Asians return to roots in their living spaces

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2012, 12:00am


The La Cienega Design Quarter in Los Angeles is to home design what Rodeo Drive is to high-end fashion: a destination showcase for the most current and sophisticated offerings.

And at a recent three-day event created to shine the spotlight on this thriving design-led area, there was another emerging star: Asia.

The continent - and its influences on design - were the subject of a panel helmed by Pamela Jaccarino, the editor-in-chief of Luxe Interiors and Design, who also oversaw the launch earlier this year of the Chinese edition of the glossy interiors magazine. And the designers selected to participate in the panel had first-hand experience of bringing an Asian sensibility to Western spaces, in a way that is light-handed and subtle. All agreed that the inspirations culled from Asia appear here to stay.

'Here in the US, we have had a long-standing love affair with Asia,' said Jaccarino. 'And as the Asian economy has grown, there are design explosions taking place all over Asia.'

Most significant, say designers, is how young and well-travelled Chinese are now asking that their houses and apartments be outfitted in a way that speaks to their heritage.

'Even five years ago, that wouldn't have happened,' said Jiun Ho, a Malaysia-born interior and furniture designer who lives in San Francisco and works in the US and Asia. 'Back then, people in Asia really only wanted everything from the west. They didn't want to see anything from their own culture or history.'

Ho was part of the panel, alongside New York-based Muriel Brandolini, who is half Vietnamese and grew up in that country, and Katie Leede, a willowy blonde Californian designer who finds herself gravitating towards all things Japanese in her aesthetic.

'I am influenced by wabi-sabi,' said Leede, referring to the Japanese aesthetic that sees beauty in the imperfect. 'I like things that are treated with a rustic simplicity,' she said, pointing to a home she furnished with a black terracotta floor still studded with calcium deposits.

'They lend depth and beauty, and convey a reverence for the natural order of things,' she said.

Certainly, for other designers, their Asian influences in Western spaces are somewhat more literal, although not to the point of being overbearing. That, said Ho, was essentially the biggest difference between Asian design now and what it might have been a few years ago: in the subtle, modernist applications.

'Dragons and red are not the only parts of Asian culture, and when someone designs a space and literally puts those components into a space, to me, that's just boring. I would like to take the subtlety of your own culture and history, put it through a design process, and elevate it to the next level, so it becomes a very international design language.'

Designers working within this aesthetic are finding that if the process is guided by instinct, rather than some predetermined set of rules, the result is more appealing. Brandolini, who was born in Vietnam and lived there till she was 18, said that for her, bringing an Asian sensibility into her projects is almost instinctual.

'I don't really think about it,' she said. 'I grew up in Vietnam and it's such a rich country, from the landscape to the food, that it probably translates in my work.'

She fuses that with her luxurious and upscale signature, resulting in dramatic, multicultural layers. In a dining room she created in New York, she wanted to give the walls a three-dimensional effect, so created an embellished surface decorated with beaded bamboo and river motifs. The wall-covering took 60 women in Vietnam seven months to create, but the result, said Brandolini, is that anyone who steps into the space 'feels totally transported'. She said she often finds herself calling sources in Laos and Cambodia for interesting textiles and accents.

Still, while the love affair between Western homeowners and Asian design inspiration carries on, Ho says he is heartened to see his contemporaries in Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and other Asian cities wanting to incorporate their own culture into their spaces.

With a raft of Asian projects in his portfolio - he is currently working on a 2,500 sq ft apartment in Happy Valley owned by an investment banker - Ho says that the demand for more Chinese design influences is being led by the younger generation.

'Ever since China opened up, they are travelling the world and have started to see that their own culture is just as good as what is in the West, seeing that maybe the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.

For Ho, that translates to 'balance and harmony', he said.

Even for his eponymous furniture line, he finds himself harvesting ideas from Chinese tradition: current offerings are inspired by the clean simplicity of Ming dynasty (1368-1644) pieces.

Not that there isn't room for whimsy: at a spa he designed in San Francisco, Ho turned antique bird cages from Thailand into light fixtures and used reclaimed wood on the ceiling, creating a basket weave effect. Twisted metal dipped in white paint studded on the walls look like a flight of random birds. He also used parts of a demolished 150-year old village house in northern Thailand to frame parts of the spa.

'Very often, wealthy people - because money is no object - go out and buy the most expensive and brand-new thing. But the space becomes sterile and looks like a showroom.

'To me, the most important thing is to create a space with a soul, where it feels like everything is supposed to be there.'


The number of craftswomen in Vietnam who worked for seven months on a wall covering for a Muriel Brandolini interior