If nothing else, the intention of the post is to simply set you thinking, and find your own inspiration and to plant some seeds for innovation and ingenuity. The images are intended to be a kaleidoscope and hopefully will provide some cohesive imagery that brings the Colonial/Plantation style together.
I have tried to provide references and links as far as possible, crediting the authors/websites from where I have sourced information, and so that the readers can themselves explore more on the respective websites.
While many references are to British Architecture and Design from the late 1800's and early 1900's, you will even find references and images here from Colonial United States to British colonies in India and Singapore, and even some vintage French Louis Vuitton trunks. (In short, the specifics of the style described here, exist more as a figment of my imagination. And the only rule that's applied in gelling all this together is: If it appeals to the ("colonial") eye, it stays there. :-) Happy Reading.
Exception: If you are looking for Island Style-this post does NOT cover it (I've seen some folks classify that under Colonial style). It's just my personal preference to classify it as a different style on its own.
The British were forerunners of the Colonial/Plantation style, and left influences in many of their colonies spanning the ends of the earth in every literal sense- from the Colleges in Fort William (now part of Calcutta) to Williamsburg , Virginia, to the Governmental mansions in Singapore- all testaments to a bygone era. (It's noteworthy, that the Dutch, Portuguese, French and Spanish were all great ocean-trotters and had their own colonies and unique styles)
Above: Mr. Mackays Bungalow, from Colonial days in Serampore, Calcutta.
(Photo Courtesy: Kanad Sanyal)
The Colonial era poured in enormous amount of wealth into the hands of a few who built mansions such that this one in Calcutta. Lets us not get into a discussion of "right money" versus "wrong money", since many of these were amassed by Zamindars favouring the British East India Company, both exploiting the local workers and resources. However, strictly from an Architectural perspective, these are simply elements of timeless beauty, though its a shame that many have fallen to ruins because of lack of Government funding for these, or the sheer amount of resources needed to maintain these which often became a burden for the private inheritors of these properties.
Above: The colonial icon of Singapore- Raffles Hotel, named after Sir Stamford Raffles (widely known as the architect of Singapore), and built in 1887.
Below: A lithograph depicting a view of Old Colonial Calcutta.
So what do we need to do to create colonial-design style?
DESIGN ELEMENTS: Coming back to the core topic of this post-"DESIGN", lets now take a look into the 'design elements' that would be needed to conjure up this style, if we were to emulate this style in the current era.
The British Architecture had deep influence on the Indian nobles as well. Many Indian nobles' palaces and mansions in the 1700-1800's were British Colonialism influenced.
Note: By the way, the picture above is Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur beside her ride. (You cant really have a discussion of the Colonial ages without the Maharajah's and their Rolls Royces. :-) Here's an article if you're really interested in reading more on the topic. Fact: The Maharajah of Alwar ordered 7 Rolls Royces in Mayfair, and had them ALL used to collect Municipal waste (you read right), because he was snubbed by a snooty Rolls-salesman.
Below: An interior view of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Note the similarity in tones and palette to the one above.
Below: A Paul Montgomery hand-painted wall-paper creates an aged look, with a trompe l'oeil effect and adds depth and period, to an otherwise blank room or wall. (Check their website out for some really aged, handpainted wall paper. Really sets the mood for a room.)
Below: A plantation style chair from Ralph Lauren (Cape Lodge Collection). Mahogany and Teak suit this style best.
Below: An antique chair from Williams Sonoma British Collection.
Below: OK, this one's purely for inspirational purposes. It's a museum piece- currently in the Victoria & Albert Museum, and shows what Classic British taste combined with Indian artisan's dexterity can conjure! (BTW, the material is carved Ivory, partly gilded, with caned seat)
Settees: Note the "Rising Sun" back splash of this two seater that I found on British Regency, a US-based colonial furniture reproducer/manufacturer. (probably symbolizing the now outdated ;-) phrase- "the Sun never sets on the British empire")
Below: There's nothing like a classic teak Four-poster bed to adorn any colonial bedroom. This is one from an old resort somewhere in Ceylon (I forget which one), but similar four poster beds can also be found in British Classic collection of retailers like Ethan Allen. (Warning!: I must say here that I am not really a big fan of the "modern versions" of these, and your best choice would be to find something salvaged, or from an antiques dealer). The new ones have that sheen, and lack of age that might just take away that aged look that you are trying so hard to create. My fundamental rule for this style would be- "As far as possible, avoid anything that's new, shiny and looks like it just came off the shelf". Stick with all that shows the age, and looks like it has a story to tell. A good piece of old furniture will speak to you- just dream it up and experiment till you get it right.
Mirrors: The below floor mirror is from Bombay Co (closed its operations in the US, but still has a presence in Canada) is in the Colonial Style and would be a great accessory that can double as a dresser mirror, or an entryway mirror. Again-if you can find an old piece that has similar lines- use it, else substitute with a replica like the one below.
The Study, Library:
Colonial Accessories (Steamer Trunks, etc)
Travels to the corners of the earth was the essence of colonialism (among the other obvious motives which I wont cover here). Essentially, there evolved fine transportation modularities that are rare to come by in the current age. I doubt if the below Louis Vuitton Steamer trunk can actually be linked directly to Colonial baggage (I dont have any proof). Nevertheless, LV trunks were in use since 1854, and the stlyle, I personally feel, fits in if you are trying to put togther a colonial decor inspired room.
Storage: As I mentioned above in the Bedroom Section, some retailers like Ethan Allen and William's Sonoma, do provide a range of furniture that adhere's to this style. Though personally I would not pick all of these and club it under the Plantation Style, these are also a great source for off-the shelf elements that make these products more accessible- as compared to authentic ones which would require countless time hunting them down and would be much more expensive.
Below: An armoire from Ethan Allen's British Classics
Dining: Lets move into the dining space.
The following pieces are a lighter tone from some of the above. I just wanted to bring in the tonal variance to show the different type of woods that could be used with this style.
Mostly, Mahogany, Rosewood and Teak were used in British Colonial design.The corner cupboard shown below is English Oak, from Elijah Slocum, a great reference and source of English style furniture.
Below: The four pieces below- Cupboard, Queen Anne Mahogany Pedestal Dining Table, and Queen Anne Chairs are all from Elijah Slocum.
Below: The chair below blends both Chippendale and Queen Anne styles, and is piece from my own collection, that I restored. It's estimated around the 1800-1850's (perhaps earlier). Standalone pieces like this can be used in corners, entryways, hallways, or just about anywhere you have space to throw a chair. Fine British furniture manufacturers like Sheraton, Chippendale and Hepplewhite all manufactured "portable" furniture for the Colonial officers of the British army. These pieces had to be easy to transport, be able to be knocked down and assembled back easily, and often "collapsible"- leading to an entirely new approach in furniture design.
Plantation Shutters: These add a definitive character to the Colonial/Plantation Style, and are obviously named so for the same reason-they were used in plantations (though actual their origins can perhaps be traced back to Greece). Again, the key is to preserve or bring out an aged look, so source reclaimed ones whereever possible, if not go for one that has a distressed look (even if its new) to get the best 'period effect'. You could improvise with these as well. The shutter's need not necessarily go on a window- if you find an old pair, they could adorn your wall as well as a non-functional decortaive element.
Tip!: Watch out for low quality ones with staples attached to louvers- they will sag/fall out. Pick ones with metal/brass secures that attach the louvers to central tilt-bar).
Fabric: Again, my personal preference is that its best NOT to dilute the 'colonial' effect with a too much color, and white/pale linen shades do the most justice for curtains, tableware, furniture fabric including sofa's and cushions.
Animal & Botanical Prints: Flora/fauna prints also go well with this design, reminiscent of the various hunting endevours of the colonial period. Though trade of most animal skins are banned in current times (as opposed to colonial times), technically you can still evoke the same 'canvas' by using prints from the same fabric providers mentioned above for cushions, upholstery, curtains, and the like - again the key is to use in "restrained quantities" against the bulk of a generally white (or sober) palette of fabric. It would be hard to classify a room full of zebra prints as colonial design.
Curtains & Window Treatments: Simple linen shades of neutral colour are preferred, but one could use raw silk as well for more sophisticated treatments. However, the fact remains that curtains are not a necessity in Colonial design. You could just leave the windows bare with just the beauty (and protection) of the plantation shutters being the only window element- pretty powerful on its own.
Image Courtesy: Tuscan Style 2009, Meredith Publications. Featuring designer Jenny Peter's home in Biscayne Bay, Florida. Note the pale palette, with only the Persian-looking rug making a contrast. The dark woods of the Sri-Lankan four poster bed, Cane-settee, and door make a stricking contrast against the different shades of whites in linen, sofas walls, and curtains. Note the antique 4-poster Sri-Lankan bed (remember that Sri-Lanka was a British colony too)
Wood Paneling, Trimwork & Wainscoting: Note the sophistication that dark wood wainscoting and paneling brings in below. Again, not overly done- but just enough. Elaborate scrollwork and intricate designs in trimwork would tend towards the more sophisticated french style. The British colonial style simply classicizes the straight lines.
Below: The game room from the Kusumvilas Palace in Gujarat which was designed for Indian royalty in Colonial days.
Above: OK. I'm going to use my creative license to bend the rules here a bit. The above is technically neither Colonial nor British, but from Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este's Chateau in Prague. The image and the colour-scape resonates with what I had in mind, so I'm throwing that in here. Note the tall ceilings, dark wood wainscoting against the white walls, and contrasting green floor-like that of a Gentleman's Billiards table. You get the picture. :-)
Light & Fixtures:
Ceiling Fan: Vintage ceiling fans can add a lot of character if you have enough room height to provide one. I found quite a few including 1918 Diehl, and a 1910 Western Electric fan on a site called Vintagefans.com ! Check it out.Lighting:
Below are some examples of Colonial style lighting. I've covered lantern style, and a chandelier, both from The Federalist (one of my favorites). (Note: The Fedaralist is a source for American Colonial accessories, but overall their lighting styles fits in just as well).
Note: I wanted to include a table lamp as well, but I really couldnt find anything perfect that either excited me, or came close to a fuzzy image that I had in mind. So I'll leave it for a later update on this same post.
Electrical Switches: One can never underestimate the charm of the old bakelite switches. Thankfully there are a handful of manufacturers that still make these beautiful electrical compositions. This is one place where I make an exception- try and find a new bakelite switch-just in terms of safety. The old ones may have worn out wiring, and unless you have a certified electrican guaranteeing the product, its simply safer to use a remade version- some of these are as good as the orginal ones. I found some great pieces on Architecturalclassics.com
Accessories: Naval accessories, especially good quality reproductions can evoke the conquests of the early campaigners and explorers. Below is a model of U.S.S. Constitution. One must go for the best quality, and detail that one's budget can afford. These are indeed timeless.
Above: The San Felipe, from woodenmodelships.com/
My personal preference would be just WHITE walls- whatever shade that suits you- as long as its a shade of white. Nothing compliments this style as best as dark furniture juxtaposed against white walls, and terracotta floors. But if you need to deviate a little but, a general guideline would be to stick with a neutral palette from a paint maker with high pigment percentage- like Farrow & Ball (again, a British paint maker since 1930's) that has been known to excel in this space. Personally I like RL shades as well (Note: Try and stick to the neutral ones, as Colonial is a usually a neutral palette.) The RL site also lists an array of useful videos on "How to" techniques.
However, If you're not afraid of experimenting with more bolder colors such as RL's Tapestry Green, go for it. Let no one dictate any hard and fast rules. There arent any! :-)
Base: Red Oxide, Reclaimed wood, Terracota, Tiles are all good options. (Most of them are on this post if you look at flooring in the various images on this page- in case you need some visuals)
Personally, I would have two choices- reclaimed wood, or red-oxide. Both work well in my opinion. I found the below from a reclaimed wooden floor provider in the US. It's crucial to select the right tone of colour, and right "age". We neither want a "Too new" look not "Too light" colour. A dark, well worn look would be just right!
Rugs: Sisal or Persian? One could go both ways. Each lending it's own charming, and effect to the room. Two distinct flavors. If you want a richer look, go with a nice persian silk or wool carpet. Else the simple look of a sisal rug has a right in itself and would look absolutely in place in Colonial design.
Above: A sisal rug from Natural RugStore. You can check it out for different varieties, but Sisal rugs are available from many leading retailers worldwide. (In the US including Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel)
Below: The other side of the equation- Wool/Silk rugs. It is interesting to note that smaller woolen/silk rugs can be used on top of the sisal rugs to define specific areas- (see below). So you can get the best of both worlds. (I've tried it and it works for me). If you take a close look at the cover of one the books I've put in the reference section below, you will find a Persian rug sitting on a canvas covered of a campaign tent. Rugs were often acquired on travels and campaigns and the British officers held used these memorabilia to tone-up their modest outdoor spaces.
Image Courtesy: Carpet Museum of Iran (it's one of the finest sources of rug-images on the web- sorry none for sale, but can give you plenty of ideas before you go carpet shopping)
Below: As mentioned in the above paragraph, I've made a collage out of a Sisal rug, and a Kilim just to make the point that one could have the best of both worlds by simply overlaying. (The Kilim rug I have shown here is the Malatya rug featured on Kilim.com)
Classic Botanicals like the below, from Ebanista would complement the 'Colonial walls', especially if you want to "tone it down" a bit, avoid an overly masculine overtures. You could also order botanicals from sites like Art.com and frame them yourself for a more wallet-friendly approach. Lithographs: like the one shown below (J.F Herring's Fox Hunting Scenes- I happened to find one of these myself), and Impressionist (or similar) oil paintings would add great depth as well.
Below:"Robert Clive and his family with an Indian maid", painted by Joshua Reynolds, 1765. (Source Wikipedia)
Maps, Nautical Instruments, Guns: Since all these are relevant to the colonial period, adding them would generally enhance the overall "colonization" factor to your design, as well as add the period-tone in the details. I'll just cover the maps element below for sake of brevity. (There is plenty of stuff out there for collectors on the other 2 items on the web, including on ebay)
Maps: Maps make a great addition to wall decor in this style. Campaigns were charted with old maps and old copies, or good replicas would bring in the conquests without a word spoken. Typically wooden frames go best with maps. Use the same woods (refer General Woods section in this post) - Mahogany,Teak, Rosewood- or similar finishes if you have other types of woods- a more cost effective option.
The map below serves a double-purpose in this post. It's also the a map showing the vast expanse of the British empire in the 18th-19th centuries. (Marked in Red)- Click on the map and check it out!
Historical Fact: The tiny island kingdom of Great Britain,of just 94,000 sq miles (244,000 sq km) by 1920, had by conquests, expanded into the British Empire and held sway over a population of about 458 million people, i.e. one-quarter of the world's population, and covered more than 13,000,000 square miles (33,670,000 km²) i.e., approximately a quarter of Earth's total land area! Talk about Colonization. (Source: Wikipedia)
Coat/Hat Racks & Umbrella Stands: Creating a Gentleman's corner. This umbrella/coat/hat stand on RubyLane (a great source of period furniture) is a good example of building up the design right from the entryway. Much lighter pieces are available in the $800-$1500 range, if "heavy" puts you off. The one below goes for about $3600, and in my opinion a fine piece of woodwork with brass trim.
Remember. It's all in the details. Down to the last one. If you think you've covered it all- revisit. Because some items out of place can simply spoil the whole picture. For e.g. An ultra-modern light switch or door-knob would look totally out of place. I've added some below to give an outline of what to look for, but this list is by no means comprehensive.
Escutcheon: A keyhole protector/enhancer
Window Latches/Cabinet Pulls, etc.: These can be used on existing cabinetry, or for ones that you may be refurbishing.
Coat Hooks: Pretty self explanatory.
Espagnolette: Adds a touch of class to tall doors. You can read more here. You can chose the level of detail that works for you. If this is overkill for you leave it out (these can be expensive as well). If the minutest details give you the sparks..go for it. :-) General purpose Wood: If you need to acquire or build custom pieces, Mahogany, Rosewood, Teak would be some of the best options, though others like English Cherry can be used as well. (Note: For a more economical approach, you could use other woods as well and then use wood- stainers to attain the finishes of the woods mentioned above.)
Phones: Restored phones like this go in the range of $400-$1500. A working model with that nostalgic ring is worth it, but ofcourse you may still need your modern phone as a "hidden" back-up for wireless, voicemail and all the new features we have become so used to ;-)
Investing in non-working model may be an economical way as well- to add the charm. You find one online like this one I found at Oldphoneworks. Good alternatives would include the black bakelite phone which some of us may still remember from childhood days. (No push buttons please- stick to the rotary dial)
Silverware: Nothing adds class like some antique silver-ware. You could get some pieces like this one- or an assorted amalgam from authentic dealers of british antique silverware like this old London store, or substitute with similar pieces which you maybe able to get for a steal off ebay-if you keep looking.
Clocks: Good working condition grand-father clocks can be expensive, but do make a statement- like they've always been sitting there..for a hundred years. BrianLoomes of North Yorkshire, England is a good source. The images below are from their website.
Trophies & Hunting Memorabilia:
Evoke the memories of old hunting campaigns with trophies. If youre lucky, you may have some of these still left in your family. Please NOTE: Trading of Tiger skins is illegal and punishable, but again if you have one that you inherited (grandfather clause), you can use that as well. (Animal rights activists, please excuse. fyi- I neither support the killing of animals or skinning thereafter- the intention of this post is NOT a debate on the above topic)
As I mentioned towards the beginning of this post, Colonial influence had a prominent effect on the Indian royalty (and vice-versa), and the design influence combined with the skills of Indian "royal-artisans" spread to many of the Indian palaces built in the 17th-19th centuries. As a corollary, many of the pieces that the British claim today as 'spoils of war' sitting in British museums are fine blends of indian craftsmanship. (See the ivory and cane chair displayed on this post).
Below: The image below is from the Ranjit Vilas Palace in Wankaner, Gujarat. Image Courtesy: Corbis, (© Lindsay Hebberd/CORBIS). Note the school of tiger-heads in the backdrop. Unfortunately, I cannot say "no tigers were hurt in the making of this design".
Space and Volume: We may not always have the luxury or choice of picking the best building structures, and may have to live with what options we have. But vertical space is a very important concept in Colonial design. It's best not attempted in very small spaces, where other design styles may best optimize the space. Colonial design calls for invoking a certain level of understated grandeur (not opulent, but at the same time a hidden tone of elegance in design). The point I am trying to make here is- this design is best attempted in spaces that have reasonably good volume. 12-15 foot ceilings or even higher brings out it's own character.
Again, no hard rule here. Try for yourself and see what works best. Moderate spaces, cleverly worked out in planning may be able to pull it off too.
Image Courtesy: Associated Content, British Colonial Design Style, by Sandy Mitchell
Experimenting: Once you get the bones in place, you could expiriment with variants to suit your own convenience and functionality. By now, we already know know some of the striking elements that say "British Colonial".
For example, you could even bring in a Canvas Canopy element to your ceiling, or walls for an added effect. (Remember, most of the British Campaigns from South Africa to Asia were launched in tents, and some of the finest furniture we regard today in this style were used to make classic decor under a modest canopy. (And hence Nicholas Brawers's aptly titled book- "Elegance under Canvas"- see below under Books/References)
Movies: You could draw plenty of inspiration from Hollywood as well. Movies like Lawrence of Arabia has plenty of scenes where British Officers, and old Consulates are featured.
Books: Also, I couldn't pass this book that i chanced upon, on Amazon- (I don't have a copy of the book yet but do intend to get it once it becomes available again)-Furniture from British India and Ceylon- by Amin Jaffer
And the most authoritative book on the subject- mostly furniture related. British Campaign Furniture: Elegance Under Canvas, 1740-1914 (Hardcover), by Nicholas A. Brawer. An absolute gem, in fact is out of print. The book's original price was $45, but now the only copies available from used-book sellers are in the $350-$400 range! You can get a sneak preview of some of the inside pages on Amazon. (This is the ONLY book I could find that was a 100% true to the subject).
On the money: "OK, so now what? Is this going to take a million (or few) bucks to do? This could all add up, you know?"
My personal opinion is, that it well could certainly add up to that (should you chose so), and you could do it without it as well. The second option is the much more painfully slow way, of collecting piece by piece, over the years, salvaging the non-working condition treasures for much less and restoring them. Substituting originals with whatever comes close. DIY-ing wherever you can.
Patience, a good eye, and some creativity can get you there as well with a much lesser spend . That's my belief.
In the end, it's my personal conviction that one's design should emanate Class and Elegance, not Opulence. Aristocracy, not Snobbery. Which is why you will find references here to pieces that cost a hundred thousand dollars, and others which are absolutely low cost alternatives costing just a few dollars.
Tying it all in:
A design is never fully done. The worst thing anyone can do to space is to be completely done with it, and move on. I believe every space should be evolving- always. And the space should look like it's still falling in place. Never too complete. Never too bookish. And never never too 'hotel'-ey. So take time, and create your space-piece by piece. Its the process that will give you much pleasure, even more so, than the end result itself!
However, to someone "walking in new", if youre able to create a feeling that nothing there has been moved in a century- that "time standing still look"- you've got it!
A final note: I hope you liked reading this post..I have had much fun putting it together with many many months of research going into it. Please do leave your comments and feedback. I wish you happy hunting, great finds and many blissful colonial design moments to come!
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