Swahili Chic architecture and design are inspired by Eastern and Southeastern Africa. This region’s rich history makes for rich design. The distinct style is a product of thousands of years of social and religious traditions and environmental changes. Yet, Swahili architecture has been largely ignored by design and architectural literature.
When one thinks about Swahili homes, the image it conjures is usually based on the palaces and mansions in places like Kenya and Zanzibar. Often these have been turned into travel destinations. However, these once belonged to the wealthy merchants of the Swahili coast, a hotspot for trade and commerce, especially in the 11th and 12th centuries.
This bustling, diverse region saw influences from traders and migrants from all over. Swahili style emerged out of a mixture of African, Arabian, and Indian cultures, preferences, and practices. Swahili design, therefore, represents the ever-evolving, interconnected and rich culture in which the Swahili coast is steeped.
Forged in the melting pot of people, cultures, and histories, this style is distinctive for its contrasting colour palette of dark woods with whites intertwined with bold colours. Earthy, calming, but striking, Swahili designs use natural elements like mangrove poles and grass rugs. Homes in this region make use of coral limestone. It is an uneven, white-gray colour and signature of Eastern African architecture because of its natural availability.
So, how can you add a taste of Swahili chic to your home?
1. Swahili Doors
These are the most renowned marker of eastern African-inspired homes. Swahili doors are known for their complexity, beauty, and weight. According to East African Historian Judy Aldrick, there is evidence that they’ve been around since the 14th century, revived in the 19th century again. Carved wooden doors are famous in the Islamic world on mosques and palaces, but the Swahili coast is the only place they exist in so many homes.
Swahili doors sometimes had extracts of the Q’uran or information about the homeowner. These doors are majestic, intricate, and captivating. They are heavy and often have handmade details that make them unique and striking. They are traditionally important in signaling status and even dignity – the bigger and more intricate, the better.
Adding one to your home is a surefire way to bring a breath of an ancient trading coast of Africa to your stoep.
2. Earthy tones, with a twist
This style is about the marriage of rustic with calm, nature with home, and grounded with bold. Rich earth tones like terracotta, deeper tobacco tones of wooden pieces, and a splash of brave emeralds, blues, and greens are typical of Swahili interiors. This comes together to create an esoteric, unusual but comfortable blend that contrasts against white walls, linens, and other textiles.
3. Natural textures
Natural textures can be easily incorporated through braided and woven rugs, tapestries, baskets, tables, and wall pieces. Natural fibers create elegance and comfort and encourage a dynamic contrast of rustic and comfortable against modern design elements. Natural fibers are a staple of good interior design for many reasons. Here are some of them:
- Low Cost
They can also help transport you to the sunny coast of Eastern Africa. Add plants, woven baskets, stone flooring or feature walls, rough wooden shelves, or woven lanterns.
4. Those signature lanterns
The beautiful, ornate lanterns of the Eastern African Coast are heavily influenced by Islamic design practices. Aniconism means avoiding depicting sentient beings, such as people, in the imagery of certain art forms. In the Islamic world, aniconism stemmed from the idea that only God should create living forms.
According to Art Historian Maria Sardi, the “floral and geometric patterns, arabesques and inscriptions” became a cornerstone of Islamic design. The angular, intricate lantern designs are a vestige of this influence on the Swahili coast.
They make an excellent addition to any home’s light fixtures, too.
5. Hand carved furniture
The Swahili Coast’s craftsmanship is boasted by its furniture’s popularity. Artisans, woodworkers, and craftsmen have been creating distinct and unique furniture scattered through tourist locations in Eastern Africa for thousands of years. Hardwoods were naturally available here, which is why the dark wood finishings are associated with Swahili interiors.
As with all things Swahili, the furniture shouts elegance with comfort, relaxed but sophisticated. Hardwoods (like Mvule timber from Kenya) make the furniture special. It produces hardy, unique, resilient pieces. They are individually carved by hand and take months to make. They have a rich heritage on the East African Coast and are a jewel in the crown of local carpenters.
Feature Image: DSE Visualisation and Interactive