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Lacquered elephants and bald Buddhas rule at Theam’s House

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Lim Muy Theam with shelves full of his famous elephants. Photograph: Miranda Glasser

Last February,  artist-designer Lim Muy Theam opened his at elier and studio, Theam’s House, and a year and a half later the showroom has expanded, Theam is shipping his signature lacquered elephants to Australia , and has just opened his second showroom, in Phnom Penh.

Born in Cambodia but growing up in Paris, Theam studied interior design and fine arts at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts before returning to Cambodia in 1994. He worked as artistic director of Artisans d’Angkor for 12 years, then opened the showroom on the advice of a friend and began selling carved wooden Buddhas and his brightly-coloured elephants. He chose lacquer as a material purely, he says, to allow him to “play with colour.”

“This is only thing for me,” he adds. “I love the lacquer surface because as a painter, I love colour.”

The popular pachyderms come in three different sizes and a rainbow array of colours, from magenta to bright turquoise, and adorn the shelves of hotels such as Frangipani, Heritage Suites and Amansara. Theam hit on the idea purely by chance when he saw clay pots being sold on the roadside by villagers from Kampong Chhnang, a province famed for its pottery.

One day he noticed the villagers selling something different – elephants.

He said, “My process of working is how to bring traditional craft to something more modern. Until the 1960s we had a very good reputation for high quality craft, and during the war all this stopped. Now my objective is to develop this traditional craft in order for it to survive.”

Theam commissioned the five families of potters to make more elephants, and they continue to do so to this day.

The lacquering process takes five to seven days and involves meticulous polishing and sanding before the finished product is left in a dust-free room for three days to dry. The work is done by young artisan apprentices Theam trains in his workshop.

After the elephants came more ideas including lacquered geckos, pigs and the newest addition: flat, candy-coloured fish mounted on sticks that are virtually impossible not to touch appreciatively as you walk by.

“The opening of the showroom and my workshop to visitors has also opened my mind to new adventures,” Theam says. 

“To taste new shapes – fish. New movement – gecko. New adventures also with textiles. I discovered this weaving in the market but they only did natural colours. I brought my elephants as a sample of colour, and tried asking this weaver, ‘Is it possible to do with your scarves my colour?’ And they did.”

In addition to the animals he now sells lacquered boxes, tableware, cotton scarves and placemats.

Theam takes me through the maze of rooms to show me his latest creation, a “crazy idea” he says, a new-look Buddha.

Lined up on a shelf are some traditional, ornate-looking Buddhas in their typical gold and red finery with detailed hair and headdress. They gradually become more simplified, until he shows me the final one: a minimalist, pure white figure lacquered smooth all over. It looks exactly as Theam intends it – a contemporary twist on a traditional Khmer image.

Theam’s House has gone from strength to strength, as the new showroom in Phnom Penh’s Reyum Gallery proves. Theam is starting to sell overseas too, with chic Parisian emporium Compagnie Francaise de L’Orient et de la Chine recently re-ordering 1,500 pairs of chopsticks.

When I visit the atelier, Theam’s staff is also carefully packing up a consignment of elephants to send to a shop in Melbourne.

The flipside of Theam’s showroom with its cheerful animals and rainbow-hued kramas is his painting studio, where he creates altogether darker pieces inspired largely by the Khmer Rouge. One American woman, he tells me, was moved to tears by a picture.

Despite living in Cambodia during the war Theam remembers very little, and this confusion manifests itself in his work.
His paintings are well-received and particularly popular with tourists.

“It’s very strange. People come here, they visit and sometimes they want to see more. So my sister brings them to see the studio.  They discover my art and they spend $15,000 in one hour.

“Last year when we brought our paintings to an exhibition at the French Institute in Phnom Penh, all of my paintings had been sold already.”

Future plans for busy Theam include an exhibition at the McDermott Gallery, as well as going back to his interior design roots at the new boutique hotel, Mémoire d’Angkor.

Tonight sees the opening of Nature and Culture Through Arts & Crafts, Theam’s new exhibition at the Sofitel, celebrating Cambodian flora and fauna. The exhibition will run until December 9.

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