(Reproduced from the Sunday Observer of February 17, 2002)
By Carol Aloysius
Limited land space and rising costs of building material has led to smaller and taller houses, many of them two or three storeys high with little or no garden space. This is in sharp contrast to the erstwhile single storeyed spacious homes with large gardens that were common a few decades ago in the Colombo metropolis.
The result: New house builders are now turning their attention to interior designing to create an illusion of space and light, bringing gardens inside their homes to make up for their absence outside the house. This growing emphasis on home interiors, has led to a whole new concept in the field and revolutionised the art of interior designing, says Swarna Obeysekere, one of Sri Lanka’s earliest pioneers in interior designing.
Swarna, whose interest in interior designing began as a schoolgirl at Vishaka Vidyalaya, was one of the first Lankan women to specialise in interior design taking advantage of a scholarship awarded by the Association for Overseas Technical Scholarships (ACTS) Japan in 1971. On her return, she began to actively promote the field of interior design and encourage women especially to pursue this field as a career. “My mission was to promote design education as a way of beautifying the life of the people”, she told this writer in a recent interview.
The school she set up for just this purpose in 1973 and which she originally named “Swarna Obeysekere Interior Design Centre”, (now renamed Design Institute of Colombo) will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.
“It has been a fruitful period during which I have witnessed several changes in interior designing in this country due to a number of factors that have been closely linked to the increase in our population”, she recalls. Not only has land space for house building decreased, but environmental pollution has also become a factor to reckon with. People building houses in congested areas have to watch out for noise pollution as well, caused by the cars and other vehicles that pass by. All these factors have to be taken into account when designing a house today”, she says. “An interior designer today must be able to meet these challenges”, she emphasises. Which is why she has had to innovate and expand her courses at her school several times over its three decades of existence to ensure her students receive a hands-on training in all aspects of interior designing.
From only interior designing, her courses now cover a much wider spectrum; from landscape designing, environmental studies, craft and product design to computer related courses. On the latter she says, “I was determined that my pupils benefit from the technological revolution that is now taking place in the field of interior designing worldwide. Which is why I have introduced course such as graphic designing and computer art and animation as well as computer aided art design. The latter courses which are being conducted with the University of Colombo Institute of Computer Technology, can revolutionise the whole concept of interior design in this country, she feels.
As she points out, “Once a student masters this art, he or she can do complete settings e.g. chairs, tables, desks, pantry cupboards, kitchen décor, dining room suites and even bedroom suites all on the computer without laboriously drawing them on a sheet of paper”. Concerned by the increasing number of students who are now shut out of universities simply because they were unable to secure sufficient grades to follow courses in medicine, science or engineering, Swarna is eager to open fresh avenues for them and for school leavers, by offering them options in job oriented fields.
To this end, she now runs a number of wide ranging certificate courses listed under what she terms “Interior Construction and Decorating Processes”. The courses in this category make an interesting and fascinating mix of applied skills. They include such widely different courses as; carpentry, textile weaving, furniture polishing, spray painting, wall papering, wall painting, tiling, curtain making, upholstery, picture framing, pottery, rush and reed weaving, textile printing to table arrangements, shop display, home gardening maintenance and film and TV set design! She has gone a step further and introduced wedding décor as well under a course titled “Festive Arrangements and Decorations”. “Those following this course will learn how to do the interior décor for the different religious festivities in this country, whether Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim. They will be taught how to present traditional sweetmeats and serve them in the way their ancestors have done. For example, our grandmothers used to serve kiribath in small cane baskets they made themselves. This art has been forgotten by today’s generation. I want to revive all these old customs,” she says.
By focusing her attention on upgrading the manual skills and creative talents of her pupils, Swarna believes she will give a new lease of life and encourage a more positive attitude towards Vocational Studies which, despite efforts by the Education Ministry continues to be given step motherly treatment by teachers and parents of students. “This change of attitude must initially take place in the schools, so that students will not want to limit their careers to traditional jobs.
“It is a gradual process which can take place only if it starts at school level,” she says. The current goal of this woman pioneer in interior designing is to upgrade her courses to the level of degree courses and to bring professionalism to the field of interior designing in this country to encourage more young school leavers to opt for such courses.
To this end, she has received affiliation with Rhodec International Design College, UK to conduct the Rhodec International Diploma in Interior Design, a qualification accepted for membership in several associations in many developed countries, she says. “I am also hoping to have an affiliated Degree program with a university in the UK before long” she says, adding that she has a fully qualified and experienced team of lecturers to handle different subjects.
Additionally, she has incorporated the Sri Lanka Institute of Interior Designers by an Act of Parliament and those participating in the course run by the institute can qualify for membership at this institute.
She also founded the Association of Interior Designers in 1984 to promote interior design as a profession and since 1985 has almost every year held an Interior Design Exhibition to showcase the talents of her pupils. “Living Design 21” will be her 15th exhibition scheduled to be held in the near future.
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