“Like Hou Yi’s Arrows and Chang E’s beautiful spirit!” was how Betsy Nathan, founder of Pagoda Red, described this stunning vaulted room by Joan Craig and Gemma Parker-McKeon of Lichten Craig Architecture + Interiors. This Lake Forest project features a selection of rock crystal spheres from Pagoda Red, completing elements of the cosmos along with the Forasetti wallpaper and deco starburst chandelier. As the Chinese Autumn Moon Festival approaches this year (September 6-8), one cannot help but think how this enchanted celestial room beautifully highlights the mythology of the holiday.
People all over China have traditionally marked the fullest moon of the year with the legend of the lunar goddess. Told in Asian communities around the world is this tale: In ancient times ten suns rose into the sky and began to scorch the earth. The warrior Hou Yi shot nine of them out of the sky with his bow to save mankind from the unbearable heat. As a reward, the Emperor of Heaven bestowed upon him an elixir of eternal life. But Hou Yi was earthbound by his love for the beautiful Chang E, so he gave her the elixir for safekeeping. Soon after, his wicked disciple, Peng Meng, broke into Chang E’s chamber to steal the elixir. Knowing that she couldn’t defeat Peng Meng, Chang E swallowed the elixir so that the evil Peng Meng would not gain eternal life. Chang E immediately rose into the heavens and found sanctuary on the nearest heavenly destination – the moon – to be close to her beloved Hou Yi. When Hou Yi realized what had transpired, he pined for Chang E, shouting her name skyward. As he lamented, her shadow appeared on the face of the moon. Upon hearing of Chang E’s ascension to the moon, people prayed to the new goddess for peace and good luck. Every year, when the moon is closest to the earth, the bounty of Hou Yi’s bravery and the brightness of Chang E’s spirit are celebrated.
With the easy warmth of longer summer months comes the nostalgic elegance of blue and white palettes. This combination of colors can be traced back to the 9th century, originating from the Middle East and perfected in China. Today, blues and whites can be found in a plethora of iterations, not surprising as the color combination is symbolic of sky and sea – the quintessential summer day.
Here at Pagoda Red the mind immediately turns to classic Chinese porcelain pottery, its presence gracing tables with bursts of narrative or settled comfortably in a lush garden. It has been exciting to see international designers such as Carrier and Co. (Architectural Digest, June 2014), Mark D. Sikes (Veranda, July-August 2014), and Juan Pablo Molyneux (Architectural Digest August 2014), incorporate blue and white Chinese vessels into their interior designs. Each project showcased the versatility and cohesiveness of classic Chinese design among design elements from all around the world.
Appreciation for the Chinese blue and white porcelain began during the 12th century when Mongolians, through conquest and trade, brought cobalt to China from present day Iraq and Iran. Cobalt is the chemical element that is responsible for the blue tint seen in the ceramic vessels. (For more information on cobalt and specific blue and white patterns check out our previous blog post here). When the Chinese first started using cobalt it was primarily in a pure concentrated form resulting in an intensely rich blue. The Chinese called this blue 回回青 (Hui hui qing)”, which literally translates to “return, return blue” – a blue doused again in blue. Also referred to as Muhammadan blue or Islam blue, this blue is still commonly used by Chinese designers today. In the 15th century Chinese ceramists discovered cobalt mixed with manganese resulting in the proliferation of lighter blue finishes.
Particularly fascinating are the various motifs found painted on the vessels themselves. While dragons, phoenixes, and other auspicious symbols were and still are the dominant subject matter of choice in China’s imagery. As China encountered more of the outside world, various influences began to seep onto the porcelain surface. For example, during the Ming and Qing dynasty it became more common place to find perspectival images of daily life. The subject matter and style was stylistically Western with a foreground and background and a penchant for realism.
Today the use of blue and white on porcelain has taken yet another turn. Many contemporary artists use the traditional colors to highlight modern aesthetics. Artists such as Deng Ying and July Zhou purposefully select blue and white porcelain to integrate the past with the present. Deng Ying paints isolated vignettes of daily life onto plates (below), resulting in a playful surprise for the fortunate user. The plates, not in literal consumptive use function as though one is looking through a telescope, one can gaze into a moment of contemporary life tinged with outlines of the past. (See more of Deng Ying’s work here)
Recently, Pagoda Red was part of the Eighth Annual East Hampton Antiques Show where blue and white porcelain was our main attraction. We created a modern installation by combining multiple pieces next to one another, resulting in a dynamic center piece on an earthy table. The actual blue sky and white clouds reflected softly off of the porcelain, a mixing of the real and representational, creating an entirely new composition. A harmonious flavor of Chinese antiques with daily life that Pagoda Red is grateful to experience.
Our ”Year of the Horse” animation tells a tale of friendship between the traditional three Chinese friends of Winter–plum, pine and bamboo. It was hand-made in special collaboration with School of Art Institute of Chicago MFA candidate Ali Aschman as a part of a new Pagoda Red initiative to share the stories behind the gallery collection in fresh, inspiring and contemporary ways. In the spirit of the holidays and also to welcome the coming year of the horse, Ali applied her practice of jianzhi, traditional Chinese paper cutting and also stop motion animation. She spent a month with the Pagoda Red collection finding inspiration in the symbolism and history behind our objects.
Ali articulated the monks from our early 20th c. Buddhist Prayer Cards like Indonesian shadow play. She layered flowers from “Flowering On The Midnight River ,” a Michael Thompson kite, with the floral motif from a 1920s porcelain jar. The trees and rooftops are textured with photography Ali shot of our 19th c Reclaimed Elm Wood Boards. The poetic animation continues with a gallop to mark the coming of 2014, the year of the Horse. It is highlighted with a spirited puppet throwing a pomegranate (a symbol of abundance and plenty) into the sky to celebrate and spread wishes of Peace, Prosperity, and Happiness or alternatively as a monk’s offering bowl, gesturing a gift of good wishes to the world.
ALI ASCHMAN is a visual artist whose interdisciplinary practice includes sculpture, drawing, printmaking, cut paper and animation, often combined in immersive installations. Aschman was born in 1985 in Mountain View, California, and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. She received a BFA from the University of Cape Town in 2006 and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013. She currently lives and works in Chicago.
Pagoda Red Visits Qianlong’s Hidden Paradise
Recently we sat down with arts and design writer and blogger, Courtney Barnes of Style Court, to talk about our whirlwind visit to a major exhibition of Chinese treasures at the Met. Here is her special report. —PR
When the wisteria symbolizing growth and longevity blooms this year in the Chinese scholars’ garden created for her Winnetka gallery, Betsy Nathan, Pagoda Red’s owner, will probably think of China’s art-and-design-loving emperor, Qianlong.
One of the 18th century’s most influential global figures, Qianlong constructed a secluded garden compound within his vast imperial Beijing complex in 1771. (Vast meaning more than 8,000 rooms.) His personal realm included an intimate theater decorated quite unexpectedly with a Western-influenced trompe-l’oeil-covered ceiling that offered the illusion of summery wisteria-laden bamboo latticework overhead. This surprising penchant for European painting was just one aspect of Qianlong’s complexity as a connoisseur—a hard-to-pigeonhole collecting style that fascinates Nathan and beckoned her to New York City to see The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, a landmark exhibition on view through May 1, 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Energizing… and validating,” is how Nathan describes her visit. As a student in the 1990s, she lived in Beijing and immersed herself in the city’s antique markets and back alleys, fast becoming a gatherer of old curiosities. But her first glimpse of this part of Qianlong’s rarefied private collection came fifteen years later at the Met where ninety carefully conserved pieces may now be appreciated by the public thanks to the joint efforts of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Palace Museum in Beijing, and the World Monuments Fund.
Like other Met visitors walking through the galleries, Nathan was awed by the craftsmanship and visual splendor of the double-sided embroideries, hand-painted silks, lacquered furniture, jades and other myriad decorative objects acquired by the emperor. Equally inspiring to her, though, was the emperor’s spirited approach to collecting.
“To me, he seemed voracious and wildly open—open to a variety of ideas, art forms and mediums from rustic to very refined. And he seemed intrigued by things that aren’t necessarily what they appear to be at first glance,” says Nathan. A devout Buddhist, he brought in Giuseppe Castiglione (aka Lang Shih-ning), the Italian missionary artist versed in European techniques such as linear perspective, trompe-l’oeil, and naturalistic shadowing. Cross-cultural pollination between Chinese court painters and Castiglione led to a fresh style of art that combined Chinese brushwork, materials, and subject matter with traditional Western shading and perspective.
A look frequently described in contemporary shelter magazines, “the eclectic global mix,” might apply to Qianlong’s 18th-century interiors, too. In addition to being an ardent patron of the most skilled Chinese artists, the exhibition’s organizers note that Qianlong’s willingness to embrace certain foreign elements can be seen throughout his private compound: glass windows, mirrors, mechanical clocks, and Japanese-style lacquer are some of the non-native design components he integrated into a Chinese setting.
For Nathan, the ruler’s openness also encompasses his appreciation for the unusual. She was instantly drawn to a dramatic rootwood chair that The New York Times critic Holland Cotter likened to “some version of rustic Victoriana.” Initially, the piece appears completely wild and organic but it is actually the result of meticulous craftsmanship. As someone who has always gravitated to offbeat or underappreciated things, she was thrilled to see that Qianlong was an aficionado of the unconventional.
Through a long-range conservation project spearheaded by the World Monuments Fund in partnership with the Palace Museum, Beijing, the entire garden complex, encompassing twenty-seven buildings and pavilions, is slated to be restored. The first structure that has been transformed back to its original state—the site of the emperor’s private theater—is known as Juan’qin’zhai, or Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service. Nathan, a mother of four young boys, still can’t help smiling when she thinks about the English translation.
After its run at the Met, The Emperor’s Private Paradise travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The sight of little ones at play—running, laughing, and tumbling in a garden setting—has long had cross-cultural appeal. In decorative arts, the ancient 100 Boys motif, seen on this 19th-century hand-woven silk brocade panel from Pagoda Red’s collection, charms Westerners and Easterners alike. But for the Chinese, the design has particular significance.
Dating back to the Song dynasty (960-1279), 100 Boys (baizi 百子) depicts kids—symbols of longevity, prosperity, and well-being—engaged in sports and outdoor games, and in some cases fishing or bearing fruit and auspicious objects. As the British Museum notes, the reason only boys are seen in these scenes is because in old China sons were preferred over daughters. An abundance of male descendants represented continuation of the family line. First found on paintings, the design became a popular choice for the decoration of ceramics and textiles. So popular, in fact, that the theme was included in a 17th-century manual of embroidery designs.
Children appear in Chinese art in many contexts, often serving as paragons of Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist virtue, and as embodiments of adult aspirations. The 100 Boys motif is frequently thought to symbolize the sons of the founder of the Zhou Dynasty (1027-256 BC), Zhou Wenwang ( 周文王). He was blessed with 99 sons from his 24 wives and adopted an orphaned baby boy to make an even auspicious 100.
The silk panel shown here also possesses some design details that point to Buddhist roots, most prominently the ancient and auspicious Chinese wan (or swastika–make this clickable to our other article) woven into the border. In this religious context, the theme of baby boys is derived from depictions of Buddhist souls reborn in a process known as transformation (huasheng 花生), which can also be read phonetically as “flower-birth,” meaning a baby from the lotus.
The fact that this textile is silk is relevant, too. Silk has an incredibly rich and storied past in China, as evidenced by the 1997 exhibition, When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. At one time China’s most precious commodity and valuable enough to be used as currency, silk played a key role in economics, politics, arts and culture.
During Mongol rule, artisans were exempted from labor and taxes so that they could concentrate on producing luxury silk textiles. Durable and easy to transport and exchange, both painted and embroidered silks afforded the artisan considerable freedom of expression. Within China, to this day, silk is used for peace negotiations, dowries and other rich offerings of friendship. Antique luxury silks are valued for their complex technology and iconography and, at times, thought to embody special powers and elements of magic.
Sang-de-Boeuf Bottle Vase
6″ diameter x 13″ high
Chicago 773.235.1188 Winnetka 847.784.8881
Wen Zhenheng was the Ming Dynasty’s Martha Stewart. A scholar from the late Ming period, Wen documented his philosophy of home design nearly 400 years before the advent of MS Living or Architectural Digest. His Treatise on Superfluous Things remains one of the era’s most compelling glimpses into classic Chinese interior design.
Many scholars refer to the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties (1550 – 1735) as “the golden age of classic Chinese furniture.” Aesthetic tastes tended towards simple, austere wooden furnishings. Ming homes and gardens reflected this sense of orderly restraint-a style that shares much in common with the Zen-inspired minimalism of the 20th century. Wen’s approach to interior design is sharp, insightful, and often funny-he is, by design, a gentleman of the highest order.
Although Wen Zhenheng acknowledges, “methods of arranging furniture are varied,” he advocates an ordered aesthetic based on the underlying structure of nature. Proper arrangements are determined by the room’s function, and décor should change from winter to summer. In hot weather, he recommends that lattices be removed from the windows and replaced with bamboo curtains. Each room, according to Wen, has its model in nature: bedrooms should avoid “the slightest touch of adornment” to be “appropriate for a hermit who supposedly sleeps with clouds and dreams of the moon.” In public spaces, “books and ceremonial wares should also be suitably arranged so that they create a scene resembling lofty clouds, firmania trees, and ancient rocks.”
Studies and Small Rooms
In small rooms, Ming interior design limited furniture placement to a few key pieces. Shelves and cabinets were used to “keep books and paintings in order” and to house “a small gilt Buddha,” but Wen Zhenheng advises that “there should not be too many [shelves]; otherwise, the room looks like a bookstore.” If a study is used as a seating area, it should contain no more than four chairs and a couch-bed. In a very small space, Wen advises placing a writing desk in the center of the room and outfitting it with objects of beauty such as brushes, incense powder boxes, and incense burners.
The bedroom was concerned with the utilitarian aspects of Ming life. Classic Chinese furniture adheres to the same rule that continues to dominate contemporary design: “form follows function.” Simple and unadorned, the Ming bedroom contained one or two sleeping couch-beds (for the homeowner and/or a guest), a small table, two small stools, and a reading lantern. Storage was limited to a garment rack, a cosmetics box, a small cabinet, and a drawer under the bed for shoes and socks. Neutral tones were considered most appropriate for the Ming bedroom-no “colored pictures or painted surfaces.”
Sitting Rooms and Grand Rooms
Like the contemporary coffee table, the Ming sitting table was a surface for display. Table arrangements included books, painting albums, paperweights, inkstones, brushes, and water holders. In contrast, the Grand Room housed a larger, more functional table with long couch-beds on either side. Everything was bigger in the Grand Room-large inkstones, oversized vases, and large pots of orchids decorated this public area.
Ming scholars viewed artwork as a powerful force in the home that should be used sparingly. Wen Zhenheng advises hanging only one painting per room: “It is regarded as vulgar to hang paintings on two walls or hang two paintings symmetrically at both left and right.” According to Wen, hallways should contain horizontal scrolls, while small landscapes and nature paintings (absolutely no fan paintings or square pictures) should be hung in sitting rooms. A “painting table” beneath the artwork should display exotic rocks or seasonal flowers. In small rooms and bedrooms, paintings should not be hung at all. One exception to this minimalist approach is the Grand Room, in which “there is no harm in placing extra miniature landscapes formed with rare peaks, old trees, clear brooks, and white pebbles.”
Vases and incense burners were must-have accessories in a Ming home. Bronze and ceramic were valued over gold and silver. In spring and summer, Ming homeowners dusted off the bronze vases and incense burners. In autumn and winter, the bronze went into storage and ceramic models were used in their place. Incorporated into almost every room, incense sets included a powder box filled with fragrant sticks or chips. Flowers and incense burners were kept separate, as the smoke could damage plants. Floral arrangements were minimal, using one or two types of flowers or-in some cases-only a single bloom. Displayed on low stands, large vases were used in hallways, while small vases adorned more intimate rooms.
A Cornerstone of Contemporary Décor
Little original furniture remains from the Ming dynasty, yet the Ming aesthetic continues to influence interior design to this day. Handcrafted Ming-style furniture retains its popularity in homes across the globe. Wen Zhengheng’s philosophy of functional design and simple materials remains a cornerstone of contemporary décor, not only in Asia but throughout the West as well. In his words, “With only a small table and a couch-bed installed, visitors can recognize a room’s charm.” Quality takes precedence over quantity.
Wen Zhengheng quotes are excerpted from A Treatise on Superfluous Things, translated by Huajing Xui Maske, printed in Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1996.
Feng Shui practitioners rely on directional energy to plan a space, and the Luopan is their compass. Authentic Chinese luopans are beautifully crafted devices, tuned to produce accurate readings within complex scenarios. Dating back 2,000 years to the birth of Taoist Feng Shui, the luopan contains rings of information, each concentric circle relating to different heavenly and earthly energies. At the center of the luopan is a direction finder-the “Heaven’s Pool”-fitted with a magnetized needle that points south.
Luopans come in a variety of sizes, and scale generally increases with complexity. The traditional luopan is composed of two interconnected, rotating dials: a heaven plate (usually made of metal) and an earth plate (often composed of wood). The luopan allegorically embodies the union of heaven and earth; its name translates into “a plate (pan) that holds everything (luo).”
Unlike a normal compass, the luopan is divided into 24 directional lines that radiate outward from its center. These represent the “24 mountains,” a series of directions that correspond to yin or yang elements. A Feng Shui expert uses these 24 directions to determine the facing and siting of a building, ultimately mapping that building’s “birth chart.”
Each degree of the compass gives a reading that allows the Feng Shui practitioner to pinpoint what is right or wrong with a certain area. The practitioner reads the geomantic calculations-contained within the rings of the luopan-and uses this information to derive a solution to the problem. Comparing the luopan’s calculations with other factors, such as the homeowner’s birth chart, the Feng Shui expert recommends ways to promote a room’s inherent good qualities and minimize the harmful features of a space.
Luopans of high quality are rare objects. Contemporary versions often fuse the heaven and earth plates, undermining the luopan’s ability to accurately read a space. Well-crafted luopans, with rotating parts made from traditional materials, are highly valued among Feng Shui experts and lovers of Chinese objects.