Altared states in the living-room
Take a tribal mask, a bolt of ethnic fabric and some incense and what have you got? Your very own shrine. James Style looks at a design trend for the Nineties
Tuesday 13 June 1995
We are in the sitting-room of a large Georgian house in Brixton, south London. Huge candles burn in the fireplace, incense hangs heavy in the air. The ceiling has been draped with parachute silk and the walls are festooned with tribal masks and Tibetan temple hangings. This is one of the rooms that Harry has "shrined". His real skill is in draping fabrics, but he bought the candles and the incense, too. He also advised on all the decorative objects, mostly religious or spiritual artefacts, from all over the globe. "It's a job I invented," he explains. "I suppose I'm a modern-day high priest. I take an ordinary sitting-room and turn it into a spiritual retreat."
Call it neo-colonial plundering, call it cultural collecting, turning your home into a Third World shrine is one of the interior design trends which will define the Nineties.
"The polished aluminium and matt black of the Eighties is past," says Judith Wilson, decorating editor of Homes & Gardens. "It's the natural, more earthy look that people want now. Plain walls in burnt orange and natural fabrics are in. Hand-made furniture from, say, India, suits the look perfectly."
Fondness for things ethnic grew out of the backlash against late-Eighties materialism and today's environmentally anxious climate. The demand for this kind of design is pulling through the supply. Liberty, the London department store, identified the potential of this market when it started selling Indonesian handicrafts in 1980, but it is only in the past four years that the market in imported ethnic artefacts for the home has really taken off.
It is this trend that Harry, an entrepreneur of all things ethnic, is out to capitalise on.
Harry tapped into the ethnic design market by chance. It was December last year, while he was on a world tour with the group Killing Joke, as personal minder to the band. "When you tour America, each dressing room looks the same. So I bought loads of fabrics in New York - African, Islamic and Indonesian batiks - and draped them from the walls of every dressing room we visited. I lit candles and kept the incense burners full. I created a place the band could relax in, away from the materialism of America."
News of Harry's skill spread like wildfire through the music business and before long he was "shrining" the homes and studios of the stars. Mostly he worked for fun and perhaps a few quid. Then Belinda Carlisle's manager made him realise his true earning potential. "What do you get for this, pounds 500 a day?" "Umm, yeah," said Harry.
The going rate for a more conventional interior design service for a sitting-room, including fabrics and furniture, is anything from pounds 3,000 to pounds 10,000, according to Katherine Taylor of Private Lives Interiors. But for pounds 2,000, Harry will not only transform your living-room into a Bedouin tent, your fireplace into an Indian altar, and buy all the goods you need - from candleholders to Hindu Ganesh incense burners and the now highly collectable Tibetan thangkas (tapestry paintings of the Buddha), - he will also bequeath you a calm-inducing environment.
"It helps me relax but at the same time remain focused," says Martin Glover, whose front-room Harry has just shrined. "I'm a musician; it's great for thinking creatively."
Harry's costs reflect the boom in natural home products and native art. From Habitat to British Home Stores, Christie's to Sotheby's, Price's candle factory in south London to David Wainwright's Asian furniture emporium in Portobello Road, west London, the ethnic home products business is booming. It is not just a newfound interest in things spiritual that is fuelling the market. Home owners are also aware of the investment potential of "ethnorama". Katherine Taylor says: "People would much rather invest in a latticed wardrobe they can take away with them when they move than expensive Osborne & Little floral wallpaper."
Sebastiano Barbagallo of the Portobello-based Ormonde gallery, which specialises in Far Eastern handicrafts and furniture, is in no doubt about what is fuelling the boom. "It's the thirtysomethings. They've all grown up on international air travel and The World About Us. My customers are more likely to have visited Bali than Benidorm."
Shrining is not as PC a form of consumerism as Harry would like to believe, however. There are dark rumours that the temples and palaces of Rajasthan have been stripped of all of their ancient wood carvings. Meanwhile, Harry continues to be feted by interior designers, rock 'n' roll managers and more humble souls alike. He knows why his shrining skills are in such demand. "Modern life is all rush, rush, rush, concrete, pollution and noise. People want a place to chill out, a place to reflect in."
Ethnic blending ...
Wilde Ones, 283 Kings Road, London SW3 (0171-351 7851). Indian art, crystals and New Age paraphernalia.
David and Charles Wainwright, 28 Rosslyn Hill, London NW3 (0171-431 5900). Antique Indian furniture.
Ormonde Gallery, 156 Portobello Road, London W11 (0171-792 2418). Tribal art and Indian furniture.
Wong Singh Jones, 253 Portobello Road, London W11 (0171-792 2001). Ethnic kitsch: voodoo dolls and seven-day candles are specialities.
Price's Candles, 110 York Road, London SW11 3RU (0171-228 2001). Candles and outdoor torches.
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