Udayshanth Fernando, whose friends know him simply as Shanth, sits on a rustic beige leather chair sipping a glass of water at the Gallery Cafe, his upscale restaurant and art gallery on Colombo's
leafy Alfred House Road.
The gallery is just one of the properties the man nicknamed the Terence Conran of Asia owns in the Sri Lankan capital. Along with two boutique hotels, ranked among the best in the country, he is also the man behind Paradise Road, the home interiors boutiques that sell beautifully handcrafted products with an emphasis on pottery and textiles. Today Paradise Road is one of Colombo's best-known shopping destinations. And Fernando himself is one of the country's most renowned designers.
Returning to Sri Lanka after 16 years working in Europe and Australia, mainly in the hotel industry, Fernando opened Paradise Road in 1987. "I felt that Sri Lanka needed my style of product, which is essentially very black and white with colour coming through from objects in art," he says. "I make products that are not over designed."
Unlike his contemporaries in Sri Lanka and other parts of the region, Fernando uses colour sparingly. His textiles are a case in point. Pointing to a black and white cushion resting next to him, he says, "With weaving I choose a very essential colour palette, no hot pinks and no oranges - it's very beige, black, brown, grey, white and mustard. With its uneven cracked black lines, the cotton cushion is unusual, but not immediately recognisable as batik - a traditional technique where wax is applied to the fabric before dyeing - until he points it out.
"What I did was make it sophisticated," he says. "I made it cleaner."
For a man who has no formal design training, Fernando has achieved far more than many people with long pedigrees. "I travel the world looking at products," he says. "I go to the trade fairs internationally, in Germany, in Paris, and I'm a shopaholic of ideas. My greatest aim is to translate that design into a product of local manufacture."
A key element of Paradise Road's success is that it draws on the skills of local craftsmen. "Any crafts people who come to me with skill I will design for," Fernando says. "It doesn't matter what the material is. Here there are lots of people you can help uplift. I work with poor crafts people that have been loyal to me for so many years. I develop their skills. These are crafts people making a sophisticated product - a product that has international appeal."
The items sold in Paradise Road do not resemble goods in the local cottage industry shops. While roughly three quarters of products are handmade (mostly in Sri Lanka), the merchandise has a rustic, yet firmly contemporary look. Fernando has an uncanny ability to give new life to ordinary objects, such as the old burlap rice bags that hang in frames on the walls of his Colombo hotel. He is also a man who clearly loves to collect, and his shops are full of decorative accessories, from wooden doorstops hand-painted to look like people in suits, sarongs and saris, to small ornamental clay stars.
When Paradise Road first started, Fernando dealt in white ceramics, table mats, glassware and toys in a much smaller space. Today, the company has grown from a small storefront to three Colombo shops, while the stock list has expanded to include furniture, upholstery fabric and garden statues.
Browsing through the main Paradise Road shop, housed in an old white colonial mansion on one of Colombo's main thoroughfares, feels like touring a cabinet of curiosities: large carved animals have been carefully placed on displays, and spectacular circular glass cases house beautifully arranged memorabilia. A large black chandelier with dozens of thin white candles hangs from the ceiling in the first of many rooms that house Fernando's collections. Under the chandelier, an old wooden cow presides over stone bins filled with hand-woven sarongs and beach wraps. Even the cash register, which is hidden away in an antique wooden booth, smacks of style. There is meticulous attention to detail throughout.
The other shops aren't quite as striking and carefully curated as the flagship operation. Paradise Road Studio, housed in a whitewashed mansion behind the Gallery Cafe, offers a similar inventory to the main store in a larger space, along with big-ticket items such as sofas. Paradise Road Warehouse sells some lovely wooden furniture (and some replica midcentury chairs) in an elegant space, but it also feels less put-together. And the Gallery Cafe is a two-room teaser for people who have come to the restaurant.
Fernando's hotels and restaurants nod to the same spare aesthetic as his retail shops. The Gallery Cafe, which was once the office of one of Sri Lanka's great architects, Geoffrey Bawa (Fernando says it was "my favourite space in the world"), is now an impressive sprawling place filled with minimalist furnishings and some lovely rustic antiques.
The restaurant has indoor and outdoor sections, but the two blend into each other; the garden space is surrounded by exposed brick walls, and, while it feels loft-like, it is full of Fernando's charming little details, such as the two big oval wood and glass display cases at the entrance.
Whether it is interiors or products, Fernando's style also displays a distinct Asian influence, from the big ceramic jars lining the entry to the Gallery Cafe to the lotus flowers floating in the ponds out front.
Tintangel, his Colombo hotel, which was once the residence of Sri Lanka's first prime minister, displays the same obsessive attention to detail as the flagship Paradise Road shop. It is a lovely sight. A large old wooden staircase lined with a simple back and white striped rug stretches up to the second floor.
"I have got a slogan that reads: taste, timeless, style," Fernando says. "As the saying goes, 'You can learn or buy style but not taste.' Taste is something you believe in wholeheartedly, and it has nothing to do with money."