The luxury fabric of choice of many quilters, silk has a long and interesting history. Anita Peach visited the former home, now a museum, of a legend of the Thai silk industry, Jim Thompson.
In 1967 the American architect, designer and textile colourist, Jim Thompson, vanished near the Malaysian jungle without a trace. Much speculation surrounds his disappearance, and it is widely believed that the silk business, for which he is acclaimed for reviving and inspiring, was also the reason for his demise. No clues point to the truth; however, his famous home is a lasting reminder of the work he achieved in producing a renewed and still continuing interest in such a delightful fabric. It is also a breathtaking testimony to his creative abilities and deep love of Thailand.
Thompson’s home is a collection of six teak houses centrally located in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. They are a showcase of his love for a variety of fabrics with canvas wall-coverings in the hallway, paintings on cotton hanging from other walls, heavily textured woven flooring and printed loungers. Each room is rich in culture and colour. Strategically positioned at the entrance to the house is a looming, powerful artwork that really makes an impact on the visitor. The stone sculptured human-sized Buddha dates back to the 7th century and is one of many pieces demonstrating Thompson’s appreciation of Asian art and culture. On the lower floor, there are blue and white pottery fish bowls dating from the 19th century. Simple and effective in design, they were originally used in Thai royal palaces. Thompson used them as the inspiration for a wooden printing machine that hangs from the wall. The bold fish shapes from the pottery were used as templates for printing shapes onto fabric. Along the top and bottom of the machine, the measuring rulers can be seen. Thompson believed wholeheartedly in using traditional processes where possible to achieve the best results. He resurrected the production of silk using the very old Thai methods of hand weaving using wood and bamboo looms and also dyeing raw silk by hand using mostly natural vegetable products.
His teak home was also built in traditional Thai style and each of the rooms are impeccable in design and decor. Thompson had a taste for elegance: his home is grand, minimalist, and quite simply, aesthetically pleasing. The most impressive area was the dining area. A fully laid table of cutlery, crockery, candles and glasses, incorporated charmingly delicate silk table runners, placemats, napkins and even chair pads in some of the most luxuriously delicious pink and purple colours imaginable. Even the lampshades are made from silk and the pictures are framed in silk. Thompson was renowned for his dinner parties and when you see the dining area it's not hard to understand why his reputation for entertaining precedes him. He is often mistakenly only associated with food and fine dining (Jim Thompson Thai restaurants are located across the world, including London), rather than the impressive impact his work had on the silk industry. His restaurants are nevertheless an integrated part of the legacy and his housing estate is now also home to the Thompson Bar and Restaurant, serving food which is simply divine – the perfect reward for a hard day’s museum viewing in the heat of Bangkok!
The estate also houses a magnificent gift shop, packed to the rafters with colourful silk in every possible shape and form from handkerchiefs and scarves, to dresses and suits, plus handbags and purses. A cabin of pure pleasure for any woman (or man)! It is also worth checking the website’s special events section before visiting the museum, as there are regular artistic or cultural exhibitions. Earlier this year, some of the Christian Lacroix Haute Couture designs were temporarily on display within the house. Mannequins were clothed in magnificent, brightly coloured patchwork lace and silk dresses with delicate hand woven embroidery. This was an additional bonus to the delights of the house, restaurant and gift shop, making a visit to the Jim Thompson museum an educating experience and a fantastic treat.
Thompson set up The Thai Silk Company in the 1940s, and was instrumental in bringing silk to the forefront of international fashion (and film). By the late 1950s, silk had become a thriving business with many infamous uses around the world. In the motion picture, Ben Hur, the producers used Thai silk for all the principal costumes, while in Kind Sir, paintings elegantly mounted in silk had such an air of elegance about them, it immediately caught the attention of movie-goers. In London, Savoy Hotel suites sported a silky finish and silk was also used to refurbish the Canaletto Room in Windsor Castle.
In Thompson's view, the real measure of the success of the Thai silk industry was not in the profits generated by The Thai Silk Company he established, but by the number of rival companies in the country. By the time of his disappearance in 1967, there were over one hundred companies competing for a share of the Thai silk business. Today, the Thai silk industry provides employment for approximately 20,000 weaving families.
The legend of Jim Thompson does not simply surround his involvement with silk. He has become a major part of Thailand’s history and the impact of his dedication to the country will live on for many more years to come.
The Jim Thompson House and Museum is located on Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road, Bangkok, opposite the National Stadium and is just a short tuk-tuk journey from the city centre. Open 9am-5pm daily.
Visit www.jimthompson.com for the latest fabric collections from The Thai Silk Company or to find retail stores worldwide
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