All of the commissions for Shangri La were inspired by Doris Duke and her husband James Cromwell’s extensive travels in the Middle East and South Asia between 1935 and 1938. They range in media, technique and scale, and include mobile marble screens, expansive painted wood ceilings, and mosaic tilework. Considered together, they present a rare opportunity to examine 1930s craftsmanship from Morocco to India in light of tourism, collecting history, and cultural heritage preservation. The majority of the commissions can be described as “revivalist,” for they were inspired by historical prototypes of the early medieval through early modern periods, which Duke and her husband visited and documented firsthand. While the patrons themselves took the critical first steps in initiating these commissions, a number of individuals contributed to their successful fruition, including architects Marion Sims Wyeth and H. Drewry Baker; designers and dealers based in the countries in question, including Francis B. Blomfield, René Martin, and Ayoub Rabenou; and finally, the Indian, Moroccan, and Iranian artisans responsible for the actual craftsmanship.
In addition to commissioning living artisans in the Islamic world to create new artwork specifically for Shangri La, the Cromwells also spearheaded the recreation of Islamic architectural forms throughout Shangri La. The couple recognized the importance of three-dimensional context in the appreciation of Islamic art, and the result is a number of “Islamicate”— as well as “pre-Islamicate” — forms throughout the property. These elements were created by local craftsmen under the supervision of H. Drewry Baker and drew upon documentation assembled by the Cromwells during their travels. The concept of “architectural recreation” would typify a number of later renovation projects at Shangri La, including the dining room in the 1960s and the Syrian Room in the late 1970s/early 1980s.
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