Swedish Simplicity Vs Malaysian Extravagance Part 1: Interior Design

Posted on February 7, 2007

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Two of Europe’s biggest design powerhouses are Italy and Sweden, and although both are renowned for quality workmanship and an obsession to detail, the two are extremely divergent in terms of philosophy and attitude. Italian establishments, the likes of Fendi, Armani and the showy Versace, lavish the eyes with grandeur and avant-garde creations, while Swedish designers adopt a much more sensible approach, favouring function over form in accordance with Scandinavian minimalism.

This pragmatic approach is best projected by the giant interior design chain IKEA. Its no-nonsense, blue and yellow bold-type trademark which greets potential customers from across the highways is symbolic of its thrifty, prudent and neutral image. IKEA’s low cost, mass produced, flat packed DIY furnishings may appeal to the efficient ideals of capitalism, but it is in fact a materialisation of socialist fundamentals that demand uniform, affordable and practical furniture for all sections of society. In essence, it is egalitarianism built and firmly nailed into interior design.

The Malaysian concept of interior design is one which is traditionally extravagant, adorned from top to bottom with ornamentals, perhaps influenced by the Asian fear of empty spaces. The Malays, Chinese and Indians are all proud descendants of a heritage of elaborate floral motifs, intricate wood and stone carvings of statuary and geometric patterns. In a modern interpretation of this celebratory take on interior decoration, Malaysian houses are cluttered with cheap bric-a-bracs, miniature wooden carvings from amateur sculptors and adorned rather unfortunately with oversized artificial flowers, filled in even bigger vases (or is this just a style favoured by my dear aunts?). Small terrace houses are supported by faux Greco-Roman pillars, its walls painted with garish and unimaginable colours that resemble a really bad procession of a Warna-Warna Malaysia parade.

At its best, Swedish minimalism, with its clean, straightforward lines, basic colours and a complete banishment of clutter, can arouse an almost Zen-like serenity, a sensation of calmness that is the perfect antidote to the stresses of daily life. But it can also be cold, uninspiring and just plain dull, incidentally attributes that have often been stereotypically tagged to the Swedes, unfairly or otherwise. The rich, cultural and elaborate design heritage of Malaysia, when left to the wrong hands, is often reduced to a gaudy display of kitsch. If properly done, as can be seen in the emergence of the New Tropical Asian movement, it is at once breathtaking in its opulence, yet still manages to retain the earthy, humble character that forms the hallmark of Southeast Asian culture.

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