Visual historian and designer Soedarmadji Damais presented a talk titled Indonesia Design: Kaleidoscopes of Influences at Asia House in London last night (22 October 2008). Damais is a former director of the Jakarta history museum (Museum Sejarah Jakarta) and has consulted with the Aman resort group in the design of their neo-traditional hotels in Indonesia. This was the third talk in a series called Indonesia Inspired, sponsored by Asia House and Preserve Indonesia, a private foundation headed by Kestity Pringgoharjono (who used to be based in London, but now divides her time between Bangkok and Jakarta). I attended the previous talk on Indonesian film (by director and lecturer Nan Achnas).
Last night's event was attended by some glitterati, all of whom were recognised by the speaker in his talk: Kartika Sari Soekarno (the daughter of Sukarno and his Japanese wife Dewi), the owners of the Aman resort chain, the ambassador and his wife. There was a buffet supper afterwards (nasi goreng, gado-gado, lumpia, ayam, rendang, various kue, wine) prepared by Satay House (a London Malaysian restaurant that was plugged as the place where ex prime minister Mahathir eats while in London, as well as a popular eatery with one Malaysian 'queen'). The food was pretty good. Also goody bags from Gan To (kecap manis, sambal, a satay kit to take home).
Now about the talk itself. Damais focused on Indonesian furniture design in an architectural context. He showed Indonesian design as a mixture of influences - Chinese, Indian, Dutch among them. Much of the talk was about Java (Damais is a co-author of the book Java Style and also a chapter in the Thames & Hudson book Asian Furniture)- but there was also some attention to Bali, Palembang and other parts of the archipelago.
Rooms in traditional Java did not have fixed furnishings. For example, the throne room of the Yogya court did not have a permanent throne installed. One of the sultan's female escorts would instead carry out a stool for him to sit on and everyone else would sit on the floor. It was considered a sign of the sultan's strength that he did not require a backed chair.
The type of furniture that developed in colonial Java was also found in Sri Lanka, Capetown and the parts of India colonised by The Netherlands. Damais proposed talking about an 'Indian Ocean style' in the c17 and c18. Carvings were likely by southern Indians - the baroque flowery ornamentation is in an Indian style, and the sort of wood (lacquered or stained black wood) was not indigenous to Java-- Java does not have a totally black wood of this sort. Damais pointed out that there were only about 5 million people living in Java in the c17 and there wasn't the body of tukang to produce the work. Typical pieces are the rustbank (rest bench), the burgermeister chair and a circular chair like the Gandaram throne. Caning also can be found in this early period.
Watercolours by the Batavia preacher Jan Brandes provide an excellent insight into the interior world of the c18. Children (both the native son of a servant and Brandes' own son) sit casually on the ground. A glass painting from China hangs on the wall.
Furniture in this period also shows Chinese influence in carving and the use of cinnabar red colouring.
Damais then went on to talk about Javanese architectural features that emerge or can be found in this period. The pendopo roof with its rafters painted to look like a huge payung (ceremonial umbrella), the 'alter' used for ceremony and display in the Javanese house.
Javanese sat on the ground and so European pieces needed to be adapted to this. A writing desk for example was low down, as Javanese sat on small stools not on chairs.
Damais discussed the chest on wheels - a sort of piece once found in many, many households. This was used to store keris, lances, rice, ornaments use for weedding, other valuables. The eldest son would typically sleep on top of it for security reasons. The wheels were necessary so that the chest could be wheeled out in case of fire.
Furniture of this sort - Dutch design adapted to Javanese tastes and needs - is sometimes called Kumpeni Jawa today. A contemporary batik shop provided an example.
The so-called Raffles chair from the c19, Damais speculated, was not related to TS Raffles but the practice of colonial officials selling off their furniture after their return to The Netherlands.
The size of this furniture - 2m diameter tables made from teak, amboyna or alexandra wood - shows the wealth of Java's forests.
A typical piece from Sumatra is Palembang furniture - a set of armoirs or cabinets used to hold cloth for weddings. Earlier pieces date from c18, and still being made today - especially for Palembang elites living in Jakarta. These cabinets are short - made for an interior where one spends a lot of time sitting on the floor.
Damais then talked about 'Java primitive' furniture - which is now marketed the world over. This furniture is made in areas near the teak estates of Java - Cirebon, Probolinggo, the area around Semarang - and is a simplified version of Kumpeni Jawa furniture. A typical piece is the 'village chief desk'. Somtimes this sort of furniture is painted, sometimes not.
In late colonial Java a variety of adaptations of European styles flourished. Semarangan, for example, is an art nouveau derivative. The so-called Kursi Betawi is in Wiener Werkstate style. There is also art deco rattan furniture etc.
New designs emerge from tourism and continual flux of foreign people and influences. The furniture in the Darmawangsa hotel designed 10 years ago is widely copied. Javanese families still sit on floors - to watch tv for example - and houses of the nouveau riche are designed to reflect this.
Damais concluded with a few general reflections. 'Foreign' refers to culture not race. A Gujarati princess married to the monarch of Japara was culturally Javanese - a story about her that she went to do harsh devotions in a cave clothed only in her long hair until her husband's murder was revenged was a JAVANESE cultural motif.
The problem with Indonesia, Damais said, was that it had TOO MUCH. Too many historically important buildings, too many temples, too many styles of crafts. So in the end it doesn't care enough about any one of these.