Monday, 11 May 2015


Jakarta lost one of its finest designers last month: Jaya Ibrahim, interior designer of the iconic Darmawangsa, and Indonesian-style ambassador extraordinaire, died on May 5 after an accident at home.

It must be said that for such a big country, with such extraordinary cultural richness, very few designers have devoted themselves to Indonesian style. During the 1980s, Iwan Tirta championed traditional batik as his fashion house grew into an industry — a tradition now continued by a handful of talented designers such as Milo, Ghea Sukasah, and Bin Manansang. In architectural design there really hasn’t been anyone since the great Romo Mangun of Yogyakarta died in the 1960s. One tends to think of Australians Peter Muller and Kerry Hill as master interpreters of traditional Indonesian architecture.

Australian Warwick Purser and Indonesian-born Wieneke de Groot have devoted their lives to Indonesian design and crafts, it is true, and Americans Dale Keller and Ed Tuttle did great culturally-referenced work here over the decades; but the only successful interior-design professional who exported classic Java style was Jaya Ibrahim.

Although a Minang by birth, he worshipped everything Javanese. His three homes in Jakarta are temples to Java style, and museums of exquisite Javanese objects. His ‘regency’ aesthetic, formed over 20 years working in London (see obituary opposite page) fitted snugly over his love of Javanese palace refinement — the base of his work. For formal occasions in Jakarta he dressed as a Javanese nobleman, even affecting the fan and flutters so popular in Javanese palaces. The Jakartan Chinese adored his aesthetic because it was clean, with no hints of voodoo.

I was lucky enough to visit the first two homes he designed – one for himself and his partner, John Saunders; and one for his mother — with photographer Tim Street-Porter, my guru in design voyeurism. Tim and his wife, Annie Kelly, often returned to visit Jaya and document his work — now an important part of the archive of Jaya’s contributions to the international design world.

Very few young Indonesians have tried to emulate Jaya. They either don’t get it (don’t love the Javanese aesthetic) or end up doing mannerist pastiches. Jaya has had more influence over young turk designers from Singapore — architect Chan Soo Khian, WOHA, and landscaper Chang Huai-yan. In Bali, Malaysian architect Cheong Yew Kuan, a good friend of Jaya’s, has developed a pavilion style, based on Indonesian architecture, that is as refined as Jaya’s interiors. 

It is in Jaya’s collaboration with another Indonesian aesthete, Sukabumi-born Adrian Zecha, founder of Amanresorts, that he achieved global recognition. In China, Jaya’s interiors for two Amanresorts there — The Aman at Summer Palace and The Amanfayun — are masterpieces of elegant restraint. Jaya’s more modern work for The Setai in Miami and The Chedi in Milan were also much acclaimed.

This month the Indonesian design community mourns the loss of its biggest star, and hopes that John Saunders and the Jaya teams around Asia keep the legacy alive.

Anyone lucky enough to have stayed in the Darmawangsa Hotel will have experienced the Jaya magic — walking through the uber-elegant museum-like corridors, one is submerged in Majapahit and Central Javanese culture.

Jaya Ibrahim and Asmoro Damais Arifin

Jaya Ibrahim has died in Jakarta, aged 67. He was Indonesia's answer to Harold Acton, the famed gentleman aesthete of Fiesole, New York, and London. Like Acton, he was from good stock — nobleman father from Minangkabau, Pakualaman Yogyakarta mother — had exquisite taste and beautiful manners (honed over twenty years of working with Anouska Hempel (Lady Wienfeld) in London). I met him shortly after his return to Jakarta — and the success of Blakes Hotel, which he did with Hempel — and after he had built the extraordinarily beautiful family home in Cinere that made him a name in designer circles. We went on a trip to Minangkabau with a few friends, and visited Jaya's father's grave: everyone in the township was as handsome as he was, and as lanky, and even the bleached art deco Minangkabau architecture there seemed a perfect fit. As a travel companion, he was gracious, almost regal, and a great dispenser of brotherly and sisterly advice.

 His career really took off after his huge success with the Darmawangsa Hotel in Jakarta. The world seemed to own him for the last twenty years; many of his old chums lost touch. With his partner, John Saunders, he established a base in Bangkok from which to travel to China and Miami and Mexico, where he was in great demand — his clean Asian aesthetic was very much in vogue. His design sensibilities were refined. As he grew more into Madam Butterfly, affecting a fan and geisha make-up during the later years, no-one batted an eyelid. Like Lagerfeld, he had achieved a status and a pinnacle that sort of demanded a more theatrical public persona. It was his slice of cherished English eccentricity, perhaps. With his friends and clients he remained charming and down-to-earth — more dandy than diva. He opened a brilliant shop, called Solo, where we could all buy his amazing furniture and lamps; he published a catalogue of his product, and was much published in Architectural Digest by his good friend Tim Street-Porter. The Venetian-Javanese palace he built with his life-long friend, John, in the hills east of Jakarta, was another masterpiece.  

His sudden departure leaves a giant hole in the Asian design world. He will be sadly missed by a host of friends and family.



More photos of Jaya's work by Tim Street-Porter