In a country where the gentle, waring calm of Buddhism pervades everyday life,
it seems strange to talk of passion. Yet passion is the one element that unites some of Sri Lanka’s most talented designers. Their insistence on quality and imaginative design results in pleasant surprises for visitors, and because the best fabrics, clothing, homewares, wood carvings, and brass work are made by artisans in their own homes or small craft centres, they are not mass produced for export, available only in Sri Lanka. Vibrantly coloured natural fabrics are a hallmark of Barefoot, started 40 years ago by Sri Lankan designer, artist, and writer Barbara Sansoni. “We began this company to help solve the problems of development, to provide a way for village women to use their skills to earn some money. But although we use traditional skills, we produce work of our time, using the colours and styles that appeal to people of today.”
Spreading through a series of rooms and spilling into the courtyard of a gracious colonial-era house close to the city centre, Barefoot’s store, gallery, and café vibrate with colour. Racks of cotton and silk sarongs shimmer in saffron yellow, in green (the colour of paddy fields of young rice), in rich aubergine purple, and deep Indian Ocean blue. Classic Asian-inspired shirts and dresses, bolts of heavy cotton furnishing fabric, woven table mats, simple wooden stools painted with colourful reef fish or romping elephants, bags of all shapes and sizes — all are inspired by nature and the elements of earth, fire, and water.
Looking at the woman working quietly at a wooden loom near the courtyard at Barefoot, it’s hard to imagine many of the gorgeous creations within the store have such simple beginnings. Twists of brilliant cotton yarn, hand-dyed with ecofriendly Swiss dyes, lay in a basket near her feet, ready to become the warp and weft of a unique length of fabric. The loom at Barefoot is set up so visitors catch a glimpse of the skill that goes into the creation of hand-woven textiles. For a closer look at how Barefoot’s batiks and hand-stitched bags are created, visit a centre inspired by a contemporary of Barbara Sansoni, the equally remarkable Ena de Silva.
Further downhill, in the centre’s carpentry shop, brightly painted carved wooden elephants stand sturdily next to turtles with amazingly real-looking carapaces, surrounded by village women bearing baskets on their heads, squat little frogs, and other delightful pieces of original folk art. Incorporating local skill with Western craft forms is a speciality of the very talented Praneela Fernando- Kururuppu, whose small and exclusive Victorian Charm in Colombo caters to those who appreciate painstaking workmanship. Handworked Galle lace (introduced by the Dutch) and exquisite shadow embroidery are incorporated with organdy or silk to make the finest household linens or clothing. A signed photograph from Sri Lanka’s President, wearing a sari embroidered by the skilled workers of Victorian Charm, has pride of place in Praneela’s home, and is a testament to the high standard of work.
Paradise Road is one of Sri Lanka’s most successful lifestyle businesses, its flagship store occupying a converted two-storey bungalow. From wooden floor boards to high ceilings, the rooms are stacked with exquisite Sri Lankanmade products: white ceramic tableware decorated around the rim with the sensuous curves of the Sinhalese script; fragrant Ayurvedic massage oils; place mats made of fine kitul twigs; wall-mounted candle holders created from old terracotta roof tiles with wrought iron brackets; coconut shell spoons and salad servers; fragrant floating candles in the shape of lotus blooms; beautifully woven furnishing fabric; cushion covers decorated with a single hand-painted frangipani flower… there seems no end to the range of utterly desirable items.
This time, however, the creative inspiration does not come from one of Sri Lanka’s formidable women, but from a man belonging to a later generation, Shanth Fernando. Self-assured, urbane, and with an infallible eye for what sells, Fernando emphasises, “design, taste and style have always been my obsession”. Although Paradise Road has been asked many times to export its produce, which has a universal appeal, Fernando refuses. “We work with artisans who have a limited infrastructure. To maintain the quality of what we create, we simply can’t produce on a large scale in an attempt to meet the tight schedules demanded for export.” In other words, if you’re looking for paradise, come to Sri Lanka because it’s not for sale elsewhere.
Several other lifestyle stores are found in converted houses in the elegant, leafy inner districts of Colombo. Suriya Home Décor Store and Café and Kalya all offer household linen, kitchenware, and clever gifts in the rooms of spacious old houses. For the ultimate finishing touch to any home, those in the know head for Hermitage Gallery, where magnificent antique wooden panels, chests, tables, and other furniture are joined by old household bric-a-brac, with everything from bird cages to coconut scrapers, and highly desirable old brass lamps and standing fans. Although many items at Hermitage come from South India, there are a number of Sri Lanka pieces, plus what is perhaps the biggest collection of old Ceylon postcards to be found anywhere.
Source: The Expat November 2004
This article has been edited for Expatgomalaysia.com
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