A Few of Our Favorite Things: A Conversation on Khatamkari

The following is a guest post by Shangri La guides Susan Berg and Miki Yamashiro.

Susan Berg: Hey Miki, Shangri La guides were asked to do a blog on one of their favorite pieces at Shangri La. Want to try?

Miki Yamashiro: Sue Berg, what are you getting me into now? But sure, there are so many things I love about Shangri La—how do we pick just one?

Sue: What in the collection really draws your attention?

The living room at Shangri La, with khatamkari doors. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
The living room at Shangri La, with khatamkari doors. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

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A Few of Our Favorite Things: A Jewel in Its Own Right

The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Susan Killeen.

While showing guests through the Syrian Room at Shangri La, one of my joys is lighting up the low tea table (65.9) under the nineteenth-century Moroccan embroidered and appliqued textile in the smaller room. It’s as if the table waits patiently in the dimly lit space to perform for visitors when the light shines, and it never fails to elicit a chorus of oooos.

Table (khwan) (65.9). Iran, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Table (khwan) (65.9). Iran, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

The table, or khwan, is a beauty from late nineteenth–early twentieth-century Iran, probably the Qajar period. When created, it very likely did not have the same legs, and may have had short ones to elevate it just slightly. Rather than a table, this ornate piece was most likely an elaborate tray or “trencher” as it might be called. One might imagine that it once carried an array of sweet and savory dishes to be shared with guests.

Detail of table (65.9). Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Detail of table (65.9). Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

An excellent example of the artistic genius found in Islamic art, the table asserts the details of geometry, calligraphy, floral, and figurative imagery—a visual delight. The surface is a painted, gilded, and lacquered wood graced with scenes of princely life. Exquisitely featured medallions or cartouches depict several figures in a forest landscape with a variety of birds and wild animals. A number of leisurely figures interact while two youths demonstrate their prowess on horseback. The overall dimensions of the piece are 11 3/8 x 32 5/8 x 62 inches.

A narrow, floral border frames the central panel. Inscriptions of Persian poetry surround the edges of the table, beginning in the upper right hand corner and continuing around to the left. True to the artistic culture and custom of the period, the poetry (translated by former scholar-in-residence Wheeler Thackston) praises the table for its beauty and service:

habbaza khwane ki naqshash bas khwash u zebasti
O what a marvelous table, the design of which is so pleasing! How beautiful you are!

hamchu chihr-i dilbaran janbakhsh u ruhafzasti
Like the countenances of charmers, you are life-giving and spirit-increasing.

rashk-i naqsh-i Azar u Mani ki naqshash chun nigar
A design so beautiful it would make Azer and Mani jealous.

dilsitan u naghz u khwash u zebasti
Ravishing, comely, beautiful, good, and charming you are.

inchunin alhaq qarin-i khanda khwan u naqsh band
Thus truly a table and design coupled with laughter.

diljo-i bazm-i shahanshah-i jahan-arasti
You are a comfort at the banquet of a world-adorning king of kings.

For me, the fact that an otherwise utilitarian object would be so charmingly embellished speaks to the fact that the arts have the power to lift us up and enrich the function and beauty of the everyday items we use. The artisans of Islamic culture certainly appreciated this concept as a way of life.

susanAbout the Guest Author: Susan Killeen is a writer and producer, having worked in television and on educational documentaries. She served as executive director of the Hawaii Consortium for the Arts and as President of the Honolulu Pen Women. She has taught creative writing and has worked as an interpretive guide at Shangri La since 2011.

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Mosaic Tile Panel

Mosaic tile panel (48.93) in the central courtyard. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Mosaic tile panel (48.93) in the central courtyard. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Stacy Pope.

As a tour guide at Shangri La, I feel lucky to spend so much time at such an exquisite place. The more I learn about the property and its vast collection of Islamic art, the more I love it—and that seems to be true for many of our visitors as well.

One of my favorite things at Shangri La is a colorful mosaic (48.93) located in the patio, or central courtyard. It is strikingly beautiful and grand, to be sure; it’s also a masterpiece of craftsmanship. But most of all, I enjoy observing visitors as I explain the inspiration for the mosaic’s design and the incredible amount of effort and skill its creation required. I watch as they gradually transform from passively appreciative to engaged, gathering around the mosaic’s gleaming façade for closer study and lingering even as we move toward the living room.

Handcrafted 75 years ago in Isfahan, Iran, the mosaic is young in comparison to many of Shangri La’s centuries-old works of art. The fact that it perfectly fits the patio’s protruding south wall—which is 11 feet wide and 20 feet tall—is no accident; Doris Duke and her husband, James Cromwell, commissioned the mosaic with this very spot in mind.

In 1938, as construction on Shangri La neared completion, the couple traveled through Iran (as well as Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Egypt) for artistic inspiration and to purchase pieces for their new home. In Isfahan, they were particularly impressed with the early-seventeenth-century structures framing Naqsh-e Jahan Square (today a UNESCO World Heritage Site), including several ornate palaces and the astounding Masjid-i Shah, or Shah Mosque. Archives at Shangri La and at Duke University contain Mr. Cromwell’s photographs and film footage documenting its intricately patterned portal panels. These panels, rich in floral and geometric designs and flanked by calligraphic cartouches, became the models for Shangri La’s patio mosaic design.

Work soon began on the Cromwells’ commission—but the process would be long and arduous. First, batches of stonepaste tiles were glazed in cobalt, turquoise, kelly green, mustard yellow, brown, brick red, white and black; then, each batch was fired individually, as each color demanded a unique firing temperature for maximum glaze brilliance.

The workshop that created the tile panel, Isfahan, Iran. March 20, 1939. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
The workshop that created the tile panel, Isfahan, Iran. March 20, 1939. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Then the cutting of the tiles began. Mosaics are something like jigsaw puzzles, requiring many small pieces that fit together to make one larger image. The more complicated the design and color scheme, the more pieces it can take. The patio mosaic called for approximately 17,000 pieces—each cut by hand into tiny circles, asymmetrical squiggles, half moons and every other shape imaginable. When the cut tiles were complete, each had to be placed upside down into the pattern. Plaster was then poured, bonding the pieces together into one work of art.

Then the Cromwells faced the problem of getting the mosaic all the way from Iran to Hawai‘i—in the midst of World War II. In 1940 it finally arrived, having traveled eastward by ship to New York before backtracking to Honolulu.

The finished mosaic features vibrant floral arabesques, interlocking leafy vines and four cartouches containing Koranic inscriptions that honor Allah and praise the god-fearing mortal. At its crown, a cryptic geometric design encodes the repeating message “May it be blessed” in Kufic script. The entire work is framed in serpentine vines.

What an artistic achievement—and what magnificence the mosaic adds to Shangri La.

About the Guest Author: Raised just down the road from Shangri La, Stacy Pope has worked as an interpretive guide at the museum since 2011. She is also a published travel writer and magazine editor. 

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Crenellations

The following is a guest post by historic preservation intern Alison Chiu.

The field of historic preservation is full of unanticipated treasures!

Left: The unique crenellations enhance the intricate pattern of the stenciled cornice and columns, as well as details of the tile work at the Playhouse façade. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2012.)            Right: The foundation of the Playhouse was laid in 1937, and the basic structure was complete by winter of that year. The crenellations, not pictured here, were added to the roofline during the spring of 1939. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

 I recently began the broad task of creating an inventory of Shangri La’s on-site and stored architectural elements. Working with Operations Manager Bill Miyaji, we began by diving into years of accumulated architectural storage in the basement. Amidst piles of bronze door hardware and long-abandoned projects of partially carved white marble, we stumbled upon many treasures including an unmarked black bag of trefoil-design ceramic picket tiles (the likes of which currently line the edge of bougainvillea and hibiscus beds at the central courtyard and along the swimming pool), as well as a 1938 Leonard thermostatic mixing valve, an operating device designed to mix water from two separate supply lines in order to provide a user-controlled shower temperature as desired. Our most exciting find, however, was a pile of dusty, old wooden block forms.

Ten large wooden pieces, measuring approximately 1 foot by 2-1/2 feet and 3 inches thick, were inconspicuously stacked upon a shelf along with a jumble of smaller wood pieces, almost resembling toys, piled on top. We were intrigued by the distinct sharp, curved lines of the larger items. As we looked more closely and began to lay a couple pieces out on the ground, it became apparent that we had found original formwork that was used to make the concrete crenellations that decorate the Playhouse roof! These wooden pieces date back to 1939 and are still in very good condition today.

Left: Concrete was poured into this wooden formwork, troweled off to make the top surface level, and left to cure before removing the formwork and inset pieces to produce an ornament like the ones seen in the right image. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2012.) Right: Concrete crenellations adorn the parapet walls, seen here at the Playhouse makai roof. Each individual crenellation that adorns the Playhouse mauka and makai roofs was handcrafted on-site in 1939. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2011.)

In 1938, the Cromwells traveled to Isfahan, Iran, and brought back photographs of the Chihil Sutun, a pavilion built in the middle of the seventeenth century during the reign of Shah Abbas II. This pavilion served as an inspiration for the Playhouse. The façade of the Playhouse, which sits along a major visual axis of the site, depicts a series of elongated columns and intricately stenciled designs at the cornice and ceiling of the main portico and is mirrored in the clear blue reflection of the saltwater swimming pool. Historically, the Playhouse served as quarters for guests of the Cromwells, and as a recreation area for army and navy officers stationed in Hawai‘i during World War II.

Left: Two complimentary pieces of wooden formwork, used for the production of the corner crenellated ornament at the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2012.) Right: Close-up view of a corner crenellation at the makai roof of the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2011.)

Not only are the recently discovered formwork pieces interesting from an architectural and construction technology perspective (potentially providing information about historic practices in the concrete industry, as well as methods of ornamental concrete production and availability of local building materials), they are also indispensable tools that may prove useful if additional crenellations need to be made in the future.

That exciting moment of discovery, as well as contact with the tangible product of an experienced craftsperson, is always a humbling experience and one of the most rewarding aspects of being involved in historic preservation. We invite you to  visit Shangri La and discover the beauty of art, landscape, and architecture yourself!

About the Guest Author: A recent graduate of the Master of Science program in Historic Preservation at Columbia University, Alison Chiu is currently working as a consultant to the Foundation (June-September, 2012). Following her 2011 summer internship at Shangri La, Chiu is currently developing a system to adequately record Shangri La’s intensive stewardship efforts through capital projects, building operations and grounds work for present and future staff and researchers. Her research and documentation include creation of a cyclical repair and maintenance plan for the site, as well as co-collaboration on institutional archives policy for Shangri La’s newly-created historic preservation materials library. While at Columbia University, she conducted research on historic wall drainage systems and will present an illustrated lecture on her graduate thesis work, The Evolution of the Weep-Hole, at the 2012 Association for Preservation Technology Conference in Charleston, South Carolina.