Mary Justice Designs Captures the Wonders of Nature

Working out of her studio in Bali, designer Mary Justice launches her debut Home Decor collections of unique handpainted furniture and accessories that capture the natural beauty of Indonesia

Ever since she was a little girl, Mary Justice has had some form of obsession with the decorative arts. At the age of nine while living in Texas her mother let her decorate her own room and she painted it a deep maroon colour and hung Japanese block prints.

These days the American journalist turned designer, artist, writer and explorer has been busy launching her beautiful Collections of hand painted furniture and accessories that instantly add a touch of uniqueness and colour to a living space. Each Mary Justice Design item, from tables, trays, lazy susans to plaques, takes a lengthy 4-week process to hand paint onto gessoed wood – a Renaissance technique from the 16th century, (this takes 9-12 strokes of paint to create the equivalent of one paint stroke on canvas). Only 10 to 15 pieces are created in Limited Edition runs to ensure the highest of quality.

Mary Justice Designs debut collections include the Deep Ocean, Panthera, Flights of Fancy, Certainly Simian and Flora, Seascapes, Curious Creatures and Seasons. Every piece has a story to tell, and touches upon nature and conservation. There is also playfulness and humour and the unpredictability of rainforests and seascapes. Only sustainably sourced local timber, sustainable construction methods and tongue and groove (dovetailing) methods that stand the test of time are used on Mary Justice Design works.

A Chat with Mary Justice

1 Your new Home Decor Collection consists of useful everyday pieces that are beautiful to the touch and visually vibrant. What inspires your designs most?

I’d harboured a deep desire for designing and an obsession with decorative arts since as early as I can remember. At the age of nine while living in Houston, Texas my Mom told me I could decorate my own room and I painted my room a deep maroon colour and hung Japanese block prints. I studied European Fine and Decorative Arts at Christie’s London but put that on hold for several years whilst I entertained a career as a Broadcast Journalist, Luxury Travel Writer and running a PR company before making a sea-change to the island of Bali which inspired me to explore Indonesia.

On a diving trip to Raja Ampat, one of the most beautiful places on earth, an idea presented itself to me in perfect clarity as I was surrounded by so much natural beauty that I had an ‘Aha’ moment to tell the story of this incredible country, it’s fascinating history, natural wonders and its exotic and endangered species through art and design. I was an explorer similar to those in “The Age of Discovery” but instead of bringing objects back for the Cabinet of Curiosities and as specimens, I had a vision to collaborate with great Indonesian Master Artists and Craftsmen to help me bring this idea to life. It has taken over two-years to do as every element and process from concept to completion are one of kind ‘firsts.

This lifelong desire to design and create art is bolstered by my family history. My father was a geologist and my mother and grandmother both specialised in antique furniture and accessories from all corner of the globe. I remember living in the UK in our Chelsea home where every surface was filled to the brim with lusterware jugs, masons ironstone, bible boxes, Windsor chairs and cricket tables and I loved everything about them and the stories they told”.

The inspirations for the pieces in the collection are detailed here

Panthera collection

The inspiration for the Panthera collection is the Clouded Leopard; the least well-known species of the big cats, and arguably it’s most endangered. I loved it’s incredible attributes like being able to scale a tree with its tail. Despite persevering for some time, I didn’t manage to spot this divine creature, but I did observe its natural habitat in the typically bucolic lowland Sumatran rainforest. The broken tree portrayed in this painting symbolises deforestation, the primary cause of this rare beast’s diminishing population.

Flora collection

Here I was inspired to pay homage to nutmeg, the once-precious spice that sparked The ‘Spice Wars’ of the late 17th century where Dutch and English trading companies fought to control and monopolise the spice trade from the Banda Islands. Nutmeg was so precious, the Dutch actually traded Run Island for New Amsterdam; now known as Manhattan and of course where the Dutch East India Trading Company began its domination of the area.

I was on a research and dive trip to the Banda Seas in the heart of the Maluku province and was able to visit Run Island. It sparked my imagination to portray the metamorphosis of Indonesia as it escaped the burden of owning a commodity more valuable than the gold of its day. In the illustration, you see a butterfly coming out of its cocoon and taking flight.

Certainly Simian collection

Having spent a week in Borneo on a “Klotok” (wooden boat) on the rivers of Kalimantan and getting up close and personal with the endangered Orang-utans, including going off course and into the forests to observe their behaviour, I fell in love with this family of rare white-handed gibbons known as Lars gibbons as they are so gentle in their manners and ways. I learnt that White-Handed Lars are colour-blind so indifferent to their mates’ colouring and mostly monogamous. I loved their style and their beautiful markings of white-gloved hands and feet and this inspired me to create the series in this collection.

Flights of Fancy

I am obsessed with the Bird of Paradise as one of the most extraordinary birds in the world and my once in a lifetime encounter with this rare bird. While in West Papua, I hiked up a mountain before dawn on my birthday and as luck would have it spotted one! In this case; a Wilson, doing its mating dance at sunrise. It was a breath-taking moment I wanted to immortalise in art.

Deep Ocean

I’m a very keen diver and the underwater world is truly magnificent. The vibrant show of lionfish and sea snakes in their coral habitat I witnessed was incredible to re-imagine in this piece. The vivid colours still dazzle me. When you consider that 71% of our world is Ocean and 80% of that is unmapped and unexplored it kind of blows my mind. Do you know that a new species is discovered almost daily in the Ocean?

2 What type of wood do you use and where do you source them from?

Our wood is sourced from sustainable, certified farm plantations in Indonesia (*FSC-Certified) and the mahogany and teak woods found in our collections are the foundation for our motto of fine art furniture for life. Our studio is based in Bali, Indonesia and all our pieces and processes are made here. The mahogany and teak woods in the collections are kiln-dried offering protection against degradation ensuring durability and sustainability.

We use only sustainable construction methods and tongue and groove (dovetailing) methods to stand the test of time. We also ship all items from our studio base. All our collections are delivered in exceptionally elegant, and eco-friendly handmade padded wooden boxes that can be repurposed as storage chests.

Our Italian Renaissance technique of painting on ‘‘gesso’’ is also sustainable as this technique ensures our art pieces last in perpetuity. Our pieces are imagined, designed and crafted to be passed down for generations to come.

Our engagement with indigenous artists of Indonesia keep their art and culture alive as we bring the tales of the natural word into people’s lives and we are creating a sustainable business.

Sustainability is a design priority for us in every aspect of our process. It is a luxury as it’s much more expensive to use sustainable materials but we are a luxury brand and as we are all about “Enhancing our World” we wouldn’t dream of not being sustainable. We are focused on creating multi-functional works-of-art that stand the test of time and preserve the resources and techniques of ancient craftsmanship. From our painting technique to the FSC wood we choose and our packaging materials, our conscious efforts in the use of eco-friendly and durable materials are key to our mission of creating heirloom pieces that stand the test of time.

3 Which of the Balinese crafts (apart from furniture/woodwork) and the arts (dance, music etc) do you have a soft spot for?

I adore the textiles from around the Archipelago each telling the stories of their indigenous customs. My favourites are from the island of Sumba and East Timor; all naturally dyed. The work for one piece of ceremonial cloth can take up to 1yr to make. My good friend Jean Howe has an extraordinary collection at Threads of Life of which I have several pieces. I have also bought textile weaves direct off the clothes lines they were hung out on to dry on one of my expeditions to Sumba.

4 How do you sketch your ideas (pencil, ipad, computer), and do you have a work studio in your home, where you paint and design and write and woodwork?

The creative process has been years in the making and deeply researched with my voyages and explorations throughout Indonesia over 15 years. My concepts are hand-drawn and water-coloured in the studio by an in-house artist. The original drawings are then carefully painted by Master Indonesian artists onto gessoed wood, a Renaissance technique from the 16th century, which takes 9-12 strokes of paint to create the equivalent of one paint stroke on canvas.

Our process is long and complex and there are only a few people in the world who are able to do the kind of work our Master Artists and Craftsmen do. There is such meticulous attention to detail and as we use no machinery at all it is very labour and time intensive. Each piece takes up to four weeks to complete. Our tilt-top design is the first of its kind where it is a multifunctional piece of furniture. When not in use it can be fashioned into an upright work of art.

Our studio is based in Bali, Indonesia and all our pieces and processes are made here.

5 How do you relax after a hard day at work?

I love being surrounded by nature and in Bali I have the privilege of enjoying the flora of tropical gardens that envelop my home. In the evenings after work if I’m not entertaining clients or guests I enjoy the simple things like drinking a young coconut direct from its source at sunset as I pour over my collection of art history books or botanical illustrations.

Story by Carol Kraal. Photographs courtesy of Mary Justice Designs

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