Orient Expression

Asian furniture has long been sought after, now it's available and affordable, and not just for the rich.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Christi Blish and her husband, Tom Morrison, recently bought a 100-year-old Chinese table. Its delicate handles, which dangle from the drawers like brass earrings, express a touch of courtly decadence. And its amber wood glows with the richness of a rising sun.

Ms. Blish and Mr. Morrison are awed by the table's age and history. However, like many families today, they're not handling it with velvet gloves, but have put it to work as a pedestal for their big-screen TV. In another room, a red 19th-century Chinese wedding cabinet serves as an armoire for jackets and shoes.

"You don't walk into our house and think you're in China," says Blish, who has been furnishing their Boston apartment for more than a year. "But of the pieces we do have, all are old, and affordable, and lovely, from decorative stuff to the extremely functional."

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Many Westerners have the impression that East Asian furniture is uniquely exotic, elegant - and expensive. But as China and its neighbors continue opening to Western commerce, people

like Blish and Morrison can increasingly afford to fill their living rooms with the riches of the Orient.

Eastern trade with America began regularly in 1850. Elegant furniture, porcelains, and fine art soon began flooding the coastal mansions of America's well-heeled. It has taken a century and a half, however, for the trade to trickle down to the homes of ordinary people.

"It was the very wealthy ... who collected these wonderful desks and vases," says Carolyn Meek, a former president of the International Furniture Design Association. "But slowly, bit by bit, regular people have come to enjoy them...."

Few people fill an entire room with Asian furniture. Like Blish and Morrison, the average buyer is interested in only two or three pieces to spice up a room.

Gene Ma, co-owner of Asian Heirlooms, an antique furniture store in Brighton, Mass., says demand for Asian furniture has soared over the past two years, with customers clambering for functional pieces, such as Chinese wedding cabinets, wooden chests, and red-and-black lacquer baskets.

"Every month, more and more decorators and families come in," Mr. Ma says. "You can see all these magazines and newspapers, all have Asian furniture...."

Prices are now lower

Asian exporters, particularly the Chinese, have taken notice of the trend, and are responding with entrepreneurial zeal. In the past five years, antique-furniture exports have become a boom industry for China, as well-educated collectors have joined with rural peasants in combing China for relics.

"Exporting Chinese antique furniture is a large-scale business," Ma says. "Villages spend [the] whole day out looking for pieces to sell to collectors for export."

The Chinese government has also contributed to the flood of exports, auctioning a host of luxury pieces confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. Furniture seized because it showed evidence of class divisions is now bringing thousands of dollars into China's public coffers.

Tom Wu, head of the department of Asia, Oceania, and Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, says this sudden glut of exports is responsible for shrinking prices in the US.

"It's easy buying these pieces now because the Chinese have oversupplied the market...," Mr. Wu says. "In doing so, they have driven the market value way down."

The result is that people can now buy 200-year-old pieces of furniture for their homes which, were they European or American antiques, could only be found in museums.

But the surge of interest in Asian furniture is due to more than economics. Experts cite the furniture's clean lines, simple patterns, and rich patinas to explain its popularity.

"Asian art projects a more minimalist attitude," says Rhett Mundy, owner of Asia Galleries in San Francisco. "In today's high-strung craziness, it gives more of an easy, passive sensation in the household. People are leaning toward Asian design for what it projects."

Blish and Morrison are no exception. Morrison works for a dotcom in Boston, and Blish often flies to the West Coast on business. When home, they find their furniture comforting.

"It's the richness of their color and of the wood that I really like," Morrison says, pointing to a cherry-colored wedding cabinet in the living room.

"We love the warmth and elegance and interest it lends to the house," Blish adds. "They sort of just shine with original artistry."

These characteristics of Asian furniture can also be seen in the philosophy of Feng Shui (pronounced Fung Shway), the Chinese art of placement.

Feng Shui disciples don't necessarily buy Asian furniture. But the principles of the philosophy, such as simplicity, clarity, and proportion among objects, parallel the furniture's most defining traits.

James Moser, president of the Feng Shui Warehouse in San Diego, sees people trying to adjust to the blurring line between the office and home.

"Especially with more people in home-based businesses, cocooning, spending more time on the Internet, we're more attracted to what the East has to offer," he says. "It's a growing consciousness of how we can shape our environment differently."

Simplicity is in style

Interior-design trends are difficult to pin down. But experts generally agree people are losing interest in what is broadly termed the country style, which emphasizes lush, comfortable fabrics and ornate patterns.

"It's part of the turn of the fashion wheel," says Ms. Meek. "Country was an excess of trims and fabrics. Now you find people want something very simple, a lot more quiet."

In the case of Asian furniture and design, texture trumps complex patterns. Woven floor mats - with a single, subdued color and coarse fabric - are a staple. People often place them on hardwood floors, which are now as common in the United States as in the Orient.

Incorporating Asian furniture into a home isn't as difficult as some might think. Its sleek, simple style blends well with modern furniture and fine art.

This affinity isn't a coincidence. Lark Mason, an expert on Chinese furniture at Sotheby's Auction House in New York, says designers from the modernist movement were directly influenced by the ancient Orient.

"Many elemental forms we use today have their origins in Chinese forms created as early as the 12th century," Mr. Mason says.

It's not a surprise, then, that retailers such as Pottery Barn and Pier One are aggressively, and successfully, tapping into the market, incorporating Asian design into new products.

Some mainstream stores even sell what are called scholar stones. Ancient Chinese scholars would gaze on these shaped stones for inspiration in composing music or poetry. Americans are now doing the same, often placing them on their desks at home.

At Room & Board, a national furniture outlet, the most popular pieces include Japanese Shinto tables - inspired by Shinto temples - and Sukiya chests, which today's buyers often use for storage, just as the original owners did hundreds of years ago.

"The Asian aesthetic is much more popular now," says Room & Board's Annie Cleveland. "We manufacture pieces based on both Japanese and Chinese traditions, in steel and wood, and all of it goes well with American furniture."

Watch out for fakes

With the rising profile of a market often comes the increasing likelihood of fakes. The trade in Asian items is no exception, as new furniture made to look old is becoming a serious problem. In China, where labor is cheap, exporters often take a relatively new piece and bruise the wood to give it the appearance of an antique.

"I'm in Asia seven months a year and see entire businesses that just make fakes," says Mr. Mundy. "There is a huge market for fakes: They are in auctions and antique stores and everywhere."

Mundy and other reputable dealers are trying to educate customers on how to spot a forgery.

"They should get a 100 percent guarantee from the original buyer [so] they can get their money back if it's not as old as they say it is."

Mundy says items purportedly more than 200 years old should be tested with a carbon-dating procedure that can gauge its approximate age.

"Carbon-dating tests are very expensive," he says. "But if you're going to risk buying a piece that is $1,000, you should ask the place to have it done."

The Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, among others, will advise members on the age and background of a piece if they bring in a photograph.

Still, some experts tell homeowners not to wait too long to buy. If China continues exporting at its current rate, the market may dry up in three to five years, and, with it, the chance to own a unique piece of Eastern luxury.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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