Style Court

Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes 2006-2016


Inventive Synthesis: Shangri La

[Click to enlarge. Shangri La living room. Image © Tim Street-Porter 2011. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawaii.]

A work of "inventive synthesis." That's how curators Thomas Mellins and Donald Albrecht describe what Doris Duke achieved in Hawaii with Shangri La. "Eclectic," apart from being a little over-used, might suggest an aesthetic free-for-all or rooms that just came together serendipitously. Instead, the curators dispel any preconceived notions that the Honolulu house is simply an eccentric heiress' folly. Joyful, original, and completely personal -- definitely. But created thoughtfully. A very independent American woman's visual mixed tape with selections from Agra, Rabat, Iznik, Kashmir, San Francisco and Damascus, to name a few.

[Pierced metal lamp in front of the wood grill, custom-made in Morocco in 1937-38, screening central courtyard from foyer at Shangri La, Honolulu, with view overlooking the Pacific Ocean © Tim Street-Porter. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawaii.] 

[The Playhouse at Shangri Laoverlooking the Pacific Ocean © Tim Street-Porter 2011. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawaii.] 

Under the direction of a different art collector, Shangri La could've so easily become too theatrical -- maybe a bit Disney-esque -- but even in her early twenties, when the house was designed and built, Duke had a discerning eye.

[Initial drawing of a scheme for Shangri La’s living room, May 1937. P. Vary, S.A.L.A.M. René Martin, 18 x 24 ½ in. While seeking input from respected authorities, Duke continued to offer her own suggestions, always seeking a balance between cleaned-lined Western modernism and highly decorative Eastern antiques. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawaii.]

We know she fell in love with Mughal design during the Indian leg of her round-the-world honeymoon in 1935. Although, in Doris Duke's Shangri La: A House in Paradise,  Linda Komaroff speculates that Duke may have begun to develop her passion for the arts of the Middle and Near East much earlier, through exposure to the acquisitions of the great Gilded Age collectors like Edward C. Moore and the Havemeyers. Still, Komaroff and other scholars agree that the honeymoon was really the spark that ignited Duke's own voracious collecting and the ideas for her house.

[Click to enlarge. Specially commissioned marble jali for master suite. Photo ©Tim Street-Porter from Doris Duke's Shangri La: A House in ParadiseSkira Rizzoli, 2012. Image published here with written permission from the photographer and book publisher.]

Today most design enthusiasts are at least vaguely aware of Shangri La, but I'm not sure how many fully appreciate the modernist architecture -- its original underpinnings that act as a simple foil for all of the intricate pieces Duke tracked down or commissioned. Until recently, I didn't.

[The hanging swing beds in Horst's book.]

Embarrassing as it is to admit, I didn't completely grasp how well the architecture relates to the surrounding gardens and coastline. And I've spent my fair share of time looking at Horst Interiors with the iconic 1960s Shangri La photos -- pictures seasoned photographer Tim Street-Porter describes as "nothing less than tantalizing" -- as well as her Foundation's lovely little book.

But, again, it's the new collaboration between Street-Porter, various art historians and the current Duke exhibition curators Mellins and Albrecht -- their gorgeous companion book -- that opened my eyes.

Now I see Duke's art collection and house partnering the way Sidney and Frances Brody's commissioned Matisse later connected with their midcentury A. Quincy Jones-designed home.

Take, for example, Duke's living room seen from multiple angles through Street-Porter's lens. Architect Marion Sims Wyeth designed expansive plate-glass floor-to-ceiling windows that hydraulically retract into the basement; these clean windows counterbalance the patterned ceiling (with modern indirect lighting in the ceiling coves) and painted cedar doors commissioned in 1930s Morocco. Did you know Duke chose curtains and upholstery by midcentury California textile designer Dorothy Liebes? It's such a treat to see Duke's antiques in the mix, too. Textiles like this. Some were found on the honeymoon, others acquired over the next six decades.

In the past we've talked about Thalia Kennedy's research into Duke's meeting with Ghandi and how that encounter possibly inspired the philanthropist to commission craftsmen, or maybe strengthened her appreciation for fine craftsmanship of all kinds. Whatever the results of the meeting, the new book makes clear that Duke surrounded herself with sensuous surfaces.

[Shimmering ceiling in Duke's dressing room.  Photo ©Tim Street-Porter from Doris Duke's Shangri La: A House in ParadiseSkira Rizzoli, 2012. Image published here with written permission from the photographer and book publisher.]

[Hand mirror, Northern India, nineteenth century. Jade, gold, gemstones, and mica diameter: 9 1/8 in  © 2006 David Franzen. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawaii.]

[Footed basin, Spain, Valencia, probably Manises, ca. 1500. Earthenware: underglaze painted in blue, overglaze painted in luster, 7 1/8 x 10 in. © 2008 David Franzen. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawaii.]

[Tile panel, Turkey, possibly Istanbul, ca. 1650. Stonepaste: underglaze painted, 44 x 10 ½ in. © 2003 David Franzen.]

This sneak peek doesn't begin to do justice to the book, which covers nearly every inch of Shangri La.  But I hope the post entices you to look through the tome at your own pace and visit the traveling exhibition highlighted here the other day. Duke didn't leave behind any diaries; she mainly expressed herself through design and music. However, the book does reference a rare 1947 article, about her Honolulu home, that she wrote for Town & Country and you can read her brief description of her Mughal-inspired bedroom here (bottom of the page).


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very good comment

Toby Worthington said...

This post has put Doris Duke and her house into
perspective in a remarkable manner, pinning down
all the essentials of the atmosphere that was so carefully created. My copy of Vogue's Book of Houses
Gardens etc was the original, which didn't show the
house to any particular advantage. This new book
will make a difference! Thanks for an enlightening
introduction to it.

Style Court said...

Toby -- I so appreciate your comment!

The house is complex, her collection is complex, and the book covers many different aspects of both so I debated which direction to go toward, within the confines of a little blog post.

Anyway, thanks for reminding me of the original Vogue book -- that I haven't seen yet. I need to,

Let us know what you think of the House in Paradise book.