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Furniture Facts

In an industry dating back to pre-colonial times and that grew to serve the needs of carved wood furniture for the royal families, skilled wood-workers ply their trade in age-old fashion, producing handcrafted teak and mahogany furniture for export around the world.

The wood-furniture industries in SE Asia today comprises many furniture clusters composed of numerous medium, small and home based enterprises, and is one of the region’s largest export earner, representing around 28 % of total export value. It is also a major engine for generating employment and income for hundreds of thousands of people.

The industry profited in the 1980s and early 1990s from growth in domestic consumer demand for original and quality furniture. As a result of this growth, SE Asia is now the second largest developing country exporter of wood furniture to OECD markets, behind China.

The best of “Colonial” furniture ends up in fashionable boutiques selling traditionally hand-crafted teak items. This is the positive side of globalization - opening new markets and new opportunities for a traditional industry. Moreover, the increasing competition has spurred demand for more "Western" designs thus merging multicultural elements to a single product

A Special Note to our Customers:

With growing concern for our environment and the deforestation of the rain forests around the world, it is significant for Ethnic House Commodities Ltd to inform our customers that none of the wood used in the crafting of our furniture stems mainly from the SE Asian, Malay and Vietnamese rain forests. Neither Mahogany nor Teak woods are native to the countries above, they have no origin in the rain forest and therefore pose no threat of ecological distruction. To ensure all above, special countries’ services supervise, control and regulate the logging of the trees and the trade of timber.


History and Facts About Teakwood

Tectona Grandis, commonly known as TEAK comes from the family Verbenaceae. It has been extensively planted for timber or as an ornamental within its natural range and throughout the tropical regions of the world, including East and West Africa, as well as Cuba and Carribean and South America from Panama to Brazil. Tectona Grandis, is not a timber from tropical rainforests, and indeed, teak cannot grow in the rainforests – it is a deciduous tree which grows particularily well in the dry, hilly terrain typical of plantation forests in Southeast Asia.

The tree is up to 50 m tall, bole straight and branchless for up to about 20 m, with a diameter of up to about 200 cm, and its leaves grow to approximately 30 cm in length and 30 cm in width. The tree's bark is gray and the trunk has a white sapwood. The 'heartwood' of the tree is a yellow brown color.

One of the most commonly quoted facts about the characteristics of teak is its durability as well as it remains very neutral in temperature compared to plastic or metal furniture, as well as its high natural oil content continually preserves the wood so it can be left outdoors for decades, thus making it the most suitable choice for outdoor use. It is resistant to rot caused by fungal decay, and the high level of resinous oil present in the timber makes it very resistant to attack by termites and other wood boring incects. The timber is said to be resistant to wated and many chemical reagents, including acids. It does not have a strong reaction when it comes in contact with metals. Intact pieces more than 200 years old have been found in India.

Teak furniture dates back to the early 1900's when it was mainly used by the Chinese for export to Europe where it was used by woodworkers to manufacture elegant and unique decorative furniture.Traditionally, teak wood has been used in ship and marine boat construction as well as flooring. The Victorian era also incorporated it during the mechanical era of the 1840's with the invention of presses, veneer cutters etc., which enabled the creation of decorative elegant furniture. Teak furniture is very smooth to the touch, does not splinter and has a faint aromatic fragrance.

The teak used in SE Asia was plantation grown by the Dutch since the beginning of the 1800's and is controlled by the SE Asian government to this day. Teak, much like mahogany is grown in the island of Java in large plantations.

Bramwell, Martyn, and Palmer, Jeanette, eds., International Book of Woods (1976)
Corkhill, Thomas, The Complete Dictionary of Wood (1980)
Schery, Robert W., Plants Schuster's Guide to Trees (1978)
Edwards, C., Victorian Furniture: Technology and Design (1993)
Payne, C., ed., Sotheby's ConciÍÁ Encyclopedia of Furniture (1989)

History and Facts About Mahogany

Mahogany consists of three species in the same genus in the Meliaceae family – bigleaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), Pacific coast mahogany (S. humilis), and Caribbean mahogany (S. mahagoni). Mahogany is native to the Caribbean and Central and South American lowland tropical or subtropical forests where rainfall averages between 1 and 2.5 meters. It is a strong, hard wood with a red hue and fine grain pattern, making it ideal for use in furniture, doors, panelling, musical instruments, ships, caskets, veneer, and plywood.

Over 400 years ago, Dutch settlers immigrated to SE Asia bringing, some of their cultures and traditions as well as wood seedlings from Honduras. SE Asia proved fertile ground for the seedlings and soon, mahogany trees were sprouting along the roadsides. More than 100 years ago the Dutch recognized mahogany as an ideal hardwood for building furniture and proceeded to establish a thriving furniture industry. As the industry developed, the SE Asians started using the mahogany for wood carving, a tradition which remains a remarkable art form to present. Today, mahogany in SE Asia grows foremost in plantations to support the timber and furniture industries. The tree itself can live 350 years and grow to 50 m tall and 2 m in diameter. One of the largest plantations is located in Madiun, East Java. That plantation covers over 227km2 of land. The farmers carefully grow the trees in distinctive patterns, each field displaying trees in various stages of growth. Once the mature trees are harvested, the fields are re-seeded to maintain a healthy reforestation. Each tree cut for the creation of hand-carved furniture is accounted for and cross-referenced against finished merchandise exported abroad.

A C M Gillies, C Navarro, A J Lowe, A C Newton, M Hernandez, J Wilson and J P Cornelius: Genetic diversity in Mesoamerican populations of mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), asÍÁsÍÁd using RAPDs. Heredity 83. pp 722-732
John Mayhew, A. Newton: The Silviculture of Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) CABI Publishing, CAB International; (January 1999). pp 226.

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Ceramics Facts

SE Asia has many diverse traditions of trades and crafts, many of which continue to flourish, either in supporting traditional ways of life or to cater to modern urban, tourist and export markets. One of them is pottery, used in the village household to store rice, water, salt and spices as well as for cooking. They range from the simplest plain clay form to the sophisticated glazed and hand-painted form. Clay, or ceramic pottery-making, an ancient craft, is a common and popular activity in the region - as decorative and religious art forms, and as utensils like pots for the kitchen, plates and bowls for the table and apparatus for daily use such as storage jars and water containers.

The whole SE Asia area for many years depended solely on growing rice, coffee and spices for an income. More recently, that income has been supplemented by tourism, pearl farms, sea food farming and now pottery. Pottery-making is today the main source of income for many families in the villages and pottery traditions unique to the region have been passed down from mother to daughter since the early 16th century.

In SE Asia, pottery making was always the work of the village women. The duty of the men was to take it to market and sell it. Nowadays, however, there has been a change and men actively participate in the pottery production working alongside women to meet the increasing demands for quality and quantity. For example, a woman would make the pots will the man was decorating them when they were half dry and finally at the end of the process he was responsible for baking them.

Making the pots is not simple at all; in fact it is a long and complicated process to make one simple pot. and this complexity increases with specific orders from buyers. The clay comes from the countryside and it is brought to the potter's by horse-drawn cart. The clay can't be used immediately and has to be inspected to ensure there aren't any stones or other impurities in it. It is then cut into small cubes and dried in the sun. The first step takes three to four days. When the clay cubes are dried, they are pounded into a clay flour, and stored before being used as a dough. What is fascinating to see is that there is no potter's wheel. Instead, layers are continually added to the original piece of dough while the maker herself moves around the object pressing it into the desired shape. Although the final shape is apparent the post is not nearly ready.

The pots are then left in the shade to dry while waiting for the next step in the process which is the varnishing. The pots are varnished with a mixture of coconuts oil and another special type of clay which comes from a different village. Different colours are produced from different clays. The pots are again left to dry before they are scraped with a black stone so that the surface becomes shiny and ready for the next drying process. This takes places in the hot sun and takes almost a full day; it even involves a brushing in the steaming hot midday sun which further improves the luster.

The pots are then ready to be baked. They are arrange into an open oven covered with layers of rice straw which is set alight for more than for hours, producing temperatures of about 400-800 degree Celsius. The final touch is to ensure the right colour. If dark red (runtang) colour is desired, hot pots are brushed with extract of tamarind seeds which has been prepared beforehand. For another colour called red - flick they just simply flick the hot pots with a husk. Another unique colouring is by baking the pots with husk inside the oven. And of course for natural colour nothing is done apart from the baking itself as they are decorated.

All villages have their own distinct styles and methods which were further developed and improved under the aid plan to an extent that now their pottery products are exported around the world. The decoration itself is quite specific to the pots’ origin as far as it concerns their design, their earthenware with gecko motifs, their special mark, the use rattan and old coins or, being near the sea, the use of the starfish motif. Nowadays, however, you can go to any of these villages and find all of the different designs readily available.

Santoso Soegondho, Earthenware Traditions in SE Asia: From Prehistory Until the Present, Ceramic Society of SE Asia, 1995.
Hilda Soemantri, Majapahit Terracotta Art, Ceramic Society of SE Asia, 1997.
I. Gusti Bagus Sudhyatmaka Sugriwa (ed.) Taksu: Never Ending Art Creativity, Cultural Affairs Office, Bali Province, and the Taksu Foundation, 1998.
Gunawan Tjahjono (ed.), SE Asian Heritage, ‘Architecture’, Archipelago Press, Singapore 1998.
P.M. Taylor & L.M. Aragon, Beyond the Java Sea: Art of SE Asia’s Outer Islands, The National Museum for Natural History and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.1986.

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Handicraft Facts

In addition to its well developed industrial sector, SE Asia has a history of cottage industries. Artisans throughout the countries spend their time making a wide variety of handicrafts such as baskets, wood carvings, ceramics, paper, hand woven textiles, and candles, to name a few. There is unlimited variety available and most workshops are willing to manufacture to the customer's design.

Garments, textiles and handicrafts have become the main subject of many regions’ economy providing millions of working positions and exports have been increasing by around 10% per year to reach great numbers. Stastics of exports are by textiles and garments (45%), wood products including furniture, handicrafts and statues (22%) and silver work (5%), providing Europe, America, Asia and Australia with high quality crafts that have become well known among tourists and exporters alike. The importance of handcrafting in Asia has led many countries to the establishing of arts schools and colleges that offer training in both traditional and modern crafts.

The diversity evident in SE Asia's 300 plus ethnic groups is reflected in the diversity of its art forms. Just as every ethnic group throughout the archipelago has its own language/dialect, cuisine, traditional dress and traditional homes and they have also developed their own textiles, ornaments, carvings and items for daily use and special celebrations. The rich cultural heritage of art and handicrafts is one of SE Asia's true national riches.

SE Asian art forms can include designs traced back to early animistic beliefs, ancestor worship, Hindu or Buddhist influenced motifs brought by Indian traders, Chinese or Islamic symbols and beliefs. Foreign influence on SE Asian art forms was brought about by centuries of exposure to other cultures through trade. Immigrants from China, India, the Arab world and later Europe traveled to the archipelago in search of the unique spices grown in SE Asia. These traders settled and brought with them rich artistic traditions which influenced the development of local art.

Handicrafts also developed from the usage of every day household items which were decorated and used for ceremonial purposes. Witness the wide variety of uses of natural woods, fibers, bamboo, rattan and grasses. Natural and chemical dyes, beads and other natural ornamentation are used to decorate these items, many of which have developed over time into distinctive art forms. These objects range from every day items which are unique to SE Asia, to one-of-a-kind collector's items, with a very wide range in between. What you will buy and/or collect depends of course on what you like. To introduce you briefly to the wide range of items available we've covered some of the more popular below:

The diversity in textile in Asia forms is astounding and is yet another representation of its rich cultural heritage. Weavings from the various provinces utilize different materials, methods, colors and designs. Primarily formed on back looms, weeks or months are spent creating intricate designs for everyday use or ceremonial wear. These weavings are primarily known by the different techniques that are used to create the distinctive designs. The symbolism of the various ethnic groups is evident in the variety of textiles. Color, shapes and their arrangements all have special meanings. Certain designs can only be worn by women or men, or only by the members of the royal family or nobility.

Special textiles are worn or exchanged in life cycle or rights of passage ceremonies celebrating birth, circumcision, puberty, marriage, childbearing and death. Textiles play an important role in many traditional events and ceremonies.

Written records dating to the fourteenth century document the importance of textiles in the social and religious lives of SE Asians. The highly distinctive traditional dress, or pakaian adat, best shows the diversity of uses of textiles throughout the archipelago. The even more elaborate bridal dress displays the best of each province's textile and ornamental jewelry traditions.

Natural fibres and materials
A wide range of items, both useful and decorative are made from natural fibers such as pandanus, rattan, bamboo and grasses. Rice spoons, bowls, containers, woven mats, baskets, lamp shades, boxes, natural paper products and a multitude of other items are made from natural fibers in SE Asia.

Bamboo, while exotic in the west, is one of the most practical natural plants. The uses of bamboo in SE Asia are numerous and SE Asians utilize bamboo extensively for a variety of items including baskets, winnows, cups, buckets, furniture and woven walls in traditional homes. The fine strands used for fans, purses, bags, hats, baskets and other items. Larger, thick strips are used for flower baskets, walls and other items. While bamboo was originally used for practical items around the house, these have been further developed into new items which sell well as souvenirs. Bone, rubber, coconut shell, fibers, horn and other natural materials are used in many folk handicrafts from blow pipes, figurines, bags, storage items, painted umbrellas, and even ships made entirely from cloves.

Wood Carvings
Wooden carving traditions and skills can be found throughout the SE Asian archipelago. Different areas developed very different traditions so that many items are immediately identifiable as being created by particular ethnic groups. Even amongst wooden carvings from a particular province, differences in design, style and subject matter are easily evidenced after some study.

Used in prehistoric times in burials, the use of ancient spirit masks have given way to masks used in many traditional dances. These highly stylized masks, topeng, depict the various characters in the story told by the dance. Masks enable the performers to assume new identities and depict a variety of characters from demons to animals, princes or gods. In this traditional dance, performed often for tourists, the interaction of Rangda, representing evil, and the Barong, representing good, restores the harmony between the good and evil in life.


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