In the late 19th century, Great Britain established colonies throughout India, the Far East, Africa, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. The British citizens who settled in these exotic lands arrived with their “comforts of home”: furniture, furnishings and the usual embellishments found in the well-appointed Victorian home. They were accustomed to walls of emerald green, ruby red, dark blue; fabrics of heavyweight damask and velvet; plush upholstery; layered window treatments and the like. It was a décor suitable for those bone-chilling, drizzly days in England. Not for sun-drenched, sultry tropical climates. And so the colonists adapted—not only to the climate but also to native styles and materials. In doing so, they created the British Colonial Style, an amalgam of the traditional with all its elegance and sophistication and the relaxed, intriguing aesthetics of their new surroundings.
We have here some of the predominant characteristics of the British Colonial décor that you can incorporate into your own interior design.
Light and Airy
Cool and refreshing is one of the most authentic aspects of the British Colonial Style. Walls were painted white, cream, subtle blue or green to mitigate the harsh, tropical heat and “open up” the rooms, giving the illusion of more space. Horizontal blinds in natural bamboo and flowing diaphanous curtains made of cotton and linen as window treatments filtered out the sun while keeping rooms bright.
Dark brown wooden shutters are also a key element in the design. They are as functional as they are decorative. They create a striking contrast with the light walls and curtains for an effective tonal variation, while they protect against storms and control the flow of cooling breezes.
Floors of dark native wood are another hallmark of the style. The British colonists used African teak and mahogany, ebony, ironwood and Brazil nut. Today, some of those are prohibitively expensive, and some are endangered. The same effect can be achieved by using a dark stain on pine or another inexpensive wood.
Floors and walls can be covered with natural woven sisal or other reed area rugs. Texture is essential to the British Colonial design. Caning, rattan, jute, in addition to the sisal and reed, make an interesting contrast against the traditional dark furniture. Also, the tan tones helped integrate the light walls with the dark floor.
A classic combination is the use of light rattan with teak furniture, for instance, in a daybed, an Old World touch that instantly identifies the design as Colonial. Caning was often added to bamboo chairs and other furniture. Today, bamboo chairs with a woven plastic seat may replace the traditional weaving. Woven grass baskets in various sizes and shapes can be a crowning touch. Place them anywhere and everywhere, not only for their texture but also for the convenient storage that they provide.
Notes of Green
Rich dark greens are the perfect injection of graceful color among the light walls and dark floors and shutters. The colonists wisely brought in the large flora that was decorating the outdoors. You can mix and match palm (either whole plants or fronds), ferns, fiddle-leaf fig trees, jade plants. For the horticulturally challenged, philodendrons are a great choice. They are relatively inexpensive and can withstand the blackest of thumbs.
Bold and Beautiful Fabrics
The traditional chintz designs and weighty fabrics from England were replaced by lightweight cottons and linens in botanical and animal prints, paisleys and ikat (an Indonesian decorative weave on tie-dyed fabric).
It might be best to introduce these fabrics in baby steps, such as beginning with a smattering of throw pillows on solid-colored upholstery. Then you can branch out to wherever your imagination takes you, perhaps lampshades in colorful prints or a shower curtain.
Animal-skin rugs and furniture coverings were de rigueur in colonial times. Today, of course, we use faux animal skin, such as a zebra rug on the floor or throw pillows of tiger or leopard prints on that daybed.
British Colonial is a wonderful style that allows you to display your most favorite memorabilia, whether they be precious pieces of native art or whimsical tchotchkes. You may have picked them up on faraway journeys, as the British colonists did, or wandered no farther than the local flea markets or antique mall. The fun of it is tapping into that inner artist to create “vignettes” that tell your story. You can keep the Victorian influence with fine china, crystal and silver alongside sculptures and carved wooden pieces, globes, telescopes, books, candles—the point is in not having a proscribed list of items!
Walls display the fabulously ornate gilded mirrors favored by the Victorians. Don’t be stingy with them. They work everywhere, in the foyer, dining area, even the bathroom where they are a delightful surprise for your guests. Also, antique wall maps are a needed element in the British Colonial style. They are not only immensely decorative but also teach about the world during various political periods. Best of all, they are certain conversation pieces.
You now have a wealth of ideas to work with. You don’t want to indiscriminately implement all of them, of course. There’s an art to selecting what works best for you and your décor.