Fantasy Adventure means seeking adventure without leaving home, or in risk-free trips or environments. Probably only a small percentage of our customers will ever go on safari, yet everyone who desires a "safari room" can experience one vicariously through fantasy decorating, which can be augmented by virtual reality or a good National Geographic special on the screen.
African decorating is great fun -- any fabric or wallpaper print with exotic, ethnic or wild animal motifs can be the start of a great theme. But let's look closer at real African interiors then see how authenticity can be translated and adapted to today's interiors.
Continent of Diversity
Africa is a vast continent, full of diversity and contradiction. Many influences have found fertile soil in Africa, and history is deep and intriguing.
Northern Africa, sometimes referred to as Arabic Africa, is committed to religious form in art and design. Coptic and ancient Christian designs still influence many tribal designs in the north. Egyptian, Islamic, Byzantine and even classical Greek and Roman elements all have played a part in the artistic development of this region.
A part of what we perceive as African design stems from European colonists who found Africa a land of abundant natural resources ready for exploitation. European colonial homes in Africa often included a selection of curious artifacts -- and some relics and tribal wares were sent back to Europe to display in museums. Hence, the simplified Colonial European interior with art and accessories from authentic African sources.
This approach, still valid today, does not necessarily imply a deep appreciation for the indigenous cultures or the natural resources of Africa, but instead may hold them as a novelty -- something for dinner conversation, perhaps.
The true African cultures that we consider "ethnic" have a far deeper belief system. To tribal Afrikaans, Africa is home -- the only world one knows. The land is recognized as rich but also fragile, given to mankind only through reverence by the creating deities and ancestral spirits who are integral to life itself.
Communal harmony is a major goal, and peace can occur only when all have enough to eat and tribal warfare is at rest. Even then, furnishings are minimal, giving way to rigorous work to sustain life. Interiors that reflect this attitude can help shape interiors that can be classified as "environmental" or "ethnic."
All of these approaches, then, are valid in creating an African-inspired interior. These include the classical and Coptic/Christian or Muslim influence, the colonial European interior and the tribal and environmental factors. Environ- mental awareness is perhaps a prime area of African influence today as we consider how delicate the balance of nature is.
Africa is fascinating to us because of its contrasts from the desolate Sahara and northern deserts to the Serengeti Plain where safari treks to view fascinating wildlife take place in national parks and the center of the continent where tropical jungles lay and rainfall is matched by rich mineral resources and political unrest. South Africa holds more European-Christian influences from the Dutch, English and Germans. Hence, African interiors can be broad in scope.
Here are some guidelines to help bring Africa into the interior -- in totality or as an accessory theme. These guidelines mainly focus on the tribal and environmental themes.
Color, Pattern and Textures
Colors often are symbolic to African tribal groups. Bright colors are used to celebrate or commemorate life's events: birth, love, marriage, coming of age, conquest. Brilliant colors are exciting and provide an eagerly anticipated break from day-to-day drudgery.
Most of the bright colors were used in textiles and for apparel. When used in a tribal home, they are used reservedly as smaller accents, in artwork, in tapestries and in wares used in celebrations. To us, this means bright primary colors are effective in smaller areas of interior textiles -- pillows and accessory items, in upholstery, in bedding, towels, valances and in fabric or wooden or metal artwork.
Bright colors and patterns are inseparably combined because color becomes exciting through the juxtaposition of contrasting hues. Simple stripes, abstract patterns and geometric forms are examples of African patterns that are made alive with bright color. Black often is a component in the bright color schemes -- making other colors more brilliant and dynamic. Animal skin prints or designs are an example. Leopard, ocelot, tiger and zebra patterns are lively through the contrast of black with yellow/gold or white/beige.
Tribal fabrics often are hand-painted, and geometric and abstract forms may have spiritual meanings. Batik, the application of wax then dye, is a pattern method used throughout Africa. Batik results in imprecise colors because bleeding of the dye is part of the design charm. A simple silk-screen method known as Java prints are traditionally bright and ideal for accents.
For the most part interior colors are natural, earthy tones. Colors derived from the earth often rely on the textures of the earth. The colors and textures of wood, stone, decayed foliage and tree bark are companions in creating subtlety that provides intrigue in an interior and are coupled with natural fibers or the look of undyed cotton, linen or wool. Blended, undyed wool products are a result of the artistry of the Berber tribe of North Africa where beige, brown, gray and black natural wool is blended together to form natural carpet or the textile we call Berber.
Hand spun yarns are irregular, with nubs (knots) and slubs (ends spun together forming a larger diameter and profile). Leather and animal skin (or vinyl and silk-screen prints or woven animal skin designs) are appropriate for window treatments, upholstery, bed and bath linens, table covers and area rugs and floor cloths.
Trims with a natural linen or jute texture and color can be used creatively. Large linen-like rope trims can be draped to appear as snakes over informal pole swags, for example.
Patterns and textures also go hand-in-hand. Often a texture is really a pattern such as a herringbone or abstract geometrics, but the tone-on-tone coloration obscures the pattern until it becomes texture to the eye. Thus visual intrigue and a long-lived environmental theme are established.
Floors, Walls, and Windows
Hard surface floors are found throughout Africa: dirt in many tribal villages and wood, brick or tile in Northern and European Colonial African interiors. Area rugs may be natural undyed wool mohair fiber or even floccati (Greek goat's hair rugs). Tribal rugs generally are flat, woven in a simple tapestry technique and use patterns ranging from wildlife to coarsely geometric and Euro-classical motifs. Both natural coloration and bright colors can be found in folk rugs.
Wall treatments should be heavily textured: rough stucco, woven reeds, wood and the textures seen in natural wall coverings such as grasscloth, jute, coarse cotton, wool, linen and leather with imperfections and natural color variations.
Window treatments that keep out the intense African heat are durable materials such as wood and aluminum blinds and vertical louvers that emphasize function and practicality. Today, pleated and cellular shades are excellent at shading and minimizing the brightness of the sun. Draperies also are appropriate, particularly when they focus on the same coarse, natural fibers discussed above.
Even textured sheers are great from mosquito netting to batiste to textured polyesters. They represent the look of the colonial interior where biting bugs are kept away from the beds by draped netting. Creating a tent-like appearance on walls and windows is a great safari look as are informal valances including pole swags and simple shirred or draped floppy headings on rings with exotic textures on exposed hardware.
If the design calls for a pared-back and pristine look at the window, then specify window film to protect the furnishings against heat/ultra-violet light damage and to minimize glare.
The message from Africa is that nature is beautiful, and we don't need to strive to improve it but to emulate and incorporate its bounties. The moral we can learn is that both flora and fauna in nature is worth preserving, that tribal influences can be respected, and that we are stewards of the delicate balance of exploratory human life and nature -- both harvesting and keeping it intact for ourselves and future generations.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.