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Luxury, serenity in East Africa

August 23, 2007|Janet Eastman

Swahili Chic

The Feng Shui of Africa

Bibi Jordan

Insight Editions, $50

Two features distinguish this new offering from the flood of design books already on shelves: It has a foreword by paleontologist Richard Leakey, who says, "I find of particular interest the use of contemporary examples -- residences that have been built afresh or old structures refurbished to provide modern living convenience." And, the author promises, there soon will be audio and podcast versions, something rare in coffee table books so dependent on visuals.

This hardcover book pioneers in other ways too: It has a glossary of Swahili words (many of them highly poetic) and it captures, through 500 photographs, the long-unfolding Persian, Indian, Chinese, Arabian, European and, of course, African influences on houses along the spice-trading East African coast.

The vivid colors, animal prints, billowing fabrics, netted canopy beds and other hand-carved furniture make these interiors appealing and easily imitable.

Jordan explains Swahili shule -- a school of design, architecture and serene living that she calls the Swahili version of feng shui -- and its power to help create a sanctuary anywhere in the world, "from Malindi, Malibu or Monaco."

Jordan, who also took the photographs, is clearly in love with a land she was introduced to as a young backpacker and has returned to many times. Swahili homelands are the islands of Lamu, Mombasa, Malindi and Zanzibar and the coast of East Africa from Mogadishu in Somalia to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

At times, she pushes a little too hard to relate Swahili's 2,000-year culture, stressful life and coral-and-mangrove town houses to America's lifestyle.

Sure, Africa is half a world away, but that makes many of us want to learn even more about the continent and bring some of its elements for serenity here.

A chapter shows how Southern Californians quickly changed the feel of rooms by adding painted glass, wood screens or zidakas-like perches for valuables.

This book is a glossy look at Africa. There is nothing of depth about the continent's brutal past, its uninvited foreign influences and current events.

The author, who wrote "Safari Chic" about the savannas, chooses to spotlight luxurious accommodations, hoping, she writes, "to diminish Western negativity towards Africa while increasing awareness, respect and tourism."

Who could resist the seduction of these photographs, mostly taken in natural light? There is not one room or garden that doesn't look styled for a travel brochure. Each, from inside country cottages, coral villas, stone houses or coastal resorts, seems as open to the outdoors as a breeze. Even nighttime shadows cast by lanterns seem exotic.

-- Janet Eastman

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