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Serene Elegance from Humble Origins

The Bedroom as Retreat


We spend at least a third of our lives in the bedroom, the majority of that time with our eyes closed. No wonder it's one of the last places we get around to decorating to our perfection. In the post-9/11 world, new design appears not as focused on the way we sleep as on how we are reacting to the changing world around us. The bedroom is a retreat from the unpredictable forces around us. Depending on budget, the traditional bedroom with a boxy bed can be transformed into a suite with open bathrooms, personal massage rooms, miniature movie screens and more.

The minimalist look has dominated bedroom design in recent years, and Asian design has become inspiration for sleek simplicity. Contemporary Asian Bedrooms by Chami Jotisalikorn and Karina Zabihi showcases how Eastern influences affect the way we're designing our private space.

Asian bedroom design comes from humble origins. According to Jotisalikorn, "Historically, there was not much to indigenous bedroom design in Asia. Tropical Asian living traditionally didn't use furniture, and all living, eating and sleeping was done on the floor using reed mats because reed doesn't induce perspiration like fabric does. Bedroom furniture consisted of a reed mat, cushions and a mosquito net, hand-woven baskets to keep your clothes and low tables used as dressing tables while sitting on the floor. "

The wooden four-poster bed and mosquito net that is today's popular icon of the tropical bedroom became more popular with European colonization. That morphed into the contemporary Asian bedroom that revolves around efficient urban living and all its amenities, designer beds, TVs and ensuite bathrooms.

Even with the advent of air-conditioning, the mosquito net is often used as a decorative element, as illustrated in the book. Its ethereal shroud is perfect for today's canopied beds.

Television seems like the antithesis of Zen-like serenity, but it remains a staple of modernity. The bedroom has become an enclave for personal entertainment. Flat screen televisions have replaced those hidden in bulky armoires, thus decreasing some of the clutter.

According to Contemporary Asian Bedrooms, one of the most notable trends shaping the minimalist Asian look is designing the bedroom as a spa suite. Personal massage rooms, replete with a professional massage table and scented oils, are not out of the question in this scenario.

The semi-outdoor, bed-and-bath suite is also becoming more popular in the home. Apartment dwellers can have outdoor showers on their balconies with sliding glass panels. Indoor bathrooms are becoming more a part of the bedrooms with sliding panels to separate the areas instead of doors.

With Zen motifs more common in the Asian theme than a busier ethnic style, strong and simple dramatic accents are needed. Designers are exploring endless options with the headboard in the bedroom. Padded, paneled or covered in simple fabric, the headboard is being completely reinterpreted and incorporated into the total bed structure along with side units.

These new designs are really a remake of the old mat and canopy systems that allowed for multi-tasking. New beds can allow occupants to "work, email, eat, read, watch TV and, when all else is done, eventually sleep."

Pillows, pillows and more pillows are layered on a sofa-like bed with a variety of textures such as nubby, shaggy and fluffy. Leather is the new black, and it's making an appearance in many bedrooms, along with faux exotic animal prints and fur.

Despite the westernization of the Asian bedroom, Jotisalikorn maintains that all things glitzy, gaudy, loud, overly floral or frilly are out. "The new bedroom aims for a soothing environment that relaxes the senses," she says.

Incorporating Asian design into the bedroom, or anywhere else for that matter, requires a synthesis of opposing forces, according to In the Asian Style by Fiona Dunlop. These forces are derived from the cultures of two major civilizations: "the great Indian subcontinents in the West and China in the East. Between them, today's political boundaries give us Nepal, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and, further east still, the Philippines, North and South Korea, and Japan."

From these great cultures rose clashing dynasties, regional colonization, traders' coffers and spiritual beliefs that formed Asian style. By the 16th century, design was so important that Thais would go to war over a sculptor or skilled craftsman, says Dunlop.

Buddhism, well-known in the West, is far from the only spiritual belief in the East. Dunlop says, "Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Island and various forms of animism have all held sway in different regionssometimes they have even mergedgiving rise to numerous rituals and specific features of domestic interiors."

The most well-known and oldest esoteric system is feng shui, which means wind and water. Invented more than four thousand years ago, feng shui is still widely practiced in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. "The system of creating optimum building conditions, orientation and layout originated in the notion of yin and yang, the complementary forces that govern the universe and produce qi, the cosmic energy or life force. This doctrine stemmed from the second millennium B.C. I-Ching (the Book of Changes) and was later integrated into Taoism, whose aim is for each individual to find balance and seek oneness with the Taothe path, or, original principle," according to Dunlop. Using this system, ploys are used to encourage good fortune and to fend off malevolent spirits.

Asian countries have two different concepts of design. One is where surfaces are covered in intricate detail; the other conveys the stillness of Zen. Western modernists like Frank Lloyd Wright were inspired by an Asian holistic approach. Dunlop feels that East-West differences are very subtle today after centuries of stylistic interchange and easy access to global information.

In the Asian Style focuses on the yin and the yang of opposing forces in Eastern design. The author cites these as those of light and shade, outer and inner, textured and smooth, high colors and neutrals, complexity and purity, the noble and the humble and the traditional and the modern. "Above all, I was struck by the ritualistic quality involved in manufacture and by the most intangible element of all: the time taken in any creation," Dunlop says. "Time taken for a Japanese tea ceremony, time to apply layer after layer of lacquer, time to re-thatch a palm-leaf roof, time to contemplate fleeting reflections on an expanse of still water. For Oriental time is something else: it is cyclical, not linear as in the West. That is Asian style."

People in rural Asia historically slept communally on woven bamboo or rush mats, according to Dunlop. More luxurious are Japanese tatami bamboo mats, stuffed with rice straw. A step up from that is the cotton futon mattress, which can also be folded and stored away so space can be used for eating and socializing. These customs are centuries old and continue to this day in some areas.

Much more lavish were the beds excavated in China. A bed from the 4th-3rd centuries B.C. consisted of black lacquered frames surrounded by low bamboo railings and held a sleeping base of bamboo, wood or matting supported by six short carved legs. Sleeping bases were composed of bamboo strips, matting and silk wadding.

By the 6th century, canopy beds from Tibet and Turkestan came into style and spread throughout Asia. With its draping of net or other fabric, the style provided a sense of security. As they increased in popularity in wealthy Chinese households, the separate bedroom appeared to accommodate its large and awkward size. The draping did provide privacy for other functions, however, like washing or receiving guests. It even had a somewhat office-like function, where calligraphy was often done. Washstands and clothes storage were eventually added.

Daybeds started appearing in other parts of the house, especially in the master's study "for the master to recover from his arduous mental activity." These consisted of three sides enclosed by a low railing or carved panels. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these were better known as opium beds and became more and more ornate.

The East is known for its use of chests, trunks and cabinets. Most popular has been the cinnabar-red lacquered cupboard in classical Ming style. Most chests have removable interior shelves allowing for change. Balance is always a consideration and cupboards and side tables are usually made in pairs.

Baskets have been woven since time immemorial. Plants have been used to weave containers, mats, roofs and food baskets, and these accessories are easily affordable and provide attractive storage for towels or laundry in the bedroom suite. It's an easy way to incorporate Asian accents.

Bamboo is the ultimate tropical material and is widely incorporated into Asian bedroom design. Expect to see more bamboo in design for a multitude of reasons, especially environmental consciousness. Long associated with the poor, bamboo has a weight resistance better than timber and iron, and its growth and energy-friendly cultivation makes it appealing for those think green. There are more than a thousand species of bamboo. One type broke a record, growing four feet in 24 hours. According to Dunlop, the governments of India, China and Burma are looking to invest in large-scale bamboo production.

The book states that a Chinese scientist once calculated that bamboo has 1,386 uses. These can include ladders, walls, floors, roof shingles, scaffolding, cooking utensils, vases, mats, furniture, musical instruments and baskets. Entire houses are constructed from bamboo in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. China and Japan have always used bamboo as the basis of lacquerware and furniture. The Western market is seeing a proliferation of bamboo floors using ply-bamboo, slatted split bamboo or tongue and groove, finished with sealants.

In the new Asian bedroom, with the seamless transition from bedroom to bathroom, the ancient rituals of the East are incorporated into Western architecture. "For many Asians, cleansing the body is far from a daily chore and attains the status of a regenerative ritual, extending its reach to the mind and consequently the soul," Dunlop says. "For centuries, massage rooms and freshwater pools were integrated into the homes of prosperous southern Indians. Most rural Asians were using a bucket and well."

The Japanese were first to give substantial space, time and importance to the bathroom, and their spa traditions are the main influence on Asian-inspired bedroom suites of the West. Hotels in Bali have been incorporating outdoor bathrooms for the last two decades and outdoor and semi-outdoor bathrooms are now common with the styles adapted by hotels in southern India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand. Adaptations are made for Western tastes, but the experience is geared to be in tune with the elementsfor example, showering on an open deck in front of a waterfall or soaking in a moonlit tub.

Most urban dwellers are obviously at a disadvantage when it comes to bathing au natural on their balconies or during a snowstorm. Internal space can be given a spiritual edge by creating an ambiance of ritual. The book showcases one such bathroom where architects installed a tub on a raised platform, accessed by steps and separated by a glass partition from the rest of the bathroom. A skylight provides natural light and the steps give the bather a sense of ceremony.

Dunlop points out that Asian design has never been more popular than it is today in the West with the interest in Zen, feng shui and the concept of home being a place of tranquility and refuge. "From Asia comes a broader, less tangible dynamic: an approach to living that encompasses intercom-municating spaces, a merging of interior and exterior and the integration of expanses of water into the overall design," according to Dunlop. By placing the emphasis on the quality of space, materials and craftsmanship, the Asian concept of style results in not just a sensual minimalism but also a harmony of pattern, structure and function." o

Asian Interior Design, edited by Paco Asensio, TeNeues Publishing Group.

This 400-page book shows 450 photographs of 50 beautiful Asian homes designed by architects from all over the East, including Singapore, Thailand, India, Japan and China. This international book is translated into Spanish, German and French, as well as English. It was printed in Spain.

Innovative stairwells, baths, kitchens, bamboo walls, pools, and dining and living rooms are displayed in elegant simplicity, using both Western and Eastern design traditions, incorporating materials as diverse as bamboo and concrete.Interview

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: November 2006