The reign of the British Empire is one of the world’s earliest forms of globalisation, and between the late 16th century and the early 18th century the Empire was 100 times the size of Great Britain. For the colonists it was a time of exotic adventures, for the invaded lands the memories are much less glamorous. History is peppered with the tales of the spice trade that brought riches to many lands, and also of the devastation of invasion and foreign occupation. At its peak, the British Empire was the largest in history and the foremost global power, and Britain’s territory encompassed trading posts and tea, coffee and rubber plantations in Africa, India, the Far East, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. The result was a melting pot of cultures and a rich mix of traditions that created the new world as we know it today.
The occupation of these sun-kissed countries resulted in a blend of influences, with colonists being exposed to a wide range of spices and culinary delights, cultural identities and design styles. Classic British formality was successfully adapted to local climes and the merging of these varied styles created a new style of décor – a blend of island life and English sophistication. While the British Empire is no more, British Colonial style lives on.
This exotic classic style is one of Kate Walker’s favourite design aesthetics. “I love the lightness and freshness of British Colonial design,” says Kate. “It is layered and textured with special pieces that travellers collect on their journeys. It has an adventurous spirit reflective of its origins, with a backdrop of white and soft shades highlighted with the greenery of palms and ferns and grounded with dark timbers. Some of the homes I admire the most are British Colonial in style, from Ralph Lauren’s Jamaican home, to Faith Hill’s home and India Hicks’ estate in the Bahamas. My own home is an eclectic mix of traditional American and Chinoiserie, with a nod to British Colonial”
High ceilings, floor to ceiling windows, sheer fabrics and cooling shades are balanced with timber upon timber upon timber to create a classic British Colonial style. The colour scheme has a dramatic yet soothing effect. Open and airy, architectural elements like tall white pillars, deep verandahs and sweeping arches create a cooling colonnade effect, and dark timber floors and furnishings are complemented with lush greenery, bold prints and large motifs.
Elegantly carved wood furniture and light and airy atmospheres create comfortably sophisticated spaces that invite a relaxed lifestyle with a touch of formality. Soft white plastered walls, dark timber flooring, colonial furniture and an eclectic mix of accessories basking in the light of tall white windows create great tonal variation.
Key elements for a British Colonial style:
A colour palette of dark timber and white is the first step for a British Colonial design style. Dark timber floors are a major feature, originating from native Asian and African woods like teak, ebony, mahogany. Today the staining of timber floors can achieve a similar effect. The crispness that results from contrasting dark wood with light fabrics is the most significant element in creating an authentic replication of British Colonial. Four poster and half tester beds are a hallmark of this style, not in the traditional English sense but in a more paired back and contemporary adaptation. Oversized comfortable sofas and large rattan chairs with rattan and timber side tables complement the look.
SHADES OF WHITE:
Light and neutral shades form the framework for a British Colonial interior. These airy hues were originally incorporated to create a cooling environment and combat the tropical heat. White contrasts beautifully against darker furnishings. White washed walls help to make a space feel light and airy in the harsh, tropical heat, with lightweight and sheer cottons and linens are used as window coverings to filter the light whilst keeping rooms bright.
Texture is vital to British Colonial design. Rattan, reed and sisal add an interesting contrast against traditional darker furniture. Woven window shades, rugs and wallpapers can all help add depth, interest and texture. Plantation style day beds and colonial style chairs are the perfect furniture for a British Colonial space – the neutral warm brown of teak mixed with rattan gives an instant Colonial look. Woven grass baskets for storage add a great detail, and natural sisal is the ideal covering for bare floors. Using texture to add contrast against darker furniture is one of the key signifiers of this style. Tan tones helped integrate the light walls and dark floor and furniture.
Plants belong everywhere in a British Colonial home. In the garden, on the verandah and in every room of the house. They create a bold, fresh contrast to dark wood and white. Choose the right type of plants though – think tropical. Big green leaves like palms and ferns are important – steer away from soft English florals. Palm fronds, whole palm plants, orchids and hibiscus flowers freshen up a space and help to bring it to life. The rich dark greens from large graceful indoor palms grace the British Colonial rooms.
The softness and lightness of whites and sheers are beautifully highlighted with an eclectic blend of lightweight fabrics to create a classic British Colonial feel. Layer textures and colours with a mix of cushions and throws – botanical prints, paisleys, ikats, batiks and animal prints create an interesting story.
British Colonial style took the heavy and formal designs of the Victorian era and modified them with fresh, bold prints inspired by local flora and fauna like tropical birds, palms and ferns.
Traditional soft chintz designs gave way to exotic textiles in prints depicting local scenes. Kate adores wallpapers by Charles De Gourney – these incredible designs are like a work of art, and create the perfect backdrop for a British Colonial design aesthetic.
A colonial lifestyle was a globe-trotting lifestyle, and the collection of items from exotic locations helped to create the layered look of a British Colonial style. It’s important to mix together a wealth of eclectic accessories, sitting classic English pieces like fine china, crystal and silver alongside carved pieces, globes, maps, telescopes, letter-writing boxes and memorabilia. Vignettes of books topped with candles, magnifying glasses and other accessories that look like a collection of trips and experiences create an old-world travel-inspired look.
Accessorise with tropical decorative pieces like coral, shells and wood carvings with bamboo, rattan and leather accents.
Designed to suit a traveller’s lifestyle, Campaign Furniture was specifically designed to collapse into manageable, travel-ready pieces. These exotic pieces of furniture from a bygone time are ideal for creating a British Colonial look. Look for folding mahogany chairs and writing tables with classic criss-cross legs in clean lines and dark woods, and traveller pieces like old trunks or suitcases. Dark timber, rattan, cane and bamboo are important furniture choices.
White or dark timber shutters are a key design element of British Colonial, helping to protect against storms, control the flow of breezes and filter sunshine. In warm climates simple shutters are functional as well as decorative, cooler climates of course require the installation of glass to keep out the cold.
Ceiling fans are an integral feature of British Colonial home, allowing cool air to circulate in a room and providing a key decorating accessory in natural materials like timber, rattan and grasses. They contrast beautifully against a high white ceiling or blend comfortably with a thatched roof.
British Colonial is a design style rich in diversity, history, light and shade. It is a soothing, classic aesthetic at once bold and soft. The contrast of white against dark timbers, highlighted with greenery from plants and prints, is a striking decor choice, one that resonates around the world with those who have an eclectic nature and an adventurous heart. For more information on this beautiful design style, and advice on how you can achieve this look, contact the team at KWD. www.katewalkerdesign.com.au
Some of Kate’s favourite references for British Colonial style:
Charles De Gournay wallpapers (www.degournay.com)
Architectural Digest (www.architecturaldigest.com)
Ralph Lauren (www.ralphlaurenhome.com)
“A House by the Sea” by Bunny Williams (www.bunnywilliams.com)
“Island Life” by India Hicks (www.indiahicks.com)
Images from Architectural Digest, Houzz and Charles De Gournay.