Thin, Rich, and MAD Embrace of the Middle East

Martin Munkácsi photo of Doris in an ensemble that is in the exhibition. Source: Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, Duke University.

Martin Munkácsi photo of Doris in an ensemble that is in the exhibition. Source: Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, Duke University.

Walking into MAD’s soon-to-close exhibit, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art, what do you see? An architect’s model of a small palace by the sea, dazzling objects that adorned it, exotic loungewear inspired by faraway ports of call, Vogue-worthy jewelry, and photographs of a young socialite/philanthropist consulting with master craftsmen in busy Iranian and Moroccan workshops off the world’s most ancient streets.

As you examine these bits and pieces of Shangri La and its history, there’s a single vision that emerges – a portrait of a woman who knew about light, color, beauty, form, design, artistry, history, and had the vision, passion, and resources to put it all together in a way that any interior designer, fashionista, curator, and global traveler would envy.

Here’s the story line: In 1935, Doris Duke fell in love, went on a round-the-world honeymoon with James Cromwell, and fell in love again – with the exotic sights, sounds, patterns, textures, and artisanal wonders of the Middle East. Followed everywhere by reporters, she and James sojourned for months through Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and the Indian subcontinent, marveling at the dazzling historic architecture, sinuous designs, luxurious carpets, lattice metalwork, colorful tile, and bejeweled ornament.

Tim Street-Porter’s photo of Doris’s dining room at Shangri La (2011) Source: DDFIA

Tim Street-Porter’s photo of Doris’s dining room at Shangri La (2011) Source: DDFIA

She just had to have it, and when she and James landed in Hawaii, she knew that no home in Palm Beach was going to cut it. They bought an ocean-view lot on the Big Island and began constructing a dream house. Her architects hewed to her vision — to create a seaside home into a tribute to the Islamic architecture and design that thrilled her imagination.

They brought artists and designers in from Iran, Syria, India, and Morocco to work on the home, and Doris herself traveled went back to check on progress in the home-country workshops and buy more. Eventually, she amassed one of the largest private collections of Islamic art in the world. Peruse her collecting timeline.

The actual home (now christened Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art) is now open to the public. Take time to explore Shangri La on the virtual tour. It hosts not only a 2,500-item collection, but thought-provoking installations by contemporary artists. (So does the show.) Here’s a video of artist Shahzia Sikander sharing what it felt like to project her light installations on this magical dream house.

For more history, watch the curators’ video. Doris’s vision, taste, and style will be on view at MAD for a few more days, then tour museums across the country.

You’ll never walk through the Islamic Wing at The Met again without thinking, “What would Doris do with this?”

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