Discovering: Shangri La in Honolulu, Hawaii


by Barbara Rizza Mellin

The Doris Duke Center for Islamic Arts and Culture

While on her around-the-world honeymoon in 1935, the orphaned heiress of the Duke tobacco/industrial fortune fell in love with two things: Hawaii and Islamic art. In 1937, working with designers and artisans from India, Iran, Syria, Morocco and Hawaii, she built a 14,000 square-foot water-front retreat, at Ka’alawai near Diamond Head. Ultimately, she filled this personal residence with 3,500 pieces of Islamic art that were either originals, copies of rare, unattainable originals, or commissioned pieces done in the Islamic style. In 2002, her island home, which she called Shangri La, opened to the public as a museum.

Each room is magnificent. The tent-inspired dining is draped with 453 yards of blue fabric custom made in India and embellished with Egyptian applicuqés and a Baccarat chandelier. Other areas include The Syrian Room with a beautiful marble fountain, the ajami wood paneled Damascus Room, the Mihrab Room with a tile mihrib dated 663/1265 from Iran, and the Indian-inspired Mughal Suite and Garden.

Her living room showcases Moraccan wooden screen doors and a custom-built coffered ceiling, embroidered silk wall hangings from India or Turkey, and a beautiful 13th century marble fireplace mantel set against a 236-piece tile panel. The origins of the tiles are unknown, but they are similar to the 2,000 decorative tiles on the ceiling of the church at Santiago, Carmona, in Spain.

By the Middles Ages, the Iberian Peninsula had been significantly influenced by the presence of Moors (Arab, Berbers, Muslims) who had settled there centuries before. The Islamic aesthetic with its design elements of calligraphy, geometric patterns and arabesques particularly permeated the decorative arts and architecture in the southern region of Spain known as Andalusia. It is not surprising, therefore, to find Spanish works among Islamic collections of art and visa versa. Covering the lower part of the living room wall, these 16th century rectangular Spanish tiles with paired circular patterns and corner lines that form decorative diamonds are made of Earthenware, underglaze painted with blue and overglaze painted with luster.

Thought to have originated in 10th century Persia, lusterware, which provides a metal-like, iridescent finish to the ceramic surface, was popular with Muslims and Christians alike. An early 16th century charger in the Duke collection, for example, with a coat of arms in the center, was probably commissioned by a Christian from a Muslim potter in Spain. Other examples of lusterware in the collection include a 15th century footed basin, and a particularly elegant late 15th century ewer used to pour liquids from its gracefully curved spout. The ivy leaf pattern identifies the piece as probably having come from Velencia, Spain, where such decorations were common. All of the pieces exhibit the Islamic characteristic of overall decoration with flowing patterns that fill the entire surface space. Duke purchased the tiles, along with 14 bowls and vessels of luster, at the 1941 sale of part of the William Randolph Hearst collection. The Hearst sale was also the source of a set of six Andalucian columns from the 14th century Nasrid period in Spain. The columns are now positioned at the front arcade of the Private Lanai. This is an unusual museum, since the items were collected and positioned within the house and on the grounds for Doris Duke’s personal enjoyment and that is part of their charm. Tours of Shangri La originate from the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Barbara Rizza Mellin is an award-winning artist and author. Find more information at


You may also like...

0 thoughts on “Discovering: Shangri La in Honolulu, Hawaii”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *