Travel Diary: Doris Duke’s Islamic Art Inspired Shangri La Home

Doris Duke's pool at Shangri La.
Doris Duke’s pool at Shangri La.

It’s been a crazy couple months and I’ve been remiss in posting. So let’s do some catching up! At the end of August my husband and I spent a week in Oahu. I finally got a chance to visit Doris Duke’s mythical Shangri La home. A regular feature on design blogs like Style Court Doris Duke’s house seamlessly blends architectural traditions from India, Iran, Morocco and Syria as wells as 1930’s modernist architecture. And oh what a beauty it is!

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When Duke died she left almost a billion dollars. Her will stipulated the funding of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art which owns and manages the site. Our tour guide was super informative and taught us a great deal about Turkish and Persian tile work, and pointed out recurring motifs in Islamic artwork.

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The setting is stunning – right on the beach near Diamond Head overlooking Oahu’s rocky coastline on the Pacific Ocean. For over 60 years, Duke commissioned new pieces and continued to add to her artwork collection. A total of 3,500 art pieces are on display.

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The only child of a tobacco magnet, Doris Duke inherited a great deal of wealth upon her father’s death when she was only 12 years old. Duke’s love of Islamic art began on her honeymoon in 1935 when she traveled to Egypt, India, Indonesia, China and Japan. The trip ended in Honolulu. The marriage didn’t last, but her passion for Islamic art was ignited.

Doris Duke and then-husband James Cromwell at Shangri La, 1935 (photograph by Martin Munkacsi)
Doris Duke and then-husband James Cromwell at Shangri La, 1935          (photograph by Martin Munkacsi)

Duke’s collection includes a wide variety of pieces including Persian and Turkish (from Iznik) luster pottery and tiles, Spanish lusterware, Syrian inlaid wood furniture, Syrian pierced brass lamps, and colored glass bottles from Iran. Interestingly enough, she left very little in the form of memoir regarding her collection choices but her commitment to Islamic art is evident in the mission statement of her foundation: “promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture”.

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The master bathroom at Shangri La. David Franzen 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.) Damascus Room East wall of the Damascus Room. On display in the historic wall vitrine are examples of Syrian, European, Iranian and Turkish works of art from the DDFIA collection. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.) General view of the ceiling. The four hanging lamps were purchased with the room from Asfar & Sarkis. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's ceiling. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's ceiling. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)   Historical Images of This Area The Damascus Room was originally built as a guest room, July 31, 1937. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Because of its Moorish-European—especially Spanish—furnishings, the guest room was sometimes referred to as the Spanish Room. July–August 1946. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Photograph taken in Damascus in c. August 1954 of Georges Asfar seated in the retrofitted interior purchased by Doris Duke in 1952-53. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Photograph taken in Damascus in c. August 1954 of the retrofitted interior. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. The east (Koko Head) wall of the Damascus Room during Duke’s lifetime, no earlier than 1962. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Damascus Room, 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)    Damascus Room, 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)
Damascus Room – Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.     (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

During the tour we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside so I’ve included some images I found online. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed into Duke’s Mughal Suite which was inspired by the Taj Mahal. Duke commissioned inlaid marble works from Agra, using the finest pure white Makrana marble. Her outdoor Mughal Garden is also an homage to the garden and water works in front of the Taj Mahal.

Mughal Garden at Shangri La.
Mughal Garden at Shangri La.

When you walk through Duke’s home and gardens you can’t help but appreciate her love of beauty and art. I highly recommend this book: “Doris Duke’s Shangri La A House in Paradise”. The tour has inspired my own further study into Islamic art motifs which I’ve seen on our trips to India and want to delve into further.

DorisDukeShangriLa_cover_FINALTours must be book in advance with the Honolulu Art Museum. For more info check out the website here. If you’re coming for vacation, book before your leave because the tours sell out quickly.

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