For centuries Asian aesthetics and design principles have influenced the design of homes all over the world. For most, the words “Asian design” conjures up vivid imagery of intricate Chinoiserie, tables and arbors with striking everted flanges, and a unique combination of minimalism and traditionalism. But when it comes to an antique look, there’s nothing quite like the real deal.
Enter PAGODA RED, which offers an ever-expanding collection of rare and unique Asian antiques. PAGODA RED’s immense selection, versatility and significance can be attributed to the passion of its staff—starting with its founder, Betsy Nathan.
Nathan opened up her first showroom in 1997 in Chicago Illinois. From there, PAGODA RED’s team and inventory has expanded tenfold. The gallery now showcases their pieces in an enormous warehouse space, complete with a garden and an in-house line of Asian-inspired contemporary pieces. “Our edit resonates,” says Nathan. “We’re not interested in the most iconic selections of traditional furniture. Our collection is personal and rich with idiosyncratic examples that show the hand and spirit of the maker.” To commemorate the launch of PAGODA RED’s new DECASO shop, we recently sat down with Nathan to discuss all of the exciting new developments.
How did the PAGODA RED collection get started?
When I moved to Beijing in the mid 1990s to study Mandarin, I met a Chinese furniture dealer—Zhao Xiaobei, known as “Lao Zhao.” He took me under his wing and acquainted me with his world of form, joinery, and history. He also introduced me to a network of people who shared similar interests. For the last 20 years, I’ve stayed connected to him, his family and the network we built together. I’ve also grown the collection since then, with African and global pieces that came from my mother, Ann Nathan’s gallery, many pieces from private collections, as well as contemporary fine art and furniture by artists who share our sensibility.
What is PAGODA RED’s mission?
PAGODA RED is the design destination for people who love the art, history, style and spirit of Asian and handcrafted objects. We think of ourselves as stewards, caring for objects that existed before us and will continue to exist when we’re gone. Our collection carries lifetimes of stories within it, and we see our role as matchmakers, pairing these extraordinary objects with people who really respond to them, who truly see the meaning behind each piece.
What is your process for authenticating pieces?
Apprenticing under Asian dealers, I came to understand authentic lacquer, hardwood and softwood furniture. My teachers showed me what authentic finishes looked like, and they taught me how unauthentic finishes are made. They taught me wood grain joinery, how to look at every angle to evaluate what’s original and what was rebuilt. If I worked with someone in China who didn’t teach me the subtle nuances of forgery, I knew they weren’t good teachers. The people I stuck with always pointed out those details to me. They’re the ones I still trust and have learned the most from.
Today, it’s much more difficult to find good things in China. I’m often consulted to verify the authenticity of pieces. We also authenticate items from private collections by using standard documentation of provenance. Auction houses, estates and dealers are great resources.
How often do you restore pieces? Is the restoration staff in-house?
We believe in minimal intervention, but we do restore many of our pieces to gallery standards. We’re very lucky to have a lead restorer, Arnie Brizuela, who’s been a team member for 15+ years. A conservator and carpenter, Arnie beautifully restores each piece to its original glory. He also checks every piece for quality, whether or not it’s being restored.
What is the oldest piece PAGODA RED has ever carried?
We’ve had some ceramics from the Han Dynasty (151-141 B.C.), including a mingqi attendant from the Yangling tomb of Emperor Jing. I particularly love scholar’s rocks, which were popular in the Tang Dynasty and later. They’re carved from stones that are formed over many thousands of years. They’re made by water slowly eroding stone. Taihu stones, for example, come from Lake Tai in Jiangsu Province, China.
Have there been a rare finds over the years that have particularly stood out to you?
One of my favorites was a Huanghuali Wine Table. Over the years, I’ve acquired a few pieces of furniture crafted from this precious hardwood which is considered an imperial-quality wood. Aside from being exemplary in form, this particular table marked a pivotal moment for me. It was the first piece of furniture that I sold back to China. Never did I imagine that today we would have so many clients in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.
Your mother, who was a gallerist, surrounded your family with art and artifacts from all over the world. How did growing up in such an environment influence your life path?
My mother, Ann Nathan, had a contemporary art gallery in Chicago, which she opened in the mid-1980s. It closed just a couple of years ago. She has always been a true visionary. She and my father raised me and my three siblings amid their very personal collection of outsider art, contemporary masters, found objects and iconic furniture. Being that I’m the youngest by 10 years, my brothers and sisters were kind of additional parents to me. They travelled on long adventures to Nepal and India while I was in high school. One of my sisters became very connected with the Tibetan community and the Dalai Lama. I think listening to their stories sparked my interest in Asia.
What artifact have you dreamed of discovering on your travels?
These days, I dream less about artifacts and more about experiences and ideas. I love seeing humble materials used in new ways. My son and I visited Guangxi Province a few years ago, where the Yao people live in wooden houses with lattice windows and handmade ceramic tile roofs. I bought boxes of the tiles to bring home, and loved them so much that I had friends help me find more to landscape the PAGODA RED gardens and to create screens inside—a modern twist I’d seen in Shanghai at the Puli Hotel. Now, artists and architects who’ve been inspired by the tiles are using them in new ways, and we can’t keep them in stock. We’re working on sourcing more. That’s the kind of story I love to see.
What’s something poignant you’ve learned about the world through your career in antiques?
When PAGODA RED started twenty years ago, we were a source for an exclusively Western audience. With the rise of the Internet, we started to become a source all over the world. It was shocking to me when we started shipping to China—that’s when I realized that the world had really changed. I now find myself in a position where I’m educating young Chinese people. China has modernized so quickly, that young people have very little exposure to this part of their history and culture. I feel honored that a can serve younger generations in this way.
What advice would you give someone with a minimalist or modern style home, who wants to incorporate antique elements into their space?
Something that’s handmade has soul. That kind of character can’t be duplicated. In this day and age we’re all craving depth and connection, and antiques have the power to connect people, time and meaningful rites of passage. Asian antiques, in particular, are often stylistically very simple, which makes the material and patina matter more. They can sit next to modern or minimal objects, and they’re going to bring warmth without feeling out of place.
You’ve recently released a collection of contemporary pieces that draw inspiration from your inventory. What’s been the goal of this contemporary collection?
We love bridging old and new. For example, we have a contemporary line of tables that feature meditation stone specimens. For centuries, meditation stones inspired artists, poets and calligraphers to create. I love translating this idea into modern living. Just as scholars once used these stones for contemplation, they bring a similar meditative quality that’s poetic but also practical for the way we live today.
PAGODA RED has recently transitioned from showcasing select pieces in a gallery, to allowing clients to view the entire inventory in a 15,000 square-foot warehouse space. What inspired this change?
We were looking for a way to offer clients a more personal, up-close experience of all the extraordinary objects we’ve curated over 20+ years, and not just a small sample. Over the past few years, we’ve been busy building a rich website. At the same time, clients who have visited our warehouse told us that they love the immediacy of that experience. By giving our clients access to all of Pagoda’s objects in both the real world and the virtual world, we’re exactly where we should be right now.
What differences have you noticed between the way your clients shopped your gallery vs. your new warehouse?
It creates a more personal experience. There’s so much in our warehouse that, by necessity, you’re leading someone through the space to find what they need. You can have a conversation that way, and try things out in a way that wasn’t as immediate when we had a showroom. Even with the accessibility of objects online, you still want to see things in person sometimes. For our local clients, they can find what they want on our website, then come in and compare it to other options.
Why is it important that some artifacts find homes in people’s everyday environments, as opposed to all residing in museums?
These objects have always been in homes. That’s their natural environment. It’s the way they’re meant to be used. For example, a lot of PAGODA RED’s furniture comes from Shanxi province. I love that during the 18th century, there was a wealthy community that found themselves in a position to work closely with carpenters. They built furniture specifically to their tastes, so this created a body of furniture that’s wonderfully idiosyncratic in its designs and forms.
For instance, it’s not unusual to find drawers built in unexpected places, at unexpected heights and widths to accommodate a specific person’s taste and home. They are not necessarily classical pieces, but they are more interesting to me, because they were built by people—and their designers and architects—for the needs of their homes at the time.