There’s definitely something about the colonial decorating style that hints of adventure and romance. It has an incredibly relaxing feel – you can just about hear the swirling of the ceiling fans and taste the sweet bitterness of a G&T.
The height of colonisation in the late 1800’s saw European expats arriving at unfamiliar Asian ports and soon realising they would have to embrace the local lifestyle and furnishings to survive the unrelenting heat. (Sound familiar?)
Their traditional, elegantly sturdy Victorian furniture (shipped from home, on steamers back then!) was adapted by local craftsmen to suit the practical needs of the extreme Asian climate and landscape.
But how to achieve a touch of this colonial elegance in our own living space?
We chatted to colonial antiques specialist, Marie-Hélène van Houten, to give us more info on the elements that make up colonial style. Together with her husband Pieter, she owns The Past Perfect Collection on Dunearn Road – a beautiful showroom filled with gorgeous top-quality antique colonial furniture spanning the British, Dutch and Portuguese era in India. It’s restored to all its former glory with exquisite polishing and fresh upholstery; you won’t find any reproductions here, they’re all handpicked, original colonial pieces from India.
Marie-Hélène has a vast knowledge of colonial décor – check out Past Perfect’s amazing page on Pinterest – and is the perfect person to chat us through the elements that make up colonial style.
1. Choose beautiful, sturdy, dark wood furniture
Much of the original European furniture warped as the soft wood couldn’t withstand the humid tropical climates, so native craftsman began recreating the British designs using local ‘exotic’ materials such as ebony, rosewood, teak, mahogany, rattan, wicker, and animal hide. Typical features of these pieces are curvaceous profiles, sweeping curved lines and a rich, satin finish. It’s the high quality of the materials used, the handwork and the attention to detail of these pieces which really adds that special character to your home.
2. Look to include detailed pieces – they all tell a story
“Detail is very prominent in colonial style,” Marie-Hélène explains, “and it changes depending on different influences, from the romantic Indo-Portuguese style to the clean lines of the Dutch Colonial furniture to the more formal yet flowing designs of the Anglo-Indian pieces.’
Typical decorative detail includes tropical motifs: shells, plants (the pineapple is often seen, and is having a ‘moment’ in current trends too), animal prints and the exotic sunburst motif. Reeding, carved parallel or corrugated lines, on the edges of cabinets or on the aprons or legs of tables is prominent.
3. Choose natural textures and fabrics
Caning, rattan, reed and sisal were often used to add an interesting contrast against traditional darker furniture. Further textural interest can be found in pillows, bedding (Past Perfect brings in their exquisite bedding range from India), rugs and baskets.
Flowing drapery, made of lightweight cotton, linen and occasionally silk, is a hallmark of colonial style. Thanks to the trading routes back then, they would’ve had authentic textiles from the Caribbean, Africa, India and Asia. ikats, paisleys, animal and botanical prints in linens and cottons were in demand; plus the ever-present mosquito nets over four-poster beds, beautiful and romantic but extremely necessary!
4. Keep cool with light-coloured walls and fans
Lighter walls of soft tonal blues and greens and different shades of white contrast beautifully with the darker furniture and add to a feeling of cool and calm.
No aircon back then, (ouch!), so keeping cool and conserving energy were paramount! Structurally, this was achieved with verandahs, shutters, high ceilings and rounded windows and doorways, and you’ll notice that fans with wide blades are common in British Colonial décor – to help keep the open and airy spaces cool.
5. Bring the outside in
Botany was an extremely popular hobby during the Victorian times, and the tropical environment became relevant in many British Colonial households. Liven up your room with greenery from potted plants – palms, ferns and tropical varieties – which helps to add a touch of tropical drama.
6. Make use of eclectic accessories
Dress your space with globes, telescopes, letter-writing boxes and antique maps, along with the more traditional Asian collectibles. Fine china, crystal and silver sits together beautifully with carved pieces and tortoise patterned glass.
The Past Perfect Collection’s new shipment is on its way to Singapore – including camphor chests lovingly restored to their former glory! Take a look at the new arrivals on their website or visit their showroom to find out more.
315 Outram Road #11-05 Tan Boon Liat Building Singapore 169074
+ 65 6737 3078
Open Tuesday – Sunday 10:30-6pm
Want more home inspiration? See our home decor section!