Nusantara.com:Essays:Java Style

The Raffles Chair, i



European neoclassical design of the turn of the 19th century has been embraced and enveloped by the myriad streams of Javanese interior and architectural design. Neoclassical styles are still a dominant element in contemporary furniture and interiors, in the cities, towns and remarkably, in the villages of Java. This period was a highwater mark for European furnituremaking, with designs being revived again and again into the early 20th century. Still, the impact of a relatively limited set of designs in Java was remarkably deep, even deeper than the impact of the neoclassical in America, where it formed the basis of the Federal Style. The proof is in the way many neoclassical designs make up most of the "village furniture" of Java: benches, large chairs, and tables executed in heavy teak. The charm of this 'rustification' of English models is key to the current popularity of Javanese country furniture in Europe and the United States.

So what explains the vigour of this influence in Java? For one thing, the emergence of the neoclassical styles coincided with the rapid development and change in Java, changes exemplified in the rule of Daendels and the Raffles interregnum. What furniture that was imported to Java (and there was likely to have been very little) would have been of English or French design, and these were the centres of the neoclassical revival.

The English had recently begun the large-scale manufacture of furniture in European styles in India, and it is possible that either some of this furniture made its way to Java, at least during the interregnum, or that local Javanese entrepreneurs saw opportunities to copy such efforts, and offer new designs based on pattern books and engravings in the illustrated journals of empire.

Of great importance was the suitabilty of neoclassical designs to tropical climates. They looked equally good with or without upholstery, and designs that worked without upholstery were certainly more suited to tropical hear. Neoclassical furniture could use cane seats and backs as well, the ultimate in coolness and comfort. Ebony chairs with seats of woven tropical rattan had reached Europe from Batavia in the 1650s, and caning had subsequently become extremely popular in Europe, though the vogue petered out eventually.



The two factors then --historical circumstance and suitability to climate-explain the depth of the impact of the neoclassical in Java. The question of whether there is some deeper resonance between Java Style and neoclassical forms and proportions is perhaps already moot: by now, the neoclassical is a deep strain in a long-lasting Java Style.



essay continues: but why this chair?