jim thompson thai house and museum
 
jim thompson thai house and museum jim thompson thai house and museum
mar 27, 2011

jim thompson thai house and museum

image © designboom

james h. w. thompson, an american businessman who came to thailand at the end of the second world war, became interested in the colorful thai silk and established the successful company that still bears his name. for his contribution to the development of the thai silk industry, jim thompson was awarded the order of the white elephant, a decoration bestowed upon foreigners for having rendered exceptional service to thailand. the jim thompson house, actually a group of traditional teak structures brought together from different areas in thailand, was completed in 1959. it was a setting both for elegant social entertaining and a treasure trove of art from thailand, cambodiaand other asian countries, including paintings, porcelain statuary and antique furniture. after the mysterious disappearance of the ‘king of thai silk’ – jim thompson –  in the cameron highlands, malaysia, in 1967, the house was transformed into a private museum and is now one of the most important destinations for visitors in bangkok.

watercolors by graham byfield

the house consists of a complex of six traditional thai-style houses, teak structures that were purchased from several owners and brought to the present location from various parts of thailand. most of the houses were, at least two centuries old and were easily dismantled and brought to the present site, some from as far away as the old capital of ayudhya.

watercolors by graham byfield

image © designboom

the houses were elevated a full story above the ground, a practical thai precaution to avoid flooding during the rainy season, and the roof tiles were fired in ayudhya employing a design common centuries ago but rarely used today. the red paint on the outside walls is a preservative often found on many old thai buildings. image © designboom

image © designboom

all the traditional religious rituals were followed during construction of the house, and on a spring day in 1959, decreed as being auspicious by astrologers, jim thompson moved in. the house and the art collection soon became such a point of interest that he decided to open his home to the public with proceeds donated to thai charities and to projects directed at the preservation of thailand’s rich cultural heritage.

the spirit house, where the guardian spirit of the compound resides and where daily offerings are made. image © designboom

both the supporting columns and consequently, the walls of the house lean slightly inward adding to the illusion of height and grace. the curved roof ends, characteristic of traditional thai houses, are probably adaptations of naga (serpent) motifs. image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

thai silk

traditionally the production of raw silk provided a supplemental source of income for many families in the northeast, most of whom were farmers. the raw silk was sent to bangkok to supply weavers in the capital but by 1946, the hand weaving of thai silk had become an ailing cottage industry. the use of silk was reserved for special or ceremonial occasions and so the demand for silk was small to start with. traditional silk weaving process is a slow and laborious process with the silk being used to make the traditional thai style of dress. despite its rich color, silk faded quickly with repeated washing as natural vegetable dyes were used in the dyeing process. with the advent of industrialization in the early twentieth century, ever rising demand for cheaper machine-made textiles from factories in europe and japan, dealt a devastating blow to traditional silk weaving.

image © designboom

families continued to weave silk but it was predominantly for their own use and little attention was paid to its quality. even fewer families engaged in silk weaving, its further decline seemed inevitable and irreversible. in spite of such a daunting scenario, thompson was confident that the brilliance, and distinctive qualities of thai silk would draw significant interest overseas.

to assess this potential, he had several lengths of silk in a range of colors woven to his specifications and set off in 1947 for new york to see if he could successfully market the silk and source sophisticated buyers for his extraordinary merchandise.

image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

the spacious drawing room opens on one side to a terrace overlooking the klong.

watercolors by graham byfield

jim thompson was renowned for his dinner parties where he entertained visiting celebrities in his charming dining room, which still looks the same today, or on the breezy terrace outside. the chandeliers were a concession to modern convenience, but even they belong to a past era, having come from 18th and 19th century bangkok palaces.

image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

a chinese porcelain stool-stove image © designboom

move-able block printing image © designboom

image © designboom

traditional thai flower decoration image © designboom image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

image © designboom

watercolors by graham byfield from the thai silk sketchbook

jim thompson or james harrison wilson thompson was born in greenville, delaware, USA in 1906. he attended public schools in wilmington, went on to boarding school at st. paul’s and attended princeton university, the family university, from 1924 to 1928. although thompson had a keen interest in art, he chose to become an architect and went on to study architecture at the university of pennsylvania. he was a practicing architect in new york city until 1940.

the james h.w. thompson foundation in 1976, the thai court-appointed administrator for the property of jim thompson received permission from government ministries of the kindom of thailand to legally establish the james h.w. thompson foundation. by virtue of its presence and the dictates of its charter, the foundation is committed to the preservation of thailand’s rich artistic and cultural heritage. the foundation supports a wide variety of research, publication and seminar projects in furtherance of this aim.

—see also thai natural silk scarves, produced by a tiny village of silk producers and weavers in north-east thailand, available from the designboom shop. each scarf is hand made and dyed using natural raw materials such as leaves, fruits and resins. you can learn how the scarves are made, in designboom’s article silk making process in 6 steps. your purchase will contribute to supporting the community featured in our article. thank you.

  • I want to visit.

    D. Barber says:
  • Seeing this museum makes me miss living in south east asia. it is a magical place.

    dbf says:

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