Designing A Tropical Dream Home Part 1

Most designers agree that a successful design concept for the home includes four key elements: form, function, style and comfort. In the tropical world, form embraces a fluid transition between interior and exterior spaces; buildings that work well with a hot, humid environment; and architecture that both celebrates its setting, yet is suited to the modern world. This is where the function comes in: It needs to work both as a home and a technical entity. In the case of function, we don’t want fabrics that rot easily in the humidity or lose their color under the sun’s harsh glare. Flimsy, wooden furniture that disintegrates under the demands of termites or other insects is a definite “no no”; we’re not looking for stuffy spaces with little natural ventilation. Rather, our homes need to be light, airy and bright with adequate cross breezes, beautiful views, and furniture and furnishings that are built to last. And, if they are comfortable and stylish, so much the better. As it is the tropics we’re talking about, we want them to have an equatorial edge, a sense of place, a type of décor that delights in all that Asia has to offer but isn’t harking back to an earlier era. Naturally, we explain how all this translates into the temperate world too many of our ideas work just as well in a metropolitan European or American apartment as they do in a villa in Bali or Thailand.

tropical living room
The living room of the Ocampo family home in Manila showcases how the tropical outdoors can be part of the house even when the home is enclosed. Expansive garden views contrast with studied elegance inside. Vintage Carrara marble coffee tables, displaying artefacts by accessory company Celestina, sit before a Florence Knoll sofa. Manila-based design firm Celestina is known for taking local materials and producing modern wares with a Western aesthetic. Its abalone shell table and kamagong wood dining chairs are a case in point. 

Tropical Craftsmanship, Modern Décor 

Luckily, the tropical world is perfectly placed to cater to homeowners looking for Asian artifacts because it has a rich history of craftsmanship. In many areas northern Thailand, Cebu in the Philippines, the island of Bali whole communities have traditionally worked in the field of wood carving, lacquer and ceramic production, painting and such like, usually for the adornment of temples or palaces or both. Today, these traditions continue but in a radically different manner.

No longer are murals reserved for royalty, carvings restricted to images of the Buddha. Rather, age-old skills and techniques are utilized to produce a whole new set of products: homewares, furniture, tableware, furnishing fabrics sensual and serviceable goods that bring beauty, zest and practicality to the home. Ancient handloom weaving translates into upholstery fabrics with modern geometric patterns in primary colors; lacquer techniques utilizing gold, silver and neons produce zany trays and plates; neo-weaves have been formulated to elevate the ancient chaise into a weather-resistant, super-comfy pool lounger.

The list is endless, the end results enduring. Furthermore, inroads with new forms and materials are allowing artisans to continue doing what they’ve always done, but with an injection of modernity that sits well with the contemporary home. You may see an Asian motif, a particular pattern, a cultural reference, but it will be incorporated into a super sexy new dinner service or a richly textured bedspread.

In another vein, but on the same subject as it were, there is a plethora of old objets d’art, furniture pieces, ancient wood partitions, fabric remnants and more all finding new life in different forms. Embracing sustainability, they’re turned into decorative features or are used as parts of cushions, runners and curtains. Antique chests, formerly used to house Buddhist manuscripts, are salvaged, restored and find new use as cabinets to house television and DVD players; old house gables become bedheads; carvings of nagas (serpents) from a balustrade or an elaborate monastery roof finial or eave bracket become decorative accents in the home; old carved Balinese doors become centerpieces in a living room.

Of course, there’s nothing new in this recycling of salvaged objects, but it’s interesting to note how such vernacular items can sit side by side extremely contemporary neighbors. Karina Zabihi, a Singapore-based interior designer at kzdesigns, advocates breaking the rules, subverting traditions and mixing and matching quite brazenly. She says: “As we move more readily between overseas homes and since the Internet has created a truly global village, our homes have become repositories for our travel-gathering mementos. Seeing a Korean chest in Chelsea or a baroque chandelier in Bali is no longer a rarity, in fact it is all the rage.” She sees such contrast as key to a striking interior, as it adds layers of visual interest to a room. A low-slung Italian sofa set, for example, doesn’t have to be accompanied by an abstract art piece; sometimes, the sinuous form of an Asian antique carved panel provides just the right element.

As we become more environmentally aware, the key issue is to recycle and re-use. This is increasingly becoming the case in the construction of homes as well as in the décor. A particular proponent of recycling is Singapore-based designer Ed Poole; many of his commercial spaces and homes sport re-used railway sleepers and telegraph poles, for example.
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