January 2, 2018
Betsy Nathan's Pagoda Red Specializes in Antique Chinese, Asian & Handcrafted Furniture
Betsy Nathan's love of Chinese and handcrafted Asian antiques brings designers from all over New York to her fantastic Chicago shop, Pagoda Red.
by New York Spaces
NYS: How did you first become interested in Chinese antiques, and how did that passion evolve into Pagoda Red?
Betsy Nathan from Pagoda Red: I met a Chinese furniture dealer when I moved to Beijing in the mid 1990s to study Mandarin. 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.
Working with different dealers and experts over time, I came to understand authentic lacquer, hardwood and softwood furniture. My appreciation for the craft of brilliant carpenters who worked centuries ago continued to grow. I traveled all over Asia, searching for examples that spoke to me.
I was fascinated by the lifestyle of the sophisticated people in Shanxi Province during the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, Shanxi was a major banking center, so there were many people there in positions of wealth that allowed them to commission beautiful things. They were the patrons of architects and artists. They lived in courtyard homes with 18-foot ceilings. They painted with ink in their art studios, as they contemplated poetry and unusual specimens from nature. They experimented with different lifestyles—living with few but marvelous things. They also spent extended time in parks with other likeminded people, playing drinking games, having thoughtful conversations, and living creatively.
I brought my collection and these ideas home with me. In 1997, I decided to open a place in Chicago, where I could share these beautiful things with my friends. I named it Pagoda Red because pagodas are traditional structures that house auspicious things. Red means strength. Our first space was in a loft in Bucktown; it was an exciting place to develop our identity. We moved to Fulton Market in 2015. Over the last 20 years, we incorporated African art, contemporary art and some contemporary furniture into the mix.
NYS: What has your favorite piece been, and where is it now?
Betsy Nathan: One of my favorites was a very traditional Huanghuali Wine Table. Over the years, I've acquired a few pieces of furniture crafted from this precious hardwood—it's considered an imperial quality wood.
Aside from being absolutely 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.
Our edit resonates. 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. We're told that our pieces transcend culture and communicate the beauty of craft, the texture of time and how perfect the imperfect can be.
NYS: Your business seems to have really struck a chord with New York buyers. How has the role of antiques in the city developed over the years?
Betsy Nathan: In New York, there's been a growing community of designers, aesthetes and makers who have redefined luxury. It's not about having the same things as everyone else; it's about finding pieces that are unique, handmade and soulful. When something is made by hand, and it's lived several lifetimes in different spaces, it carries a certain spirit within it. We've always believed this, and our collection is full of these kinds of storied, soulful objects. It resonates with New Yorkers today, who are looking for ways to thread history and culture through modern life. Modern designers love our pieces, because they bring warmth, depth and balance to contemporary spaces.
NYS: What is it about Asian and African antiques that resonates so much with designers and buyers today?
Betsy Nathan: The forms of Asian and African antiques are often quite elegant and simple, but they have a rich
and beautiful texture that comes from the passage of time. That kind of character can't be duplicated. Many Asian and African objects were used in auspicious ways or ceremonially, and that brings with it a certain meaning. In this day and age, we're all craving depth and connection. Our pieces connect people with time, rituals and rites of passage. Their timelessness helps to anchor a space. Our pieces are forever in every way—and have already survived lifetimes.
NYS: How do you define style?
Betsy Nathan: Style communicates. When it is good, it is personal and doesn't come across as performance or status. Great style doesn't have to be elaborate—how you position an object can give it an attitude and provide insight into your spirit. Even a uniform can come across as unique— it's how you wear it that matters.
NYS: Your website features so many stunning pieces across a wide range of styles and periods. How do you go about curating Pagoda Red's collection?
Betsy Nathan: We only offer what I love. If I wouldn't have it in my own house, I won't offer it to others for theirs.
NYS: What are your tips for blending your pieces with more contemporary designs?
Betsy Nathan: Ancient wabi sabi philosophy provides real insight for our time. It hinges on the idea that nothing is finished and nothing is perfect. When you understand this, it opens up a lot of freedom for a designer. Our wabi sabi brings soul and depth to the contemporary, and the contemporary breathes fresh life back into the ancient. They need each other for a space to feel complete. The dialogue between time periods and cultures is timeless.
NYS: How does the design scene in your home base of Chicago differ from the demands of New York?
Betsy Nathan: We seem to deliberate and take our time more here in Chicago. Sometimes in our Chicago galleries, we feel like we're discussing something with a committee of sisters, friends and neighbors. From my experience, I've noticed that New Yorkers don't hesitate. They know that if they see something they love and don't make a decision, someone right behind them will.
NYS: If you could have grown up anywhere, where would it be? How would that influence your taste?
Betsy Nathan: I love the home I grew up in outside of Chicago. My mother, Ann Nathan, had a contemporary art gallery in Chicago, which she opened in the mid-1980s. She is now 92, and just closed her gallery. She has always been a true visionary.
She and my father raised me and my three siblings amidst their very personal collection of outsider art, contemporary masters, found objects and iconic furniture. I'm the youngest and trailed along with her as a child. I remember visiting the folk artist Howard Finster at his home in Georgia, and taking road trips to see furniture makers in Wisconsin. My parents hosted parties at our house with Roger Brown, Karl Wirsum and Don Baum in the 1970s. My mom sent my old Osh-Kosh overalls to the New York artist Red Grooms for his daughter, Saskia, who was a few years younger than me. My mom instilled a great sense of curiosity in me, and also taught me to quietly observe, look and listen.
I was an accident 10 years after my next sister, so my siblings were kind of additional parents to me. They traveled 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 it was listening to their stories that sparked my interest in Asia.
NYS: You've branched into Japanese and African collections—what's next for Pagoda Red?
Betsy Nathan: We're developing a contemporary line of tables that feature meditation stone specimens. I love how these tables will bridge the old with the new. For centuries, meditation stones inspired artists, poets and calligraphers to create. I love the thought of translating this idea into modern living, and weaving these historically important objects and notions into spaces for today.
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