doris duke’s shangri la + early islam

Early Islamic architecture includes the Moorish and Moroccan motifs that have been influencing contemporary design for so many years now it can’t really be considered a trend.  From colorful tiles to patterned screens, we love this look too.  But before we get to our standard inspirational finds, we first want to show one of the most unique homes in the United States that happens to fit right into the Early Islamic aesthetic.  I’m talking about Doris Duke’s Shangri La located on the edge of the Kahala coastline on Oahu, Hawaii.

Inspiration for Doris Duke’s Shangri La

Doris Duke (November 22 1912-October 28 1993), heiress to a tobacco fortune, traveled extensively throughout her life, but she became especially with the Islamic world following her travels to North Africa and the Middle East, specifically Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Turkey.  Following a trip around the world in 1935, Doris Duke and her first husband, James Cromwell, built an estate on Oahu they purchased overlooking the Pacific.  Initial construction on Shangri La was completed in 1937, but Duke continued to travel and collect, adding pieces to the house until just before her death in 1993. A few fun facts about Doris Duke and Shangri La:

  • The bombing of Pearl Harbor restricted civilian ship access to Hawaii for some period, so Duke invited US servicemen to use the estate as a retreat in her absence.
  • Doris Duke was the first non-Hawaiian to enter a surf contest in Hawaii.
  • Duke was married three times, but it was during her honeymoon with her first husband, James Cromwell, that she purchased the land for Shangri La.
  • The tide pool that sits along the southwest wall of the property is open to the public, as seen in the foreground of the photo below.

Exploring Shangri La

The only way to see the house is by guided tour, which I’m normally not a fan of, but you won’t be sorry you skipped one afternoon at the beach.  And if you’re an early riser then all the better since they have two morning tours available.

The guided tour commences in the entry courtyard, then leads through the foyer, Damascus Room, Syrian Room, Mughal Suite, central courtyard, living room, Mihrab Room, dining room, and then out to the lawn overlooking the ocean and finally the Mughal Garden. While you can’t take pictures of the interior, the Doris Duke Foundation houses a large collection of contemporary and historical photos, as well as historical drawings, online.

Interior Highlights

The Foyer

The main foyer of the house was designed by René Martin of the design firm S.A.L.A.M.  It features many tiles, a carved railing and painted ceiling.

The Living Room

Probably my favorite space in the house.  I could spend hours studying all of the interior sketches of the home provided by architects and designers throughout the decades-long building process.

The first sketches done in 1936 introduced a simple fireplace wall in order to highlight the large mural of the maidan, or central square, in Isfahan, Iran.  In the two sketches from 1937 you can start to see the idea for the ceiling emerge, as well as a new, ornate concept for the fireplace.

The final image shows the actual result – a simple mantle that blends seamlessly into the wall which instead focuses attention on the ornate ceiling and interior décor.  It also includes one of my favorite elements in the room, the arched doorways.

The Syrian Room

Doris Duke remodeled this room after she acquired a new collection of Syrian items from NYU.  The room also features some Hawaiian items.  The color is intense with bright yellow walls and ornate patterns on every surface.  And, of course, the ceiling is amazing too, but you’ll spend more time ogling the tiled floor (and the walls and the fountain and the light fixtures and…).

The Dining Room

Designed to look like an Islamic tent, the Dining Room is also intense with color, this time a bright blue fabric with hot pink trim covers the walls and ceiling.  The chandelier is Baccarat crystal.

The Damascus Room

The Damascus Room was designed in 1952 using a preserved room from a Syrian palace.  The walls coverings are made from painted wood paneling decorated using a technique called ‘ajami.

Exterior Highlights

While the interior houses an unbelievable number of mosaic panels, textiles and light fixtures, the exterior has a lot of its own special elements.  Of course, you get to enjoy the amazing view of the ocean and Diamond Head, but you will also find colorful tile panels, intricately carved wooden screens and arches and Middle Eastern-influenced designs at the top of each elevation.

The Courtyard

The riad, or central courtyard, is a common Early Islamic design element.  It always included a water feature which would help with cooling as the breeze went over the water.

The Playhouse

The Playhouse sits on the other side of the long pool.  It was inspired by an actual palace in Isfahan, Iran called the Chehel Sutun.  The intricately painted wood ceiling and trim require constant maintenance given the Playhouse’s oceanfront location.  The vintage photo from 1939 shows the tented interior made from Indian block-printed fabric.

Mughal Garden

All palaces must have royal gardens and the Mughal Gardens serve this purpose for Shangri La.


Out of respect to the property and neighbors, the only way to see the house is by guided tour. You don’t get to see every room, but the ones that are open to the public showcase some of the most impressive architectural and decorative features in the house. The tour (including the ride to and from the Estate) lasts about 3 hours.  Tours are offered Wednesday-Saturday at 9:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.  Reserve your tickets in advance, (808) 532-3853.

If you don’t find yourself in Hawaii any time soon, I highly recommend the virtual tour on the Foundation’s website.

Photography credits: All interior photos courtesy of Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i via

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