Asian furniture has long been sought after, now it's available and affordable, and not just for the rich.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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."
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."