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Design: Blending the old with the now to design the future

Design: Blending the old with the now to design the future



Modern communication can help Cambodia mix traditional design themes with modern tropical elements to create something new

Photo by:

Tracey Shelton

Phsar Thom Thmei is one of the country's best examples of Art Deco's geometric shapes. 

Art Nouveau and Art Deco are two highly recognizable themes in Cambodian architecture and interior design. As Cambodia ushers in a new era, these two design concepts can be intertwined with modern tropical design styles to create something entirely new and fresh.

Both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles originated in Europe during the period that its nations were colonizing the globe. Because of this, both styles are prevalent throughout the developing world.

Cambodia is no exception and many examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture can be found in Phnom Penh and around the rest of the country.

Out of France

At the turn of the sio century a new generation of artists came together in France and created a style that was contemporary and meaningful for an era born in the industrial revolution and marked by the emergence of a modern lifestyle.

The Art Nouveau movement sought to make art a part of everyday life. Everything from architecture to clothes, jewelry and furniture was affected by the new style. This period was highly stylized and ornamental, concentrated around earth themes and mythical motifs.

For example, many of the older colonial buildings along Phnom Penh's Norodom Boulevard have distinct Art Nouveau elements that can even be seen in the elaborate fences surrounding them.

War ushers in Art Deco period

The onslaught of World War I brought an abrupt end to the Art Nouveau movement. What followed when peace returned was a movement based less on aesthetics and more on function and design.

Design trends and fashions are now as equally accessible in New York and Paris as they are in Buenos Aires or Phnom Penh.

The Art Deco period was in many ways a reaction to the technology of the time. Aviation, electric lighting, radio and skyscrapers all had an effect on the movement.
Geometric shapes were central to the style. In Phnom Penh, perhaps the best example of these shapes can be seen in Phsar Thom Thmei, or central market, which was built in the shape of a dome, branching out into various arms of stalls.  

Although built after the original movement, in 1958 following the country's independence from France, Independence Monument also has many Art Deco characteristics.

Modernising through technology

Today, technology has a massive influence on the way we live. Information that once took weeks to communicate can now be sent with the push of a button. Design trends and fashions are now as equally accessible in New York and Paris as they are in Buenos Aires or Phnom Penh.

Because of this, tropical regions are now helping shape some of the major design trends.

Contemporary tropical designs have moved away from tiki torches and replicas of tribal knick-knacks to something more elegant and sophisticated in style. Shades of the sea and beach evoke tropical emotions more cleverly than grass awnings and murals of sunsets, and the use of wood and stone brings a sense of the outside into the home.

Interweaving ideas

There are many ways to blend the different elements of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and contemporary tropical styles. Ornate lighting fixtures and lamps, chic rattan furniture designed with Art Deco concepts of function and arrangements of bamboo in oversized pots are three distinct interior design ideas that when brought together create something new and fresh.

The idea of interweaving these styles can be seen in many architectural spaces in Cambodia. The new Siem Reap airport, Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh and the showroom in Phnom Penh interior design store Beyond Interiors all combine elements of the past with contemporary twists invoking regional styles.

The turn of the millennium has brought a change in design ideas similar to the changes the Art Nouveau movement brought more than 100 years ago. As new technologies become common in Cambodia, a sense of a shifting lifestyle is growing.

Although interior design options are still limited here, every month sees a growing availability of new materials and objects as offshore designers and artists take an increased interest in what was once the Pearl of the Orient.

Decorating and designing with a sense of the past, a spin on the present and openness toward the future has circled us back around to periods already visited yet also launched us forward.


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