THE CASE OF THE BURMESE BUDDHA

BY ROBIN HOWARD | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

Bobbi Jo Engelby, the owner of Domain Interiors, is known for her magical ability to blend a client’s diverse array of art, furniture and accessories into eclectic, colorful interiors that hang together with style. While every designer has his or her own method of finding the perfect keystone on which to build a home’s design scheme, Engelby takes a very personal approach. “A home should reflect the passions of the people who live there,” she says.

By nature, Engelby is curious, open-minded and always enthusiastic about a good design challenge. It’s a good thing, too, because it’s not unusual for Engelby’s clients to be passionate about their homes. As a result, Engelby’s projects require new and creative combinations of descriptors, such as “neo-modern tropical” or “urban coastal boho.” She believes that every household is delightfully unique and, therefore, entitled to more than one adjective.

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Engelby’s eternal challenge is to assess her clients’ various heirlooms, souvenirs and beloved objects, and arrange them with new pieces so that the spaces tell a story rich in personality and personal history. That’s quite a puzzle if your client has, say, a semitruck full of art and antiques collected over a lifetime of living in Asia and the Middle East. The question is, in a traditional coastal home, where does one put the Burmese Buddha?

Actually, in Engelby’s most recent project there were several Buddhas that needed homes. Plus two portable Japanese tansu kitchens, lacquered plates from a Burmese Bible, a collection of Kenyan baskets, Thai elephant bells, Oriental rugs, Fu dogs from Okinawa, a Thai xylophone, mounted African textiles, a carved Thai dragon, and much more.

Engelby’s mission was to figure out where to place a small museum’s worth of Asian antiquities in a 2,500-squarefoot recently constructed home with distinctly coastal bones. “I was here the day they were unloading, and the boxes just kept coming,” Engelby says. I ask her if she cried. She says she did not. Not even a little? Nope. “They were unpacking all of these beautiful things. It was exciting. I was totally up for it,” she says.

In part, Engelby’s dauntless countenance is due to her free-spirited M.O. In other words, she tends to give a brief, polite nod to trends as she blows right by them. Engelby operates entirely on her own trajectory, which gives her complete freedom to create unique and whimsical mini-empires from a combination of what her clients have and love, and what is new and needed.

For this project, aside from arranging the bevy of Buddhas, textiles, musical instruments, temple adornments and religious artifacts, Engelby was tasked with designing rooms that would be light, bright and practical. They should have an understated coastal vibe. She also needed to make the spaces pet- and party-friendly. It is worth noting that Engelby loves animals as well as people, so a client’s dogs and cats are always welcome, along with cocktaildrinking neighbors, sandy houseguests and sticky children.

To suit the above mentioned, Engelby and the client chose a comfy sectional in a fabricprotected neutral. Because red, orange and terra-cotta are prominent in the client’s Asian art, she used a palette of blue and white as a backdrop. In the entry, navy blue textured wallpaper anchors a niche full of art. The niche houses a tansu kitchen, antique urns and an alabaster Buddha. Keeping with the theme, a light fixture in the entry, sourced from Charleston Lighting, echoes a lotus flower.

In the living room, Engelby removed the traditional crown molding and painted the built-in bookshelves a lacquered indigo blue. Orange, white and red antique Chinese vases pop against the blue, creating a perceptible visual energy. A pair of low-profile swivel chairs is mindful of the view, while a glass coffee table from Charleston Forge lends a subtle sense of place.

Bridging the space between the living room and kitchen, a golden Burmese Buddha stands on a clear acrylic pedestal looking toward the front door. Positioned here, he has plenty of room to breathe yet stops the eye from wandering out the windows to the garden and water. It’s a subtle and effective tactic for creating a gentle and constant flow of energy.

In the kitchen, Engelby painted everything “Charleston White” and added antiqued blue velvet stools and pendant lighting by Aiden Gray. In the breakfast room turned sitting room, she incorporated an antique hibachi grill and a Thai rain drum as end tables for an antique settee, which she reupholstered. Two Vietnamese club chairs in French Colonial style complete the sunny space.

The overall effect—welcoming, bright and social—tells you there are interesting people about, whose stories you’ll want to hear. Done carelessly, a semitruck-load of Asian art could feel precious and weighty. But with Engelby’s expert touch, the Buddhas look serene and perfectly happy in their new Charleston home.

Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.