Tropical Décor: Natural Materials v Man Made.
The 'good' and the 'bad'
Natural materials or Man made?
Okay, so I’m a nut about natural materials and have spent most of my adult life surrounding myself with them..
So when we retired to this beautiful country of Thailand I was in ecstasies at the idea I could now indulge my passion to the extreme. All the books I’d accumulated over the years had filled my dreams with wonderful exotic materials in old and modern designs. At last I was living in the country that produced all of these wonderful materials and I could now fulfil my wildest dreams with woods, bamboos, stone, silks, batik cottons, linens. My senses were tingling with excitement at the thought of all the shopping for such treasures to fill our new house.
Our old home in England had seen the beginnings of a collection. Lovely furnishings from India, Thailand, Burma and Indonesia dotted the house and our outside ‘tropical room’. My favourites were the old wrought iron and wood room divider; the ancient window frame from Gujarat with a history of some 300 years which had easily adapted to having a mirror placed behind it; the antique, delicately decorated cotton friezes from Pakistan and Kashmir; a chest; a half moon table; an old wooden settee and various other smaller items were my prize possessions.
But the house in Thailand was a modern build and very open plan. ‘Timbers’, our old home was old and had a wonderful cedar wood interior which set off a tropical décor to perfection. This Thai house had windows and glass doors everywhere which minimized the wall space dramatically. How sad. But nothing daunted we set about doing what we could with what we had.
It didn’t work very well. We bought the giant bamboo furniture and it looked ‘okay’. We had the large table built by a kindly carpenter who told us he couldn’t get ‘recycled’ teak. Oh how I wish I’d been patient and waited until we’d become more familiar with the area. Six months into our new life we discovered several wood yards within a few miles of us that housed tons of old teak duly recycled from the demolition of old houses in the area. Not cheap, but we were well aware that Thailand had stopped their logging many years ago and were on a busy programme of reforestation dating back some 30 years and to be highly commended. Sadly, they were quite happy to plunder and decimate their neighbours’ ancient rainforests. Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia are all party to this and losing their forests at a staggering rate. Not something we wanted to be party to and I’m sorry we didn’t have the courage to say ‘no’ there and then. We’ve learned the hard way and have never bought any more purchases of new wood.
Within the first year we’d gathered a lovely selection of tropical furnishings around us in bamboo, linen, batik and woods and were feeling exceedingly pleased with ourselves.
On our many reconnaissance visits to Thailand prior to committing ourselves to the final move we’d often marvelled how people could possibly surround themselves with ugly concrete garden furniture; wood furniture covered with thick layers of varnish; plastic umbrellas and steel objects. The nicest of places, whether peoples private homes or commercial premises, were rigged out in these man-made abominations, - ugly to the nth degree and with zero aesthetic values. Good taste had been thrown out of the window and replaced with these dreadful things. Oh my God, we were such purists in this land of beautiful furniture and marvellous soft furnishings. What prigs, what snobs we must have sounded! I cringe as I write this, but it was true.
But it took us under a year to discover the awful truth. A truth which put us firmly in our place and wiped the superior smiles off our silly faces. Our beautiful bamboo furniture indoors became host to numerous hungry insects and had to be chemically treated several times. And to add insult to injury, it wasn’t comfortable at all, so we forced to replace the natural kapok cushions with thick foam. The outdoor bamboo furniture didn’t fare so well, it just succumbed to the ravages of fungi, insects and humidity. We were distraught! The elegant cream linen covered umbrellas just turned a ‘lovely’ shade of fungal grey within months and disintegrated in the tropical sunshine.
I’d spent hours making soft furnishings from the fabulous array of beautiful Batik cottons found in the local shops and markets. I was so proud of my handiwork and took endless photos to show my friends and family in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. But a year down the road what has happened to these fabulous patterns? Well, of course in this intense sunshine, they’ve all faded to varying shades of grey and the patterns have become indistinguishable. Some are even disintegrating like the bamboo. All those amazing patterns and wonderful colours – it was a salutary lesson believe me.
But not all of them faded so dismally, the interior ones have lasted much longer and some show no signs of fading, and are still much admired by friends and neighbours.
The one saving grace was that the materials were not expensive and as I enjoy using my ancient sewing machine for soft furnishings I’ve had fun replacing a lot of them and have happily accepted the fact that I’ll be doing this every couple of years. The sheer joy of looking at these fabulous patterns is worth the effort.
So, now our home is gracefully furnished with concrete outdoor furnishings, plastic umbrellas, steel supports, heavily varnished wood and a host of other ‘serviceable’ items, - not quite up to the high standard of tropical décor we strove for initially, but who cares? It’s far more practical.
My favourite item is a concrete seat that my lovely husband made in the first year we were here. It provides not only a seat but a wall to one end of the verandah and I happily made foam seating for it with exquisite covers in local Thai material, topped off with big huggy cushions. It’s our favourite comfort area and big enough for the both of us and Pippa (our dear old dog) to sprawl out with our books or just snooze after a good meal. Overhung with bamboo it makes an enchanting tropical corner to enjoy our beautiful garden with the delightful birds, frogs and the occasional Mr Ngoo. The scents of the flowers, shrubs and trees are intoxicating and the sounds of the crickets, cicadas and birds make this a dream that really has come true.
Good taste? Gone with the bamboo and linen I’m afraid, but at least we’re keeping the local entrepreneurs in business and helping the local economy.
And finally our advice to all you would be connoisseurs’ of magnificent good taste planning a good long life in the tropics – adapt or don’t do it. The idealistic dream is great if you can afford to keep replacing things, but pocket your pride and get real if you truly want to live here happily for any length of time. Don’t give up your dreams though; you can still have delightful furnishings around you, not quite state of the art, but far more practical.