|One of Doris Duke's Islamic art objects on show at the M.A.D. in New York City|
Doris Duke was born in New York in 1912, to an incredibly wealthy family. She grew up on Fifth Avenue, and her beauty and wealth attracted much attention. Dubbed "the richest girl in the world," she became a celebrity as well as an heiress.
Duke soon married and became Doris Duke Cromwell, but their dream globe-trotting honeymoon became tiring as the media hounded the couple from place to place. Luckily, the harried pace of the tour didn't distract her: from the blur of daily sightseeing, one canon of art and architecture stood out clear as a flame. She was enraptured with Islamic Art.
With images of the Taj Mahal dancing in her head, she set out to extend her parent's Palm Beach home in the style of the grand mausoleum. Locals mocked her, joking about the impending “Garage Mahal”, until one day, the project was cancelled. Duke and her husband had decided to flee the media spotlight, and build their home in Honolulu instead.
Thus was born the famous house, Shangri-La, and it could be said that Duke spent the rest of her life furnishing it. She travelled the world to collect beautiful art objects like sculpted chairs, wooden chests flecked with mother-of-pearl, and delicately pierced iron lanterns, all which added to the mystique of her carefully-curated home.
While I stood in the exhibit, “Doris Duke's Shangri-La” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City the other week, gazing at an 18th century Iranian chair, a woman beside me commented to her companion, “This reminds me of William Morris”. Yes, there was a floral pattern on the upholstery, but it was more than that. The chair had a slightly gothic shape, and the tasteful decoration was so painstakingly hand-crafted, its very existence reminded the viewer of the original artisan. There was indeed something very Morrisian about the chair.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise, since Morris admired the design of “Persian” textiles, and vastly preferred hand-crafted wooden furniture to poofy, fully upholstered pieces. It could be argued that Duke's chair is a rough intersection of the two. Perhaps if Morris had travelled farther from home than Europe or Iceland, he would have gone beyond Persian carpets, and collected more widely from the Islamic decorative arts. Because ultimately, William Morris was a collector. He may have had many other strings to his bow, but the truth is, he collected those strings before he added them.