The fashion for European Colonial décor has been in vogue for nearly as long as the British reigned over its numerous territories. What’s not to love about exotic palms, tasseled ottomans, and all manner of vaguely “continental” furniture?
The reign of the British Empire over its colonial assets is perhaps one of the darkest examples of globalization, but it did result in an exotic range of design influences on both the colonizers and the colonized.
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, the British held claim to massive tea, coffee, and rubber plantations throughout India, Africa, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. As was typical at the time, they did whatever they could to bring their British style with them, which entailed heavy Victorian and Edwardian furnishings that were ill-suited to the heat and humidity of such places. It wasn’t long, however, before their new environments began to influence their interior décor.
A British home during the period of the Raj, circa 1940’s.
The British found themselves drawn to exploring the very cultures they were sent to dominate, and adopting many of the design sensibilities of the colony into their own décor.”
Tropical plants began to come indoors: ferns and palms, orchids and all manner of greenery along with oversized bird cages and aviaries, taxidermy, porcelains and textiles. The British found themselves drawn to exploring the very cultures they were sent to dominate and adopting the design sensibilities of the colony into their own décor.”
Those influences were further exemplified in some stunning public buildings which remain to this day. In India the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel in Jodhpur, Rajasthan remains one of the masterpieces of British Colonial style, as is the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi.
In Singapore it’s the Raffles Hotel, home to the famous Long Bar and the Singapore Sling cocktail. Local architects melded their own architecture with Western flourishes.
Throughout British Colonial rule, the colonizers developed a taste for the exotic and scenes like the picture at top, served to cement their romanticised vision of the Far East and Africa. Below, an expedition to the pyramids in the 1880s.
In Myanmar (formerly Burma) the near-mythic Pegu Club was built in 1880 to house one of the most elite of gentleman’s clubs, known throughout the world as the epitome of a British club abroad. It has recently been renovated back to its “Tropical Colonial” splendour.
Back in England, the style of the colonies soon gave way to the mania for Chinoiserie, exemplified by the folly that is the Pagoda in the Royal Botanic Garden in London, or the Prince of Wales’ Brighton Pavilion, his Disneyland-esque interpretation of exotic orientalism.
The craze for Chinese-inspired décor reached its peak in the latter part of the 18th century. At top, the Prince of Wales’ Brighton Pavilion; below, Chinese Import porcelain and the pagoda built in Kew Gardens for Princess Augusta, founder of the gardens.
Rooms were lavishly decorated with Chinese-inspired wallpapers, decorative pagodas and blanc de chine figurines of birds (pretty much blanc de chine anythingwas fashionable.) Furnishings became more Moorish and Asian, with opium beds having a fashion moment before the stuff was discovered to be so terribly addictive.
Thankfully the Empire lost its hold over most of these countries (at a considerable cost) but Colonial Style continues to influence designers.
Ralph Lauren adopted it for his Jamaican villa and continues to replicate the style in his home furnishings collections, while designer India Hicks went full-on plantation-style with her home in the Bahamas. And lest we forget, Gap’s Banana Republic brand began back in the 1970’s as a quasi-colonial fantasy full of pith helmets, khakis, and décor that conjured up more Lawrence of Arabia than what it is today.
At top, a page from a Ralph Lauren catalogue; below, the cover of India Hicks’ book, which features her own home in the Bahamas.
Indeed, throughout the decades it seems colonial décor is revived over and over whether at a new hotel like the Ocean El Faro in the Dominican Republic, or the richly renovated Foreign Correspondents Club in Siem Reap, Cambodia, now a 5-star hotel.
Of course, one doesn’t need to travel to have that experience at home. It could start with the addition of some well-placed palm tree candlesticks, a Chinoiserie étagère, or layers of vintage carpets and pillows on the floor. The eclectic mix of colours and textures along with an abundance of plant life can create an exotic sanctuary in virtually any home.
Cover Photo: the Cunard liner’s Berengaria Ballroom, circa 1912. Courtesy Encyclopedia Brittanica.
>> Discover our collection of colonial and chinoiserie décor in the home section of fonfrege.com.