The ethnic look is still in, it just needs a lighter touch. Lucas Hollweg junks the Egyptian bazaar in favour of understated elegance
Three years ago, "ethnic" was one of the buzzwords of the interior design fraternity. The glossy magazines ran features entitled "Modern Ethnic" or "New Tribal", with urban houses that looked like the insides of dusty ethnographic museums. Painted animals from lndonesia appeared on fashionable mantelpieces, alongside primitive wooden masks and intricately carved Indian furniture. Doing the ethnic look, it seemed, meant turning your home into a Hindu temple, a Moroccan souk or a well-maintained mud hut.

But three years is a long time in the interior design business. "Ethnic has changed," says ethnic dealer David Wainwright, whose shops selling artefacts and furniture from India and South-East Asia were a major driving force in the early Nineties boom. "Three years ago, it was either a fashion statement or a reaction to consumerism," he says. "People weren't that fussy, anything ethnic was fine. But now the emphasis has shifted from detail to simplicity. We've had too much of imitating Egyptian bazaars."

The result of this overdose, says Wainwright, is a more understated take on ethnic which focuses on the inherent e1egance and (very late-Nineties this) soul of a few high-quality pieces, rather than overall look. It's a sign of the times that Wainwright last year supplied designer Anoushka Hempel with a set of primitive wooden drums, made by tribes in the North Philippines, to adorn the ultra minimalist spaces of her new London hotel, The Hempel.

Wainwright's own home may not be minimalist exactly, but it shows how things have moved on. A few years ago, he was living in a house that was wall-to-wall ethnic - a look he now refers to as "heavyweight Indian". His current home, a large Georgian house in West London, uses the Indian pieces more discreetly. It doesn't scream "ethnic" the moment you walk through the door.

But then, that's the point. The same elements are here - cushions made from mirror-work embroidered cloth from Rajasthan, a maharaja's bed used as a coffee table, giant bowls carved from chunks of white marble. But they complement rather than dominate, much as the spoils of colonialism are dotted around the interiors of grand country houses. The East takes its place alongside embossed velvet curtains, a grand piano and a 1arge set of hi-fi speakers. It is comfortable, familiar, a bit tradiional, perhaps. What it isn't is in-your face tribal

People often misunderstand how ethnic pieces can work in a European setting, says Wainwright. "They put too many together. You have to ask why you are buying something ethnic. You are drawn to the fact that it has soul - it doesn't matter if it's a little marriage chest or a great big Buddha, it needs a certain distance to work."

Wainwright first went ethnic at 18, catching the tail end of the hippy generation before the sub-continent became the obligatory rite of passage destination for students in their year off. "I stuck out my thumb in Calais and arrived in Kathmandu," he recalls. On that first trip he fell in love with India and Hinduism. "They have the same word for yesterday and tomorrow." Since then, he has been back 66 times.

Now 38, he looks like a cross between a dandy and a rock star; he chain smokes, has blond hair down to his shoulders, and wears long tailored coats from Gaultier Junior that are reminiscent of a maharaja's tunic. His decorative taste is also more maharaja than hippy trail. The house is dotted with pictures of turbaned grandees, mirrored lampbases that once formed the legs of a maharaja's bed, and a silver column lamp saved from the King of Afghanistan's house shortly before the Soviets arrived in the Eighties.

"See how they used to mix traditional and western?" says Wainwright, pointing to a photo of a young Indian in full ceremonial dress. "Look at that wristwatch - it's probably a Rolex!"

The interior incorporates many of these cultural crossovers. In the corner of the sitting room is a collection of giant glass baubles, made in Vienna and shipped to Rajasthan to provide jewel-like women's quarters for high-caste families. Glass paintings of Hindu gods beam out from midnight-blue walls in frames originally exported from Birmingham. But the exchange also works the other way. "We get out of other cultures the things that make sense to us," says Wainwright. "Making ethnic more than just a fashion statement means finding a western function for eastern objects."

Good quality ethnic pieces, it has to be said, are expensive. But even so, as a way of giving a sense of history to a home, they are more economic than their European counterparts. "I buy very simple marble pieces from the Philippines that, pricewise, compare massively favourably with 19th- century country pieces," says Wainwright.

He also believes ethnic objects have a spirituality that is lacking in things made closer to home. "Whereas European antiques were mass produced as status symbols for the middle classes, the simplest ethnic pieces have a function that is unrelated to money. A common thread in ethnicity is the ability to mix the secular and the spiritual. It is this simplicity and this spiritual element that draws us to them."

Far better, then, to spend your money on one really good ethnic piece than buy a houseload of stuff made specifically to satisfy western appetites. As Wainwright says: "If you want to go wrong with ethnic, just buy something modern and mass-produced - like a painted tin horse or a torturous carved frog from Indonesia. They are made with the same commercial cynicism as things made in the West. They are without soul."