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History and design: Making the connection

Architect Channa Daswatte talks about his short films on fashion and furniture that will feature at the first virtual Sri Lanka Design Festival

Channa Daswatte

Knowing the history of one’s country is perhaps the key to understanding our own position with regards to different fields of enterprise, according to architect and chairperson of the Geoffrey Bawa and Lunuganga Trusts, Channa Daswatte. “It gives one confidence and pride in what we are today.” Rather than simply knowing dates in the historical calendar, he believes in knowing how history impacted our societies and understanding the connections between different histories of the various arts, music, dance, design, architecture, and how they worked together to create the identity of a period.

At the upcoming Sri Lanka Design Festival (SLDF) this month, Channa will look at some of the country’s design history, his conversations highlighting how much of it was contemporaneous and even on par with what was going on in the rest of the world.

These segments, amongst others, will be part of the first ever virtual edition of SLDF from January 15-17.

Channa hopes his two short films (with other segments) will inspire people to reminisce about these histories and the country’s design development in the past. One film focuses on the modern fashion designs of Ena de Silva and the other on the country’s modern furniture designs with particular reference to Geoffrey Bawa.

The film on Ena will turn the spotlight on her fashion and clothing designs in the 1960s.

The film on furniture will look at the influences behind certain pieces made by Geoffrey Bawa, whose practice Channa joined in 1991. Channa was, in fact, the last partner of the firm.

Ena de Silva for Mariposa c.1960’s. A traditional tree of life transformed by batik to a garment of the flower - power age. Photo credit: Channa Daswatte

Interior designer Terry Jonklaas, who crafted his own modernist furniture to suit his designs will also be highlighted in the film. Unfortunately though, since there aren’t many examples of Terry’s work to be found the film will focus more on Bawa whose entire collection of work is with the Lunuganga Trust.

Furniture in South Asia, centuries ago, centered around sitting, sleeping, etc on platforms or the floor, while storage was in pots or boxes. Channa believes that perhaps the influence of China to some extent, and of course the West, changed our perception of furniture to a great extent.

Much of the Sri Lankan furniture has been determined by Western designs, he explains. “The chair and many of the nomenclature of our furniture is in fact of Western derivation which tells us something about it,” he says. ‘Mesaya’ the Sinhala word for table is derived from the Latin word ‘mensa’ and ‘mesa’ in Portuguese. ‘Almariya’ for instance, is derived from Portuguese.

Owing to the great skills of the Sri Lankan craftsmen and the abundance of fine timber like ebony and satinwood in the island, much of the early Indo-Portuguese furniture was made in Sri Lanka for the Western market.

Though modern furniture with its mostly functional approach does not overtly display any particular Sri Lankan design tradition, Channa feels the furniture from the colonial period incorporates a great deal of local decorative elements.

Channa himself has a rather modernist approach to furniture. “Function first and then a highlight of materials and a celebration of it,” he tells us, adding that he enjoys thinking about furniture for the architecture he designs. Though in most instances he uses material designed by others, occasionally he designs a few pieces himself when something does not totally fit a place from a functional and aesthetic perspective.

Next Door chair designed by Geoffrey Bawa inspired from a line of colonial and Scandinavian ideas from the Roorkey Chair of Colonial India to a version by Kaare Klint. Photo credit: Gayanga

Design is usually about solving problems, functional and often social. Channa believes that both factors are typically affected by the economic and in turn the political context of a country. “In fact, in many ways, design is a political act and can clearly reflect the politics of a time,” he says.

In Sri Lanka, the 1960s was a time where self-reliance was encouraged through a strictly controlled economy, hence designers needed to be innovative and use the limited resources available to them.

As the flower power movement took shape in Europe, Ena for instance, presented a range of clothing inspired by the likes of the Finnish design house Marimekko and Emilio Pucci, amongst other designers of that period. There were also traditional designs, at a time when import restrictions were in force.

Channa’s hope is that the Ena de Silva segment will introduce the modern fashion the designer worked with. Ena was conscious of fashion and the social statements that it could make which made her particular of her own dress. “In many ways, her fashion was about sharing this attitude of an individual style that people should have, albeit with simply cut clothes that she worked with,” he says.

Though better known for her batik tapestries, wall hangings and flags, Ena’s starting point was fashion and clothes, he adds. This segment will also introduce a new generation to her contributions in making Sri Lanka a part of a world movement in fashion of the 1960s and 70s.

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