Issue 25 July / August 2009
Jaya & Associates is known throughout the world for sophisticated Asian interiors. Rebecca Lo speaks with founder Jaya Ibrahim about his unique approach to creating spaces that provide instant luxury and calm...
Jaya Ibrahim’s long and lanky frame shudders slightly when asked if there is a house Jaya & Associates style. “It is not a style,” he insists, “it is an approach.”
Indeed, the interior designer responsible for some of the most distinctly Asian spaces around the globe – The Legian Bali, The Chedi Milan and Miami’s Mei apartments come immediately to mind – is the first to admit he is a self-trained artisan. After spending a few of his childhood years in Singapore, the Indonesian native grew up and was educated England. In university, he followed the footsteps of his banker turned diplomat father, and majored in economics. However, he decided to go slumming in 1980s London upon graduation, and landed in the office of Anouska Hempel as her assistant.
“My job was putting her design together,” he recalls of those heady days when British design was breaking through and asserting itself on the global stage. “It was a matter of ensuring that the Anouska Hempel style came through as strongly as possible.” After doing his time as Hempel’s apprentice and amassing experience on numerous hotels and residences, Ibrahim felt confident enough to start his own firm in 1991. It was time to go home to Yogyakarta.
“London was suffering from a financial crisis and Indonesia was seeing the beginning of a hotel boom,” explains Ibrahim. “There were also family matters that necessitated me going home. But also very importantly, I wanted to find out whether I had enough strength to create my own designs and not just look after someone else’s projects.”
In 1993, Ibrahim founded Jaya & Associates with John Saunders. One of the first projects that put them on the international design map was The Legian in Bali, which opened its doors in 1996. A 70-suite hotel facing the South Sea, it was the first Indonesian hotel that broke away from a vernacular Balinese style yet it still referenced the location’s distinctive culture. The Legian’s design included rhythmic symmetry and indigenous materials with subtle colours and textures that became Jaya & Associates’ trademark.
“I like to think that my design is such that when people see it, they have this feeling of being very familiar with it, but they cannot put their finger on how or why,” Ibrahim notes. “With The Legian, the challenge was how to ensure that each suite had full view of the ocean and how to let the energy from the ocean permeate into the interiors. At the same time, it was how to express Bali without bringing Bali into the interior.”
Since getting his feet wet with The Legian, Jaya & Associates has given some of the most luxurious hotels in the world an Asian feel. Along with his main office in Jakarta, Ibrahim has a branch in Miami to handle his projects on the other side of the pond. He doesn’t believe there are any major differences between different locations, although he tries to bring in local elements and make them relevant to the overall design. For The Setai in South Beach, his concept was bringing Asia to America, not simply filling a room with Asian objects. “It is not enough to place a Ming cabinet in the restaurant nor decorate the entrance lounge with Khmer pots and Chinese lattice work,” he explains. “An interior has to do more than that.”
At Aman at the Summer Palace in Beijing, he enveloped guests in an atmosphere similar to being in nostalgic photographs rather than just having them look at images of the past. He linked Renaissance Italy with Asia at The Chedi Milan by uniting them with a common colour – a shade of brown that became the hotel’s signature hue. And at The Nam Hai in central Vietnam, he created interiors that reflected the country’s French and Chinese heritage while working with volumes based on the concept of a central platform. For most of his projects, Ibrahim creates custom furnishings to complement the space. These have become so popular that he has a separate furniture and accessories business to cope with demand. Also based in Jakarta, Solo Home’s product lines are available through retail shops in Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom.
“To me, there is no difference in designing for other parts of the world,” Ibrahim says. “I apply a specific design language and then try to be disciplined in using it throughout. The special consideration I apply to each project has nothing to do with Asia or Europe or America, but to the fact I have to consider the cultural aspect of each project and its usage.”
Capella Singapore, Ibrahim’s latest project, not only pays homage to the historic buildings that make up the core of the hotel complex, but also to the natural hilltop setting. By reining in the design and framing the site’s tropical lushness with space itself, the boundary between interior and exterior become virtually indistinguishable.
Capella shows how his approach to design has remained consistent throughout the years. “It is deciding what is important and what is not,” Ibrahim elaborates. “It’s about what to be in focus and what should be given a supporting role. Style is not important to me at all. It’s what you do with it. My approach has evolved because of new experiences and involvement in many different projects each demanding different approaches. To reflect the culture of the country where the project is. To bring another culture to where the project is. To marry two cultures. To cope with a project that wants to be old and contemporary at the same time. You cannot do any of this with style. You have to find an approach. How to place a 16th century Ming cabinet next to a contemporary painting, for example. How represent Asia in a country with a very strong identity such as Italy. It is even harder to do this in, say, Mexico. So the more challenges I come across, the project will demand I find yet another approach.”
Despite his success, Ibrahim has noticed a significant difference in his practice since the global downturn began. “While we could not breathe last year, now we have the time to laugh and joke around!” And what is currently on his drawing board? “A boat,” he states. “I’m designing the interior of a cruiser for a client.” Surely a novel way to combat stormy seas – soothing interior design by Jaya Ibrahim.