Buddhas of suburbia

East meets West in modern chic, says Alexandra Campbell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There is a difference between a fashion cycle - such as a season of bright colours - and a trend that defines a decade. The Nineties are turning out to be an eclectic era, presenting a crazy jumble of different voices and tones, but crucial to contemporary style is the East-meets- West look. Anyone going to the East this summer, to India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, China or Japan, should hunt for treasure to bring home, or use the opportunity to tune in to the current source of the best ideas on interior design.

The new Eastern look is a far cry from the Chinese bazaar style, with its garish rice paper lanterns and dangling red tassels, and from cheap, Indian cotton bedspreads and ornate tourist trinkets. "I always thought of Chinese furniture as heavy and elaborate, until I travelled there," says Stephen Glyn-Williams, who now imports Chinese antiques into Britain. His antique red lacquer chests fit equally well into an English farmhouse or a modern City flat.

Interior designer Kelly Hoppen uses the East-meets-West look: cool, uncluttered rooms, often decorated with neutral colours and natural fabrics such as linen, raffia, calico and upholstery scrim, and punctuated with stunning statements of colour or ornamentation: a buddha, an outrageous lamp, a sofa upholstered in a striking shade of silk, or curtains with enormous tassels. Because shapes are simple, and the colour palette is restrained, antique and modern, or cheap and expensive, can be mixed to create a look that's eclectic without being chaotic. It is the friendly face of minimalism, offering a visual rest from the huge choice of merchandise around today, but also capable of incorporating personal tastes - for example, Hoppen has a giant lamp with a twisted gold papier mache base that could have come from anywhere (it, in fact, came from a junk shop) dominating an oasis of white and cream space. And, unlike many minimalist interiors, it can be enjoyed by everyone: you can live a real life in this decor. It's a look that is even practical enough for a hotel - the newly opened Hempel Hotel is a prime example, with its pure white spaces making a perfect backdrop for just a few beautiful Eastern pieces such as mahogany umbrella stands from Bombay, neat, slatted blinds, and piles of perfectly arranged cushions. David Wainwright, whose company, David & Charles Wainwright, was one of the first to import fashionable Indian antiques for the home, believes that the Eastern look has been so successful because of the quality of the craftsmanship: "In India, they believe that everything you do should be done for God. As much care is taken over carving a humble wooden rice bowl as a gold buddha."

"If you're shopping in the East, avoid the obviously 'ethnic', says Dominic Capon of David & Charles Wainwright. "Extremely clean lines and solid chunks of wood are best. It's interesting to see what's happening in the US, where this look is just arriving, and you've never seen anything so ethnic. It's where we were five years ago." Try simple wooden chests from India, he suggests - small enough to put into your suitcase. Everyone in India says that shipping is easy and cheap but, in reality, "one person will get their furniture back on time in immaculate condition; another receives a pile of splinters, months late."

At Habitat, buyer Susie Benedict describes the merchandise as "an edited view of everyone's travel experiences". She, too, cautions against buying anything too 'ethnic' or rustic: "Instead of solid, country basketwork, I'd look for fine, woven trays: much more elegant. Ours come from Burma, but they're available all round the East." Eastern fabrics at Habitat are more refined now, too: antique saris, to use as throws or curtains, are in muted colours with restrained, barely-there patterns.

Japan, however, is the country that excites her most. Until now, Japanese style in Britain has been represented almost entirely by Muji, the minimalist, no-name brand for items which all seem to be made out of clear plastic or calico; but now there's an influx of more diverse Japanese styles, probably driven by the increasing popularity of Japanese restaurants and noodle bars. Western cuisine has always treated bowls as secondary items; with the new Eastern influence on cooking style, a set of earthenware Japanese bowls in country glazes and subtle, murky colours updates the look of any table.

Recycled architectural pieces are a good buy because they can be used in so many ways. Indian doors are used as coffee tables by importers William Sheppee; ornate balcony grilles at David & Charles Wainwright double as radiator covers or, turned on their sides, as racks for hanging kitchen pots and pans. Martin Helm of Global Village, another long-established importer, says old window frames are particularly worth bringing back, for framing mirrors.

However, before parting with large sums of money, "do remember that Eastern craftsman can fake anything," cautions Kelly Hoppen. "They can whip up a Ming vase in hours. That's fine if you want the look, and don't mind if it's fake, but you need to be aware of it." Try Hollywood Road in Hong Kong, she says, "and shipping things back does work from there." She'd buy baskets or red lacquer trays. Michael Macrac of the General Trading Company loves gold lacquered trays, pots and bowls from Vietnam, a country that is about to be opened up to export like a long-buried trunk of treasure. "And classic, blue-and- white Chinese china is still a good bet, but go for the antique-look, crackle-glazed versions." The East/West look is developing worldwide in a symbiotic way: at Shanghai Tang, for example, a big department store in Hong Kong, traditional Eastern looks are given a Western twist which is as popular with the Chinese as with Westerners. Exactly where things come from is becoming unimportant - Global Village, for example, source their "African" bowls from the Philippines - but buy something abroad and bring it back yourself, and you have a reminder of your own travels

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