From a child without a title to the king bearing the crown, Jaya Ibrahim recalls the journey that landed him at the top of the design and architectural world—a place he never saw coming.
Born without a title to a Javanese princess and a Sumatran diplomat, Jaya Ibrahim, one of the world’s top designers, also known as just ‘Jaya’, has finally earned his own title, Indonesia’s King of Design. His name is proudly attached to properties such as The Legian Bali, The Nam Hai Hoi An in Central Vietnam, The Chedi Muscat in Oman and a long list of other notables, but the journey to design acclaim was never one of certainty or clarity.
For starters, Jaya’s parents were each from a different cultural group in a time when such cross-cultural marriages were a rarity. Instead of growing up and identifying with one cultural background, Jaya was seeking a balance between two in a time when that was uncommon. To compound matters in his diverse upbringing, his father’s work as a diplomat meant Jaya spent a number of years not only next door to the palace of his mother’s family in Yogyakarta, but also living overseas and schooling in places like Singapore and London. While both this cultural ambiguity and transient living situation proved difficult as a young boy, Jaya now looks at the experiences as major factors which helped shape who he is today. “These experiences created diversity and a balance that I think now shows in my work, or play as a part of my background. But I didn’t realise that when I was younger,” he says, “and so I felt like I had to leave home to get to know myself, to deal with things myself—to grow up.”
He laughs, “She gave me my chance because of a sandwich.”
And since growing up for Jaya meant leaving, that’s what he did. After moving to London for university, Jaya graduated with a degree in economics and sociology, a degree, he says, his parents pushed him towards pursuing. However, while working a brief stint as an accountant in London, Jaya found an opportunity to finally pursue what had begun to seriously interest him—design. Approached by a friend who was a personal assistant of actress-turned-designer Anouska Hempel, Jaya was asked to come work at Blakes—Hempel’s luxury London boutique hotel. Realising the possibility of becoming involved for the first time in the design world, Jaya took a risk and quit the accounting firm and found himself washing dishes behind the scenes at Blakes within days.
Starting as a jack-of-all-trades, Jaya found his break when his knack for design showed through in one of his many trades, sandwich making. “I really loved decorating the sandwiches. As it happens, one of them was brought to Hempel upstairs, and she liked it. So she called me up, we talked, and she told me I must begin working with her in design and layout.” He laughs, “She gave me my chance because of a sandwich.” And with the delivery of one tastefully decorated sandwich, Jaya’s design career began.
“Seeing new things, meeting new people and finding out things I never knew before, that’s where it comes from. There is always something to find, and that is what keeps me searching.”
Working closely with Hempel, and learning along the way, Jaya exhibited qualities of inherent excellence despite his raw and limited formal study, something that was only benefitted by his affinity for risk. Though he had never sewn, he volunteered to take over the fabrication of the curtains and cushions when the position opened up. Having never been to the flower market, he also volunteered to take over floral arrangements, meaning visits to the market at 3 o’clock in the morning. “I was young, and there were risks I had to take. So I learned on the job, and it was a start,” he reasons. “I was quite good at it too.”
It was there, in that small London hotel that Jaya’s career was by chance realised, but where it took flight was in his native Indonesia. After a decade of tutelage in both design and architecture under Hempel and her colleagues in London, Jaya saw his first opportunity for independent work in the 1990s when a rapid wave of tourism and construction crashed over Bali. Noticing that most of the hoteliers in the then-booming Bali had a penchant for hiring foreign designers and architects, Jaya became frustrated as he felt that he, an Indonesian, was more than capable of building up his own country. “I knew I could do exactly the same thing they were doing—only better. I just needed one opportunity to prove it.”
And the opportunity he received turned immediately towards success with his design premier, The Legian Bali in Seminyak. Tabbed a serious new player in the design world after his debut, Jaya has since found continued success in ventures such as his establishment of Jaya & Associates, with the likes of Bruce Goldstein and Larry Van Ooyen, the creation and management of an independent furniture line, and his involvement, design, and creation of projects that span at least four continents.
While known for his signature Asian style, the designer and architect who is fluent in an array of styles claims that it is the location, not the specialisation, which takes precedence. “Any time I go into a project, it depends where I am. Location is the most important aspect; it makes the foundation for anything that I am working on. It’s only from there that I can begin thinking and designing.”
As for where he finds the continuing inspiration, Jaya credits travel as his muse. “Seeing new things, meeting new people and finding out things I never knew before, that’s where it comes from. There is always something to find, and that is what keeps me searching.” So it’s through both this travel-fuelled inspiration and an intent focus on location that Jaya has found his style. A style that presents itself as a combination of elegance, timelessness and modernity that draws on the cultural and historical authenticity of each of his property’s surroundings.
“It’s what I am; it’s not really work in that way. I love what I do—love it.”
With such success in the self-made designer’s career, it is hard to identify the challenges that he faces, but he says that they do appear from time to time. As to how he handles them, he says a little acceptance and happiness go a long way. “I’m always happy. Of course I have times of frustration, but to me getting through those times is about staying happy. It’s about accepting where you are at any time, and dealing with it with a smile, not running from it.”
Perhaps it is this ability to accept, to smile and keep going that keeps Jaya able to produce at the level he does. But for him, it’s simpler than that, it’s that his work is his life. “It’s what I am; it’s not really work in that way. I love what I do—love it.” And he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
Jaya’s passion, diverse upbringing, and inspiration from the road have all helped to catapult him into the upper echelons of the design world as he continues what he calls “the quest for refinement.” And whatever the reasoning behind the story—the story of the boy from the palatial footsteps of Yogyakarta’s aristocracy, of the diplomat’s son who found himself in London, of Bali’s pioneer Indonesian designer—it is a story that ends with the king of Indonesian design earning his rightfully deserved crown.
(Featured image: Studio Suite at The Legian Bali – Interior and Furnishing by Jaya Ibrahim)