Early Tibet, early to rise

Tibet has now replaced India as the source of rare artifacts to soothe the troubled Western spirit, reports Katherine Sorrell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As is always the case with fashions - in interiors as much as couture - once a trend has become widespread, it's time for the cognoscenti to find a newer, more exclusive look. Such is the case with the vogue for decorating in Indian style. Now that it is available in practically every high-street store, the movers and shakers of the design world are in search of pastures new. And the likelihood is that one of the next big things is going to be a taste of the Himalayas: furniture and artefacts from the roof of the world, where the rarity of pieces and their quality of craftsmanship distinguishes them from their more rustic Indian equivalents and makes them highly desirable.

"There is definitely a leaning towards something more collectable and exclusive," says Nick Springett, antiques and orientals buyer at Liberty. "People want furniture that is authentic - real as opposed to pastiche - and they want fewer, more special pieces rather than lots of cheaper things." So, on his last buying trip to India, Springett decided to venture north to Nepal, where he came across a rich seam of unusual and attractive artefacts. So many, in fact, that on his return he decided to organise a two-week selling exhibition of his discoveries. They include Nepalese bronzeware, wood carvings, carpets and religious thangka paintings; coffers and cupboards from northern India; and antique Tibetan rugs and textiles.

Such products, it is true, are available in this country, but usually only through galleries or auction houses, and often at alarmingly high prices. Liberty's items, though not cheap, are affordable (from pounds 300 for a rug or a wooden cupboard and pounds 50 for a delicately carved wooden frame, for example) and Springett is convinced that the "Himalayan Experience" will be a huge success.

But one person for whom all this is nothing new is Alain Rouveure, who has lived and breathed the Himalayas for the past 18 years. He probably knows more about furniture, art and artefacts from the region than anyone in the country and has made it his life's work to promote its cultures and traditions with the aim of preserving them from Western commercialisation.

A graphic designer by trade, Rouveure decided to escape from the pressures of his highly-paid job in advertising in 1979 and set off with a backpack to travel around the Indian sub-continent. While trekking in Nepal he befriended a family of Tibetan refugees and ended up staying with them for several months to learn about their dyeing and weaving techniques. Eventually, he returned to England, bringing with him a rug and some pictures, and such was the interest from his friends that he soon had a small business going selling the things he brought back from what became twice-yearly visits.

Today, Rouveure's Crossing Cottage Galleries, near the Cotswolds village of Moreton-in-Marsh, sells new and antique artefacts from Nepal, Skikkim and Bhutan, including masks, jewellery, pottery, textiles, brass and copperware, wooden containers, painting, paper and ritual implements. Rouveure's speciality is a unique and ever-changing collection of Tibetan rugs, made for him by a community of refugees living in Nepal. Using hand-spun wool from Tibetan mountain sheep and pure vegetable dyes, the rugs are hand-knotted on upright wooden looms to traditional designs, incorporating ancient symbols, such as the lotus flower, dragon, snow lion, mandala (a Buddhist symbol of the universe) and tiger. They are completely different to some so-called "Tibetan" rugs which use made-up, modern designs and garish chemical dyes which have to be calmed down with an "antique" wash.

"I insist on the highest quality because we can afford to pay for it over here," says Rouveure, "and my production methods are ethical - there are no children in my workshops. What I do is really a passion that turned into a business by default. In fact, I choose all the pieces for my galleries on the basis of how I feel about them. I love these things because they have got a soul."

It is this passion that informs the decoration of Rouveure's 19th-century cottage, in which, almost everything is Himalayan in origin. Tibetan rugs cover the floors and Himalayan art decorates the walls, including a large thangka painting (which took a team of artists more than nine months to complete). There are bowls and pots made of brass, pottery and wood, and boxes made of leather and of stitched bamboo, the latter bearing a remarkable resemblance to oval, wooden, Shaker boxes. Larger storage comes in the form of 17th-century lacquered and painted cupboards, the grandest type of furniture from the region used only by monks and the aristocracy.

Intricately woven antique dresses from Bhutan, where cloth is regarded as the highest form of art, have been made into curtains, throws and even a bedcover, which creates a focal point in the Buddhist-red bedroom. And everywhere there are figures of Buddha and Ganesha, woven mule-covers, silver amulets, "endless knots" (for good luck and long life), tribal masks, sculptures, wall hangings, candle holders and any number of decorative objects, all of which work surprisingly well in this very English background of wooden beams, quarry-tiled floors and yellow colour-washed walls.

Rouveure finds that living with artefacts which originate from a culture so different to our own is very special. "They are charged with something and they have a vibration and an energy," he says. "Because they come from such a rich culture, everything has a background, a story to tell." Today, when we want our interiors to be more meaningful, more spiritual, more resonant in some way, this is precisely what marks the Himalayan look as something to watch out for. As Rouveure says: "It's to do with the patina, the craftsmanship - making things using only one nail, or a paintbrush with two hairs. You connect with these things emotionally and they awaken something inside you."

The Himalayan Experience at Liberty (0171 734 1224) runs for two weeks from 31 August. The Crossing Cottage Galleries are at Todenham, near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. Call 01608 650418 for details of opening hours.

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