perimeter of the mats and the trim of the furnishings.

That's something for you to keep in mind as you work out your attic's design. The furnishings don't have to be traditionally Japanese, and there can certainly be more of them than we see here. Ultimately, though, you may find yourself pulled in the minimalist direction closely associated with Japanese design.

Rita St. Clair is a Baltimore-based interior designer. Readers with general interior design questions can e-mail her at rsca@ritastclair.com.

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