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Slip Into the History of Thai Silk at Bangkok’s Jim Thompson House

By June 5, 2018 No Comments

Crammed with art treasures and antiques from all over Southeast Asia, this home built from six traditional Thai wooden houses offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and mystery of the legendary American who revived Thailand’s silk industry.

A national museum in a jungle-like setting in the centre of Bangkok, the Jim Thompson House is the former home of an entrepreneur and ex-spy who took Thai silk-weaving from the status of a dying craft to world renown. For his contributions to Thai culture, he was awarded the Order of the White Elephant by the Kingdom of Thailand. His company’s silk shops are located all over the country, including Bangkok International Airport.

A New York City architect, Thompson worked for the Central Intelligence Agency’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), during World War II, assigned to North Africa and later Asia and Europe. After the war, he was enchanted by Thailand, and by its silk in particular. At the time, silk-weaving was mostly done by farm families for their own use for ceremonial events, and demand was low due to factory-made silk from Japan and Europe.

In the late 1940s, Thompson came to New York in to show his silk to the editor of Vogue, Edna Woolman Chasewho called it a “magnificent new discovery” and featured a Thai silk dress fashion shoot in her pages. Thompson went on to win a series of notable PR successes, making Thai silk costumes for a Broadway play by Mike Todd (Elizabeth Taylor’s husband at the time), for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical, The King and I, and silk brocades made for Queen Sirikit of Thailand, whose Thai silk couture by Pierre Balmain wowed the US during her 1960 visit. Thompson also introduced innovations to increase quality and volume, from colour-fast dyes to replace vegetable dyes that faded to foot-pedals for loom weavers, and he employed thousands of Thai weavers.

Thompson assembled his home from houses purchased in Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital north of Bangkok, and in the weaving village across the canal from his land, transporting them by barge. Although it features many traditional Thai design elements, such as gracefully upturned roof-ends, a raised threshold to ward off evil spirits, and a Spirit House—a tiny house replica that’s home to household spirits—it also has a Western-style indoor staircase and hallways.

Today, it remains home to an exceptional collection of art and crafts. Vividly colourful Thai paintings on scrolls, fabric and wood from the 17th-19th centuries, some as large as tapestries, depict the life of Buddha and a local prince who achieved enlightenment. Twenty-seven paintings from the 1860s show the daily life of the time, from harvesting coconuts and rice to children’s games. Stone and wood sculptures from Thailand, Cambodia and Burma depict Buddha in different artistic styles and poses spanning 1,400 years, from the 7th century on.

An Italian marble black-and-white tile floor hails from a Bangkok palace, as does a crystal chandelier hanging in the Drawing Room; the statues of good spirits adorning its niches are from Burma. In the master bedroom, an oddity called the Mouse House is a tiny wood maze for pet white mice, carved in China in the 19th century.

A popular host who turned his home into the centre for expatriate social life in Bangkok, Thompson entertained nightly. “You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste,” wrote British author William Somerset Maugham in a thank-you note. Thompson’s mysterious 1967 disappearance in Malaysia on vacation with friends has never been solved.

The house is now managed by the James H.W. Thompson Foundation, under the patronage of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, the late King’s daughter. The foundation’s mission is to preserve Thailand’s rich cultural heritage through research, seminars, exhibits and grants.

But over 50 years later, with bowls and cutlery arrayed on the dining room table as if expecting him back, the creative household spirits of the Jim Thompson House still feel very much at home.