Monday, April 27, 2009

BTO: Colonial legacies

Business Times - 25 Apr 2009

Colonial legacies

A Dutch couple's love affair with Indo-European furniture during their stay in India has led, not only to a home full of unique, exquisitely crafted pieces, but also to a niche furniture business in Singapore. By Cheah Ui-Hoon


EUROPEANS who go to India usually find themselves falling in love with the subcontinent's colourful culture. Dutch couple Marie-Helene Piederiet and Pieter van Hou-ten similarly found themselves enamoured with India's sights and sounds - and more - after living there for over four years.


'More' refers to their discovery of Indo-European furniture during their excursions throughout India while they were residing there. Marie-Helene Piederiet was working as a marketing director for a pharmaceutical company then, and Pieter van Houten for the Dutch consulate.


The couple started collecting a few pieces - an Anglo-Indian planter's chair here, an 18th century English book cabinet there, as well as 16th century Dutch chests and knick knacks like writing boxes or British campaign pieces.


Indo-European furniture refers to pieces commissioned by Europeans according to European design and specifications, but made by Indian craftsmen - from the 1500s when the Portuguese colonised Southern India, to the Dutch era, and then the British colonial period right up to the 20th century.


'We had not really been aware of this type of furniture until we lived there,' says Ms Piederiet, adding that they'd spent hours scouring through bazaars and antique shops.


Being Dutch, what caught their imagination was antique furniture that would be almost completely Dutch in style, but made with local Indian woods like satinwood, mahogany and ebony, and embellished sometimes with Indian styles of decoration. They also didn't realise just how active the Dutch had been in India from the 1500s to the 1700s - in cities like Mahe, Cochin, Pulicat, Nagapatam, Masulipatam, Chinsura, as well as Sri Lanka's Colombo, Galle and Matara.


Little, however, had been written about the furniture, they found out as they started doing research on both furniture and Indian history. By a quirk of fate, it's a style of hybrid furniture that neither the Europeans nor the Indians have really claimed as their own. 'Europeans tend to see it as Indian furniture because it was made locally, while Indians tend to see this as European furniture since it was made according to their lifestyles and sense of aesthetics,' Mr van Houten explains.


To date, they have found no more than a handful of books devoted to the subject, written by museum specialists. And in the world, there are only four shops that specialise solely in Indo-European furniture - in New York City, London, Florida and South Africa.


'That's what compelled us to think about setting up a shop in Singapore,' he explains, as they had built up their knowledge, and contacts with dealers who would source for the furniture from family estates.


The couple felt so strongly about their passion that they quit their jobs and moved to Singapore in 2007, to set up Past Perfect in River Valley - bringing along with them the Indo-European furniture they had collected themselves, and also a whole new collection for the shop.


It has not been too easy switching into retail mode, but as Mr van Houten points out, 'We shouldn't be competing with our customers!' Thus far, they've been good about sourcing for the shop rather than their own house, and what they've retained for their airy semi-detached house in Opera Estate are the first pieces they collected when they were in India. There are three antique Dutch chests, all with distinctive features and beautifully restored, in their living room and dining area, as well as under the stairwell.


'These are the ones with sentimental value,' explains Ms Piederiet, adding that their first marketing campaign for Past Perfect featured a close up picture of the bronze filigree keyhole on one of their Dutch chests.


Although their rented home here is a pretty standard suburban house, the colonial pieces fit in quite nicely, with a few decorative antique pieces here and there, like Indian boxes (see sidebar) and sandstone sculptures. A large five-foot bronze Rajasthani rice jar, painted in folk style, stands at the corner of their upstairs landing, which also has sculptures from Khajuraho in a glass cabinet, flanked by two antique Indo-European chairs.


Some photographs of wildlife adorn the walls, taken by Mr van Houten when he took a sabbatical from his banking job and travelled through South Africa in 2000.


The couple both share an adventurous spirit in fact, meeting just under 10 years ago when mutual friends introduced them. Then they left for India in 2002, resettling here in 2007.


What they like about Singapore is being able to resume their outdoor lifestyle, such as cycling to East Coast parkway for example. 'Being Dutch, we really missed cycling in India and we do it often now!' says Ms Piederiet, adding that that's why they chose to live in the Eastern part of the island.


Running their retail business now sees them shuttling between India and Singapore as they've embarked on a new occupation as Indo-European furniture specialists. The traffic and problems like pot-holes on the roads is one one part of India they don't miss, even though every trip back is like 'going home' for them, says Mr van Houten.

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