Surrounding the space is an ethereal garden. Even amongst the cold winter air, the lush greenery manages to surround the space.
Fine China lines the entrance. It serves as a prelude to the luxurious pieces that call Pagoda Red home.
To get a deeper understanding of the Pagoda Red space and philosophy, we had a chat with the founder Betsy Nathan. She shares her inspiration behind the space, the beauty of Chinese artifacts, and the future of Pagoda Red.
Without further ado, let’s enter the Pagoda.
The Journey to Pagoda Red
TCL: Betsy, tell us about the moment you first became interested in the world of furniture. What piece from your memory sticks out to you?
BN: The old Ritan furniture market in Beijing was a stone’s throw away from the apartment I lived in over 20 years ago in China. I would wander through the market every day, and a 30-year veteran collector of Chinese antiques approached me. To this day, he is my mentor, a real guru. He calls me his “tudi,” (apprentice). I’m so fortunate that such a highly respected dealer took me in. He’s treated me like family, and I’ve toured the country with him many times. I remember the first piece I purchased, an apothecary cabinet with dozens of drawers and original labels with the names of the Chinese herbal medicines that it once contained. Constructed without a single nail or screw, I thought it was the most interesting thing I had ever seen.
TCL: What lead you down the path to becoming a Chinese furniture dealer?
BN: In reality, I thought my interest in Chinese furniture and art was more of a hobby. At the time a friend asked me to help him start a business with Chinese furniture, I was experimenting with Chinese herbs to create a face cream. My friend decided to go in another direction and I didn’t want to disappoint my friends in China—so I picked up the pieces and haven’t stopped… it is now 20 years later.
The Beauty of China
TCL: Chinese furniture definitely has a unique and recognizable aesthetic. What is it that you like about Chinese furniture?
BN: I find the forms of Chinese furniture sculptural. Unlike many Chinese furniture dealers, who appreciate the timbers, I truly appreciate the forms. I love the classical Roundback Chair, and almost every variation on it. I find it fascinating how the Roundback Chair inspired Western design and influenced so many of the shapes we associate with modernism.
TCL: How can we distinguish Chinese furniture and artifacts from other cultures?
BN: Chinese furniture and artifacts are beautiful inside out, upside down and backwards. Traditional furniture is not built with nails or screws but is constructed completely with mortise and tenon joinery. Each piece is an amazing puzzle, a masterpiece of complex carpentry. Total integrity, nothing superficial.
The Chinese Furniture Dealer
TCL: For those who don’t know, what exactly is a classical Chinese furniture dealer?
BN: Classical Chinese furniture dealers look for prime examples of Ming and Qing dynasty furniture, dating from about 1400 and forward. I do not consider myself a classical Chinese dealer. I truly enjoy the provincial forms too—things that have their own particularities and don’t follow such formalities. I have utter respect for the classical forms, but also how to understand the wonderful idiosyncrasies that took place in Shanxi in the 18th century. When wealthy Chinese merchants were commissioning furniture in Shanxi province, they were making bespoke pieces. That furniture helped me understand not just the beauty of Chinese design, but the sophistication of Chinese culture that drove the form and craft, and that’s been the most interesting part of Chinese antiques for me.
TCL: Let’s talk about the beginning of Pagoda Red. What lead to the creation of this space?
BN: It wasn’t such a clear path. As I mentioned before, it began when I was trying to help a friend who was interested in pursuing Chinese furniture as work… for me, it was more of a personal interest. When my friend ran into some problems, I didn’t want to see him fail. In helping him, Pagoda Red ultimately took off. I never imagined that it would lead me into the wonderful world of design that I have found. Every day I am inspired not only by collectors in China but our clients all over the world, many who are interior designers that place our pieces amidst their truly amazing projects.
TCL: When selecting the name, what made you decide on Pagoda Red?
BN: Pagodas are traditionally considered places that house auspicious books… I extrapolated a bit and consider our “pagoda” a place for auspicious things. In China, red means strength and power.
TCL: When walking through Pagoda Red, what are some of the items we may come across?
BN: At Pagoda Red each thing is selected for some quality that makes it extraordinary. 19th century baskets in fantastic forms, Shanghai deco furniture upholstered in French fabrics, sublime Japanese screens leafed in platinum and gold, provincial tables with surfaces that have aged to achieve textures that can’t be duplicated, blue and white porcelain, apothecary jars and chests with legacies of lives lived. I believe that each has a spirit: some light, some heavy, some to bring peace and others to excite. I love ancient with modern. They fill each other with meaning, and the contrast further defines each one.
TCL: How do you go about in selecting items for the gallery?
BN: There are times I enter warehouses in China with thousands of things and end up with only one. I select every item myself and then I work with our team of conservators to specify any restoration required. A beautiful object can be destroyed if it is touched by too heavy a hand. Many things require nothing more than some wax and TLC to bring back the lustre of the timber and the original lacquers.
The Pagoda Experience
TCL: When walking into the gallery what do you want the experience to be?
BN: From the moment you enter our serene garden in the midst of the urban jungle of the West Loop, I want people to feel like they have been transported someplace that inspires—a place to find things that can’t be found anywhere else.
TCL: What is it that you love most about Pagoda Red?
BN: I love the adventures and connections that Pagoda Red has brought me. During the past 20 years, the friends I have been working with in China have become family. I have learned so much about their culture which has given me great perspective on ours. I love to see the way our design clientele reimagine objects: ponds lined with meditation stones, East Coast conservatories with Chinese lattice walls, courtyard doors concealing coat closets… brilliant and endlessly interesting to work together.
TCL: I noticed you have a garden, what made you want to include a garden in the Pagoda Red experience?
BN: As in traditional Chinese art, the natural world is where it all begins. So much of our collection is rooted in the natural world—scholars’ rocks, organic forms and textures. It is a luxury, to have an outdoor environment in which to show our meditation stones, hitching posts, vessels and ponds. A seamless experience with nature enhances every space and most moments. I love to enjoy my lunch and calls outside when I can. We host clients in the garden frequently. A break beneath the allay of cherry trees has sparked many ideas and friendships.
BN: The concept of wabi sabi… how the richest beauty is found in the imperfect—textured lacquers, doors graffitied during the cultural revolution, monks’ robes that are patched in brocades, Tibetan paintings with motifs that are indecipherable mantras, bronze Buddhas that show where they have been touched. Our space was industrial and at one time finished with Indonesian tiles that have broken just right. The old timbers in the bow trusses amplify the space and give our pieces the room they need to breathe. The garden flows to the indoors—there is great tension between the industrial feeling of the space and the way it is finished with treasures to live with.
TCL: Where do you see the future of Pagoda Red?
BN: Our future will evolve in better showing our clientele not only the things to bring to the mix we love, but also how to do it! So we have expanded with a great collection of African art, mid century furniture and are also working with some very talented contemporary artists…together this makes a collected environment—the kinds of personal spaces that call to be lived in, loved and appreciated.
Thanks to Betsy Nathan for speaking to me. If you wish to learn more about Pagoda Red visit PagodaRed.com Be on the lookout for future events and activities that they’ll have at their gorgeous space.
Photo of Betsy courtesy of Betsy Nathan