The majesty and the markets!
I've always been so attracted to the mystical exoticism of India. Its allure sparkles, drawing me in like a magpie to a shiny object, so when I was offered to go to Rajasthan and design a holiday collection for the booming home design site OneKingsLane.com, I jumped at the opportunity, turban in hand!
My entire life, I have loved to travel the world, allowing all my experiences to color my imagination and inspire my work. India had always somehow eluded me, and twice before I had cancelled trips for some dramatic reason or other. The very idea of traveling to this magical country, home of fierce looking Maharajahs, resplendent in emeralds the size of ducks eggs and walled cities that glow pink in the dusty light of sunset excites me to no end.
To accompany me on this designing adventure was my dear friend and designing diva Mary McDonald, along with, of course, our ever present companions of the moment: the six-strong Bravo TV camera crew to document our every move and experience.
After a long but well lubricated flight on British Airways (cocooned most happily in the very cozy first-class cabin), we landed in Delhi to strange and wondrous sounds of a stirring city as the sun began to rise upon it. Whisked through the streets towards our grand colonial manse of a hotel, I could not contain my excitement and wonder of all the places we would see, and the shopping splendors my American Express would get to witness!
Indeed, our stay in Delhi, all but brief, opened my eyes to the enormous wealth of craftsmanship that India has to offer. From the expert tailor lodged in our hotel lobby (who managed to copy my ridiculously expensive Italian sports coat in 24 hours at a tenth of the original cost) to the Indian Market place, a well-organized souk on the outskirts of the old city where spices, saris, statues, and snake charmers all blend together to excite the eye and empty your wallets!
Our real destination however was to be Jaipur, legendary Pink City and design Mecca. . .After what can only be described as a hair-raising drive from Delhi on a dusty and disordered road, we arrived to our hotel. The Raj Villas in Jaipur is an oasis of pink stone and gleaming marble, strutting peacocks, and be-turbaned servers with big smiles and warm hearts. At first you never want to leave the walls of this mogul paradise, yet once tantalized by the gleaming gems and polished bronzes displayed in the hotel gift shops, I knew much more tempting fodder lay outside this Temple of luxury.
Mary, the crew, and I set about our designing tasks by first visiting the local street markets in downtown Jaipur. A conundrum of vendors surrounded us. From bangle makers hastily glueing crystals in rainbow hues on their wares to three generations of men sitting cross legged in a homemade tent hammering brass bowls and statues of Shiva. The array of colored Saris both hanging on display and draped perfectly around the many women in the streets is perfectly spellbinding. To see so much elegance and complicated color matches and clashes everywhere you look could not help but inspire the most simple among us to dream of adding color into our own lives. (I actually think anyone whoever visits India will never be the same again due to exposure to their culture and color combinations. The spirit of the nation seems uplifted within their free and generous use of the color spectrum. Delicious is too casual a word to even describe this confection).
We visit an amazing craftsman, Ayush, who dazzles us with his talents for interpreting Indian craftsmanship into a simpler form, now so fashionable in our world of eclectic design and the American home. Mary and I set about showing this guru our designs and recently enlivened color choices for fabrics, holiday gifts, and beautiful small occasional furniture. Hours fly by without notice as we design away, dementedly inspired by all that's around us, until the dreaded jet lag finally takes hold and our colonial villas beckon us home for an amber-infused bath and a delicately scented culinary delight in the magnificent, palace-like restaurant.
Refreshed from a peaceful night's sleep, we excitedly return to the old town where we roam the streets, climbing high above the crowds to visit small workshops situated in the never-ending pink towers that weave through the old market place. Here we meet artisans, who from a simple drawing are able to interpret our design ideas for silver and brass table ware. An alligator bangle of Mary's is suddenly transformed into beaten napkin rings and place mats, while my golden snake ring, once pried from my finger, becomes decorative inspiration to writhe around small bowls and proud, cobra-like candle sticks. The skill of these generations-old craftsmen is astounding and the speed at which they work is an inspiration!
Next we visit a small workshop that specializes in inlay of wood, camel bone, and horn. These arts have been so well-refined over the last three hundred years of Indian decorative history that we soon have cleaned up our ideas, making simple stripes and arabesques into boxes and trays mixing ebony with horn, camel bone, and beautifully dyed grey and blue hued stones. From votives to soap dishes, these materials and amazing hand-made crafts have made the most beautiful collection of both home and gift items that I'm sure the One Kings Lane customers are going to treasure.
After visiting the splendid Rambagh palace, once home to the Royal family of Jaipur and the famous beauty Devi, the Maharani of Jaipur, now a glamorous hotel and our chosen spot for a fragrant curry luncheon, we head off to southern Jaipur, which is the fabric capital of the state. Both Mary and I have our own fabric collections and are of course passionate about textile design. India is truly the world's leading textile producer. From the rainbow of silks and saris to the finest linens and soft cottons, it is for us a playground to explore with our ferocious appetites, clearly whetted by all we had already seen around us.
For our holiday table linens we decided that in homage to all we had seen, jewel tones were the only way to go. Our love of Venetian marble papers, a 17th century Italian craft indigenous to Venice, fired a directive to do amethyst, emerald, fire Opal, and ruby colored fabrics that truly give a spin on the traditional holiday look. A vintage silk shirt of mine depicting paisleys and brocades inspired another embroidered collection of linens with aquamarine, ivory and golden banding as its accents.
Taken from the traditional design called "Indian tree," I used an 18th century document to inspire our own take on this coloring with bursts of unexpected color collected from the street fashions of Jaipur. These table runners and napkins will dress the dining table for any occasion, whether fit for a Maharajah's feast or a family Thanksgiving. They are festive, chic, and totally unique.
Our couple of days in Jaipur were an amazing design success and an over-load to the senses, yet I believe it will keep me inspired for years.
Next we head to Agra for what I can only describe as one of the most extraordinary sights I have yet to see in my life! The Taj Mahal is truly a wonder of human craftsmanship, passion, and opulence. We stayed at the Oberoi where the vision of the Taj is constantly upon the horizon, and is yet another exotically luxurious counterpart to the madness and disarray of the local streets.
We awoke at the ungodly hour of 5 am, taking the advice of the hotel manager to go visit the Taj at sunrise. By 6:20 am, our weary group was dazzled by the unprecedented beauty of this iconic building, back-lit by the umber-tinged rays of the sun as it lazily rose above the domes of this orientalist monument. Our eyes had never seen so much beauty as the vista changed in shaded color and shadows literally by the minute. Finally as the early morning sun took its place in the sky we could recover, and fully take in the beauty of this monument to the power of love and the opulent spending of a heart-broken Mogul emperor. The interior is just as spectacular as the exterior, and we took many inspirational photos from the stone inlays of semi-precious jewels to help fine-tune our own inlays for boxes and table wares.
This experience is without doubt a must-see at least once in your life. For me, I will have to repeat this visit as its image still fires my imagination.
Agra, though now a city devoted to the adulation of the Taj, also attracts tourists to it's other highlight: the shoe manufacturing capital of India! Everywhere you look, there are street vendors selling carefully embroidered, sequined and beaded slippers or brightly color contrasted sneakers! I bought colorful gilded sandals for all my nieces, much to their delight upon my return, and at under $10 a pair seem to hold up well against their expensive designer counterparts!
Finally, just to throw our senses completely over the edge we take a recuperative stay at the beautiful 17th century Neemranah fort palace, now a rustic and remarkably authentic hotel set in the hills, about 2 hours' drive from the heart of Delhi. The fort is a sprawling structure with many unexpectedly grand-scaled rooms and pavilions. Dreamy pools are nestled into arched enclaves and the rooms are furnished in Indo-Victorian antiques, which add perfectly to the authenticity of the fort and a true experience that feels like your back in the days of the Raj.
I believe my life will never be the same again having experienced this majestic and ancient country. Its proud people, unrivaled craftsmen, the kaleidoscope of colors and exotic smells; all so haunting. My inspirational juices now flow permanently spiced with Indian flavor, and I believe the collections we designed for One Kings Lane are a fine expression of this, which I hope will inspire many more collections and interiors to come!
You can follow our Indian adventure on this week's Million Dollar Decorators at 10/9 C Central on Bravo TV. The fabulous collections we created for One Kings Lane will be available to purchase via the OneKingsLane.com designer sale sight from Tuesday, November 20th, for a limited time only.