The Reinvention of Taru

Designer Taru in an exclusive about her life and work says design is always a force for change

By Valli Thangarajah.

Published on August 02, 2014 with 1 Comment

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Nayantara Fonseka, Taru, has been an originator of Design in a landscape known for its iconic Architects, standing tall within Sri Lanka’s Design community.  Born into an era when the concept of Design as a profession was in its formative stage, she is considered to be one of the leading lights of Design in Sri Lanka.

Taru’s contribution to the development of the Sri Lankan Design community is legendary. She became the quintessential figure in shaping Design into a sought after profession in Sri Lanka and has been a source of inspiration for young people. She has been a pivotal figure in the Sri Lankan fashion and design scene and over a period of thirty-five years has created a lifestyle brand that reflects her personal and creative values as much as her own identity.

As Colombo’s growing taste for aesthetic environments and lifestyles matures, the demand is creating a plethora of talented Designers and Architects working to shape the city and its spaces. The change is reflected in the spaces of sophisticated urban dwellers. High net worth individuals, celebrities and young urbanites are seeking to reflect a sense of their personal style and are willing to spend, pushing the industry into a professional space. Design professionals are in demand. The industry has never been more vibrant or more involved and Colombo is fast becoming a hot-bed of creative energy. The revolution actually began more than thirty-five years ago. It started when a young Taru decided to break down the barriers and perceptions around the Creative Arts, to make Design her life.

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Her design style always featured light, fresh colors, soft overstuffed chairs and cushions, antiques, ethnic rugs and furnishings, faux finish treatments, mirrors. She made Indian fabrics chic, raised the work of innumerable local artistes to stardom, brought lush green landscapes indoors—all the things she herself loved to be surrounded by. Her exquisite flower arrangements brought magic to every dinner table and her fascination for coconut trees has seen her fixing marquees from great heights to ground level. She hung little bubbles of fabrics on trees inventing the ”kissing tent”. She has had dance floors built overnight.
Her work was featured in Conde-Nast UK, Robb Report, the LUXE guides and Wallpaper* magazines. After the quieter, gentler pace of the last six years, she is now back… bigger, bolder and wiser. At the age of 53, she has come full circle and says “my best is yet to come.”

With her recent projects moving toward a more rooted and organically inspired line and form, Taru’s inspiration today comes from Sri Lanka’s history and heritage. “I have travelled and been inspired by the work that is out there, yet I love Sri Lanka the most. We have a rich and diverse culture, good talented artisans. I would like to see a revival of our heritage. Our craftsmen have stopped reproducing those amazing pieces of period furniture, object d’arts and our antique shops are disappearing. I always try to use heritage pieces as a focal point of art in my interiors”.

Taru’s interior designs have for two and a half decades created visual statements. Proud of being an autodidact, she looked to Europe for key-influencing factors. Her ethereal weddings made you want to get married –over and over again as she created the ultimate romantic high in fairytale settings, and as a fashion designer in the 80s and 90s she was always the choice of the fashionable and wealthy – but nowhere was the distinctive stamp of Taru’s design ethos better showcased and expressed than in the way she restored dilapidated beautiful historic houses into small independent boutique hotels.

It was where her creative imagination was tested to the maximum, the thing that most captivated her mind and heart. It was a turning point and the beginning of an expression of her intense emotional connection to the Sri Lankan landscape and lifestyle. Taru’s love for the Sri Lankan Southern coastline and the laidback lifestyle of the communities along its length was the setting for some of the first small properties she began to lease, buy and restore into boutique hotels. She refuses to move from the South & West of the island, to the point of saying that the East coast will take another five years to attract travelers in decent numbers.
“My mother, who started the first Bed and Breakfast guesthouse in Colpetty, planted the seed of an idea that became the dream aspiration for me.” Taru’s mother was the first person to have approval from the Tourist Board in 1969 to run a licensed Bed and Breakfast.

Taru’s first boutique hotel, Taprobana, was a modest nine-bedroom property by a stunning stretch of beach.
Taprobana in 2002 developed slowly into a concept that re-invented the standard operating procedures for design (SOPs) for hotels in the hospitality industry in Sri Lanka. So far built on scale, perfunctory service and standard rooms, the local hospitality industry had a new entrant – The Lifestyle Boutique Hotel.
“At that time, during the prevailing, civil-war affected climate of uncertainty, I think I was one of few people who possessed the requisite skills & passion to run a boutique hotel operation. It was such a novel concept that even the Sri Lanka Tourist Board did not understand what we meant when we used the word ‘Boutique’.”

Taprobana, small, intimate, characterized by Taru’s personal style, became a destination for travellers willing to pay the price for a ‘different’ travel experience where architecture, design, colors, lighting, art, food, landscapes and personalized service came together to heighten the senses. This was replicated to include, through the Taru Villas Brand, The River House in 2004, The Park Street Hotel in 2006 and Tamarind Hill a year later. Sri Lanka’s stunning vistas of deserted sandy beaches, romantic sunsets, inland water bodies, verdant greenery of coconut groves and mangrove swamps, the fading artistry of organic crafts, woodwork and furniture, were all used by Taru as design features in her hotels. Sri Lanka’s beautiful natural environment with its affable friendly people was the Theatre she needed to create the dramatic, magical element that is the pre-requisite for a Boutique Hotel. For Taru, her hotels were built and designed through the eyes of an aesthete.

She created beautiful lush interiors, trained her staff to focus on’ shadow’ service to a level of quality reflective of the boutique experience, served great food in stylized dining settings in breathtaking natural environments. It was a unique combination for success and started a trend that spawned a large number of imitators.

Influenced by the work of trail-blazing iconic Sri Lankan architects, historic old properties such as Tamarind Hill in Galle and The Park Street Hotel in Colombo were returned to their original glory using a careful combination of restoration and preservation. The interface between water, built spaces and the verdant tropical greenery in rural settings became a prototype that worked. Each hotel not only had an individual style but also took on a distinct character. Taru Villas became a brand that was defined by the unique experience it created rather than by a business classification or price. Her work was featured in leading international magazines.

The maverick designer is known to shun the media and is said to be publicity-shy. She has a low media presence and has rarely consented to an interview. Her last interview was given over two decades ago. The aura around her persona can be confusing. When she agreed for an interview, her protective staff doubted her consenting to sit for a lengthy interview much less a Photo-shoot. An image of a haughty, eccentric, temperamental designer with a sense of self-importance began to emerge before she agreed to be interviewed. As she walks into her office in Dharmapala Mawatha, Colpetty, a surprisingly functional place, where her hand-picked team of 36 wildly creative and talented people sit, she stands out. Her distinctive personality and brusque manner can be intimidating to those who do not know her. Then she disarms you with her cheeky wit, an unexpected candidness and a surprising vulnerability.

Taru moves in an inner circle of protective family and long-standing friends and seems to live her life around the upmarket locale of Colombo 3 where she grew up finding comfort in familiar things and holding it close to her.

Her amazing talent is,” A God-given Gift.” “My flair for design is inherent. It is inherited. My grandmother and mother were extremely creative people, and then of course there is my extremely talented uncle, Shanth Fernando. He is a fabulous artist and as a style-Guru, in a league of his own.”

Taru grew up in a creative but formal environment. “The emphasis on being well dressed”, says Taru “was very important in our household. My sister and I wore identical clothes till 14 years. Shoes and stockings had to be worn even in the crazy heat. My father, a top ranking civil servant is never seen in informal attire at the dinner table, to date! My mother had a young seamstress called Tilsie who sewed a new dress for me every day to wear to nursery school. Tilsey is with me till today! I was the high-spirited tomboy while my sister was the dainty one. She was the perfect child and I was always in trouble.”

When Taru was 16 her parents bought a land in Colpetty. “My first design layout was for the house built there, which is now my office.”

“The first recognition I received for my artistic ability was from my school Principal at Ladies College, Sirancee Gunawardene who sensed my creativity and had me do artwork as a punishment. It was her way of encouraging me!”

“My passion for design is limitless, but as a career option it was never considered.” Instead, at the age of 17, Taru was sent to a leading Accountancy Firm to intern. At the age of 21, just before her final exam, Taru recollects a senior partner of the Firm asking her to draw a basic layout for their new office.” “It took me two hours. He asked “What are you doing here? You are wasted!” His words went straight to my head. I resigned, went home, put in a sewing machine in the guestroom and that was how I became a ‘Fashion Designer’! That act of rebelliousness was very liberating, but my father, who was away in China, did not speak to me for two weeks on his return!”

“Soon after, my friend Ranil de Silva wanted me to do a fashion show at the Women’s International Organisation. My clothes were sold-out in a night!” Asked if it was a commercial success Taru smiled and said ”I went through many different stages in my life, and I have been through the mill. I do not want to go there ever again. It is a rare human being who can be both creative and good at business….there are a few out there… ‘business sense’ came much later and too late.” “But failing at any point in life does not make you a failure. It only makes you a stronger and better person.”

In an environment where design has yet to mature and find more leading players Taru continues to stay at the top of her game. She talks of handing over her highly successful Interior Design & Event Management Company Taru i.e. to her team to manage and operate by the end of the year, so she can take a Consultative “back-seat”.

” I love to nurture talent. I have taught my staff to design based on the “Taru Brand” or style. I tell them that I can only leave them my knowledge and that each project we do is a lesson for them. If my designers and staff can depict my brand by learning from me then they should, and will take over. It’s a natural progression, evolution.” I love it that my clients call my young designers and not me. It shows that Taru i.e. is about the Brand and no longer about the “personality”. Designing interiors is hard work. I am now getting selective. The story out there is that we are expensive. It is actually the other way around. We are not paid enough for the detailing and effort we put in! So we have cut back to six to eight weddings a year”

A wedding she counts as among her “best” was done for Anushka, a colleague & close friend. “The wedding was at the Digana Golf Club. We did a 20,000 sq foot Marquee that was spectacular. The other wedding that stays in my mind was done in Tangalle many years ago. It was for a British couple who had bought a piece of land by the beach. They were living in a cabin, almost an empty property until their house was built. They decided to get married and flew in a set of A-List guests from London. We built dance-floors, makeshift kitchens, bathrooms and installed marquees that were bound to tree-tops and pulled to ground level.

Having built a chain of luxurious boutique Hotels in less than a decade that became the talk of the town and made her a designer of international repute she was compelled to give it all up six years ago, walking away and taking only the ownership and the intellectual property rights of the Taru Villas brand name. “The process of designing, building and operating my first hotels under the Taru Villas brand was done at an intense emotional and physical level. Supported by my architect friends, the renowned Channa Daswatte with The Park Street Hotel and Sohan Abeynaike with Tamarind Hill, together we created some of the best boutique showpiece hotels in Sri Lanka.”

The loss was keenly felt. Taprobana, The River House, The Park Street Hotel and Tamarind Hill had been above all an evolving personal design statement for Taru. The construction, interiors and landscaping of The River House alone were done at a cost of over 138 million rupees. Taru and her sister had owned it together, prior to taking in a financial partner and an investor. ”From a financial point it was very unwise to have spent so much. I call it the ‘Mud Period’, she reflects without a trace of bitterness. My head was buried in the mud. “It was a difficult and traumatic period. It took me two and a half years to detach myself emotionally from the hotels I had put my soul and energy into. With creative people the commercial aspect can get neglected with the drive and passion to complete a project

“It is unnecessary to point fingers at others. I carry the blame. I let it happen. I do not carry an iota of bitterness today. I have forgiven and moved on. The gifts that I have been given are far greater than anything money can buy. No-one can take that away from me, or what I accomplished with Taru Villas. The whole experience of loss brought God closer. I was in the wilderness but I am glad for that experience. It was my spiritual walk. There are no regrets over Taru Villas, none. My life is a learning curve. For twenty years I was at the height of it and then I lost those years completely. I had a demonic temper. I developed a huge ego. I ‘count to ten’ today.”

“I wouldn’t trade that negative experience for anything because it has made me a better person. I have found love and it is unconditional. To be able to love is to be able to forgive because I take accountability for having let this happen. My greatest support is from my family. They may not be able to understand me but they love me and have always stood by me and continue to do so”.

“Design”, she points out, “is an exploration of ideas that gets expressed or interpreted through the creative talents of the designer. As a designer you consolidate each client’s needs into a form you think suits your client best. You have to know your client well. “When clients come to us they are looking for a unique and bespoke interior that is all about them. We learn every single detail of their lives so that their living spaces reflect who they are.

“The term designer is just another word for being a glorified seamstress in the fashion industry or a glorified contractor in the building industry. I had to acquire technical skills that I had to teach myself along the way. Artistic ability and a raw natural flair is insufficient, designing instinctively can only take you so far. There was no formal training for design when I was growing up”.

Taru counts celebrities, top-notch businessmen and sports-persons among her clients. “There are lots of high-profile names with properties in London and Europe that I have done interiors for but am unable to divulge due to disclosure agreements” she says.

In December 2013, Taru opened Rock Villa, a 6-bedroom boutique retreat set in two and a half acres of land in Bentota. Though a less embellished and opulent version than all her initial boutique hotel projects, Rock Villa has a spiritual dimension that defines it. Unlike her earlier boutique hotels with their luxurious appeal Taru’s current coastal retreat is designed with a more holistic approach. The original vernacular architecture of the 170 year old property has been kept intact. The Resort imbues a sense of history, authenticity and tranquility. The imaginative use of eco-friendly organic materials, simple whimsical detailing such as large spoons made out of coconut shells to dip into water-pots gives a direct connection to local crafts.

Taru’s clever usage of local crafts and furniture make powerful design statements, a reminder of Sri Lanka’s rich and ancient craft heritage giving it the recognition it deserves. It is almost a reflection of the mental space that Taru herself is in today where she is shifting to a back- to- nature design aesthetic with the use of local raw materials. A ‘society’ bride got married recently at Rock Villa, making it the first wedding at the Villa. She wore an exquisite wedding dress designed and tailored by Taru.“I met a lady on a flight recently wearing a dress I had made 26 years ago. She actually came up to me and reminded me of it, and insisted that it is one of the best pieces in her wardrobe. That was good to hear!”

“Fashion is a dead word. When people ask what is in vogue I shudder. To me Fashion is your personal statement. I learnt to cut and do patterns when I had to fire my master Indian tailor and I was stuck with orders and fashion shows to complete. My uncle in Australia got me the basic sizing patterns and I taught myself how to make patterns. I have taught many young people how to cut. It takes a long time to achieve precision in pattern cutting.”

“When I was 28 my mother told me that I was quite useless because I could not cook, “nobody will marry you if you can’t cook!”, she said, “so I learnt to cook and today I am a better cook than she is! To get my hands dirty in the kitchen is my therapy. Fine cooking is an art form and you have to love your food. Since the early Taru Villas days over a decade ago, I have made it a point to bring “Master” chefs from Australia to train my chefs. That is how important good food is to me”

With the opening of a small 2-bedroom villa in Hikkaduwa in July, Taru wants to concentrate on hotel management. “That is my first passion, revitalizing older properties and repositioning them as boutique properties”.

Taru’s ability to move across the design genre makes her a pioneer. Be it in interiors, fashion or hospitality her rare multi-faceted talent comes through in a seamless fusion. She has elevated the role of interior design through self-imposed standards to an Art form. As a profession it was practically non-existent. Taru showed that not only is it an art, but it also needs research from many fields to provide a well-trained designer an understanding of how people are influenced by their environments.

Taru is a movie buff and has a fabulous collection of music.

The frenzied manic pace of earlier days has been replaced with a new found contentment that could be attributed to Taru’s leanings on her faith. “I am in a happy space today.”

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  1. Had to read about ‘Taru’ about whom I have heard so much! I recently stayed at Villa 906 in Hikkaduwa and I was so swept away at the simple beauty of the place. I wish I had stayed there before rather than going to a place further down the road. Alas only 1 night at Villa 906 but it was such fun!
    Sounds like you have reinvented yourself marvellously Taru….wish I had met you when I visited!
    Reading your story makes me want to unleash my inner creativeness….(don’t know if I have it though, that’s the problem!)

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