If you’ve ever attended one of my lectures at High Point Market or the D&D geared towards interior designers you’ll inevitably have heard me say “The most important tool you can have in your toolbox is a passport.” Mine is battered, covered with baggage tag stickers and filled with page after page of stamps and visas. In my current passport, I have only 10 blank pages remaining. (Note to self: Order Extra Pages). Saint Augustine said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” If that’s the case, then I’ve been living a well-read life.
More and more during these last few years, I’m taking time to stop and smell the proverbial roses. As business travel is a regular part of my life the easiest way to do this is adding days onto each trip to bookend a business trip. This last month has had a heavy focus on travel – with my vacation to China followed by a business trip across the USA to High Point, New York, Boston and London.
Often as an individual I’ve got my eyes set on the horizon looking towards the destination – I sometimes get so busy considering my plan and next steps of action that I forget to celebrate the milestones.
I dream big.
And in order to achieve big things – it’s necessary to dream bigger than everyone else around you.
But life is a journey – not a destination.
As I write, I’m on the train, the Frecciarossa, en route home from Piemonte from Easter weekend with friends. At home on my bedside table is Eckart Tolle’s Power of Now – a reminder to simply enjoy the Great Big Right Now. I’m soaking up the moments – and as a result, I am finding more and more inspiration each day. For design. For writing. But also just for day to day life. I’m cooking more. Being more creative in general. I’ve even pulled out my watercolors which I haven’t played with in years.
Design Inspiration can come from anywhere. Often it’s my travels that inspire me, sometimes it’s an everyday object that I see in a new way, people I meet and places I go that weave themselves into my soul. When my friend Alessandro told me he was moving to China he gave me Andrea di Robilant’s book Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and his Last Muse. He told me the title was important, “Hemingway because you were an English literature major in uni. Last Autumn because it’s my last autumn before I move. And Venice IS your muse.”
He was right. Moving here has inspired me. Venice is an obvious choice for inspiration – but inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. Those who follow me on Instagram were fascinated when they learned that the leather on my Roccoco-style bench in my Antiques Diva Furniture Collection by Aidan Gray was inspired by the designo leather in my Mercedes SUV.
Last week I was struck with Global Design Inspiration while visiting friends in England at the end of a business trip. The entire world was brought to me in one destination. Ascott House is a palace-like Jacobean black and white timbered cottage that was the creation of Leopold de Rothschild and architect George Devey. It’s a quintessentially English Country House with exquisite English antiques standing alongside Dutch and Flemish masterworks and fine French furniture and art. I nearly ran into a Rodin as I stepped backward in the Billards Room turned Library.
In the library I looked around – the room was beyond cozy – but something felt different. It was more casual than one would have expected a formal library. (The photo above makes the space look much more formal than in real life). When I commented on the unusually light color of the wooden library shelves the docent confessed, “though it’s now a National Trust estate the family still uses the property – and they stripped the wood to make the room more airy.” Bingo! I suddenly realized why I loved the house so much. That was the difference. While it is a museum – it’s still a family home part of the year.
It’s the perfect example of how to live with antiques.
But not just any antiques – Ascott House could be the pictorial definition of the word wanderlust. It’s layered with generation after generation of antiques, textiles and embroideries from the Grand Tour and the Silk Road. The Silk Road was the ancient network of trade routes that connected the East with the West. It meandered along the northern borders of China, India, and Persia and wove through Turkey, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. It was important because it helped to generate trade and commerce between a number of different kingdoms and empires but trade was not the only purpose of the Silk Road. Just as on the Grand Tour young men and women learned the most important developments in language, arts, court etiquette, legal and political systems, science and culture, the Silk Road was also about the exchange of ideas.
The more we travel, the more we open our minds.
In a conversation recently with a television producer, I was told that Americans don’t want to see TV shows filmed abroad. “How can you travel the world through antiques if you’re not interested in the travel aspect?” I wondered. It seemed incomprehensible. Was the producer telling me the entire American viewing audience had Xenophobia – the fear of foreign places? I’ve made a career out of making both international antiques and foreign places accessible – I’ve been called the Anthony Bourdain of antiques – that girl who travels the world uncovering lesser-known places and exploring their cultures and antiques – then sharing my #Divascoveries with my followers.
As humans – as humanity – we grow when we’re connected with people and places outside of ourselves. We are all connected. What happens in one part of the world, impacts another. Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? The theory is based upon an idea if you track the path of a hurricane from its inception, you’d see that it was all caused by a change in air pressure caused from the flap of a butterfly’s wings three weeks prior and halfway across the world. The Silk Roads network of connecting pathways changed history because the people who traveled along part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds carried to distant lands.
Bringing your travels home has long been a tradition in interior design. A classic English Country House simply wouldn’t be an English Country House without its global influence – seeds plucked from faraway places and transplanted at home.
Ascott House exemplifies the East Meets West decorating vibe. My favorite room is the living room where you’ll find Ikat silk chapans from Uzbekistan repurposed into Roman Shades. Someone painstakingly de-assembled vintage robes and hand-stitched the fabric together to form patchwork, and then used the patchwork to make the fabric for the blinds. In one corner of the curtain, you can see still see the vague outline of the sleeve of an arm. The whole setting is very Robert Kime – one of my favorite London Interior Designers known for his elaborate use of antique textiles, creating what 1st Dibs calls, “comfortable classically English Rooms that his clients – including Prince Charles – say they never want to leave.”
I found myself thinking about travel, collecting and interior design as I toured Ascott House. What is it that makes us desire to see far away places and to bring a piece of it home? Is it a Napoleonic desire to conquest? A holdover from the caveman days of hunting and gathering? Why do we collect? Is it merely a means to give meaning to our lives – making an emotional connection to a period, place or time? Or does it have deeper meaning?
As Ascott House caused me to contemplate my own travel I thought about how antiquing abroad has influenced me over the years. The Antiques Diva started because I was traveling the world. Some people buy a t-shirt on holiday. I buy antiques as my souvenir because that’s what interests me. The French word souvenir means memories, and for me – that’s what I am doing when I antique abroad. I buy memories.
Traveling and antiques have always been intertwined in my mind. As a child, I remember family dinners when my mother pulled out the antique silver that my grandparents brought over with them on the boat from England to America. This cutlery represented not only my family’s heritage but faraway places that influenced how we lived. I saw antiques as a way to be transported to other times and other places.
While traveling in China last month one of my favorite moments was in Kaifeng, the 11th Century Song dynasty capital. My friend and I had stumbled into an antiques and artisans two-story gallery that was partially abandoned. Antique furniture, fragments and tools were propped against walls, while porcelain and lacquerware filled the shelves. Men gathered at card tables played mahjong near their stalls. One of the things I Iike about antiques is that antiques unite us. When you go antiquing, people with different backgrounds, interests and passions collide. Each person can find something that speaks to their soul. My friend Alessandro is a physicist and etno-mathematician. On a purely surface level, we couldn’t be more different if we tried. I lost track of him while we were browsing the stalls and at a certain point, I rounded the corner and saw him bent over a box smiling from ear to ear. He looked up and showed me what he’d found – an antique abacus, a Chinese counting tool. Ironically, he was the one who bought antiques that day – not me.
Meanwhile while touring this gallery I was introduced to something new. I’d become obsessed with the Chinese traditional painting. In the gallery nearly 2 dozen artists had ateliers and you could watch them dip their brushes into black ink or water-based color pigments, creating patterns on paper or silk using traditional themes, materials and techniques. Watching the artist paint felt like peeking through the window into the soul of the country. Guóhua, as traditional Chinese painting is called, is one of the three pillars of Chinese culture (the others being medicine and opera.) Chinese painters tend to learn their craft by copying earlier masters in order to build their foundation.
To understand the past is to understand the future.
Elizabeth Hammer, Head of Sales of Chinese Classical and Modern Paintings at Christie’s New York explains that “the most prized Chinese traditional paintings are those that reveal the artist’s personality and character. It is believed that an evil person cannot make a fine work of art. To really understand an artist’s works, it helps to learn his or her biography, and about the times in which the artist lived.”
Last year during the Architectural Biennale in Venice I met the team from Chanel who were documenting Coco’s life, travels and inspirations for Chanel’s in-house archives. “We need to see what she saw, be influenced by her influences, to design a brand that stays according to her vision.” Once you’ve traveled, that knowledge of a country, it’s people, traditions and architecture, their decorative arts and their environment, the natural world – the subtle sense of a place – will continue to inform you. Hemingway said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
But it’s not just Paris that’s a moveable feast – all your travels – your adventures – are your personal progressive dinner.
For me, while visiting Ascott House my olfactory memory went straight to the Silk Road. Having just been in China last month, my jaw dropped when I walked into Ascott House’s Porcelain Room filled with turquoise and purple-glazed ceramics from the mid to late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) displayed in specially designed bamboo cabinets. The collection was formed by Anthony de Rothschild when he used a buying agent (the 1920’s equivalent of an Antiques Diva Guide) to help him source pieces that suited his tastes.
In the end – that’s what it all comes down to. Taste. Buy what you love. Whether you’re an antique dealer, interior designer, or a private antique buyer – that is the best advice I can give you. Buy what you love. As Elizabeth Hammer of Christie’s explains, “Follow your instinct when collecting and buy something that delights you.”
As I close I challenge you:
Go someplace new. Do something new. Maybe you can’t go to Uzbekistan this week – but you can seek out an Uzbek restaurant. Take yourself on an Artist Date. Last month in New York City we did our first ever Antiques Dealer Training Workshop. Interior designers Justin Shaulis and Robert Passal joined us as guest speakers for a break-out session, advising our attendees on How Antique Dealers Should Work With Interior Designers. While closing, Robert told a personal story of his own career and how he became an interior designer after he read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist Way – a book that also inspired me to launch The Antiques Diva & Co. In her book, Cameron advises each week to take an Artist Date. Make time for yourself – on your own – to do something enchanting. Expose yourself to new places and new ideas. Where will you go on an Artist Date this week?
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Toma – The Antiques Diva
As you walk about the carefully decorated stalls look around – not just at the items for sell, the great floral arrangments and the innovative décor, but at the other visitors to the fair. See that guy over there – he’s a private buyer who just flew in on his private jet. Of course, unless you are a polyglot, you might find eavesdropping on the rich and famous to be a bit difficult. You’re as likely to hear English spoken as you are Russian, Chinese, Aarbic, French, Portugese, German, Dutch or Italian. It’s as if you’ve taken the worlds wealthiest citizens, thrown them in a Baccarat martini shaker and added copious quantities of cologne, silk ascots, and mink. The cocktail comes out tasting a tad Fitzgeraldesque, but with price tags included.
It’s this latter reason that I send you to the show. When you go to a museum you can’t touch the art, you don’t get to see the reverse of the painting and you certainly don’t hear how much money a Monet costs. But at TEFAF, you can do all these things. Entrance for 2 into TEFAF costs more than I spent on the pair of brass turn-of-the-century-Polish candlesticks I bought at a flea market in Gdansk which grace my table, but the cost is worth it. At 55E per person (it does include the stupendous fair catalog – eye candy itself) you might be wondering why I’m sending you there. Unless your budget is a whole lot bigger than mine you most likely won’t be doing any buying at the fair. Consider it a day out window shopping. But, oh honey, the window shopping is good. Down right Divalicious.
I always tell Diva Clients who are interested in learning about antiques to go to the museums. Study the art, study quality and then take that knowledge home with you and out to the flea market and apply it at prices that don’t rival the USA’s national deficit. This is why you go to TEFAF.
Just as TEFAF has vetting committees to guarantee the quality, authenticity and condition of the work (taking works of art that do not meet their high standards out of the dealers possession until the fair is over), I have a Diva Guarantee that will be the finest fine arts fair you’ll ever attend!
The Antiques Diva ™
All Photos by Max-Nathan Punter
Once upon a time, in a land made not-so-far away due to transatlantic flights criss-crossing the globe, making anywhere you want to go a mere hop, skip, and airline ticket away, there was the most interesting of antiques shop located in the “Kingdom of Orange”. Just a stone’s throw away from Holland’s Royal Palace, within waving distance of Queen Bea, S. van Leeuwen Antiques dwells in a charming 18th C mansion complete with a Jugendstil store-front and an original tiled entryway. This shop has been handed down within the “Lion Family” from generation to generation, landing in the capable hands of the stores current proprietor, Alexander van Leeuwen.
For nearly 100 years, S. van Leeuwen Antiques has reigned as a protector of Dutch heritage. Within the walls of the building (which is a national monument in its own right), you’ll find one of my favorite collections of 17th- 19th Century Dutch antiques for sale in the whole of Holland.
S. Van Leeuwen Antiques – The Hague
It’s a funny fact that finding Dutch antiques to buy in The Netherlands is downright difficult. You can roam antique shop after antique shop with varied inventory from around the world without finding nary a Dutch antique one. Though the Dutch have a history for excellence in engraved chests, embossed cabinets, Friesian clocks, heavy brass fittings, Biedermeier and Empire styles with dark colors, heavy furnishings and wood paneling, these locally made items are quite difficult to find. Rarely does an antique shop in Holland stock an extensive collection of locally made furniture, which is why the inventory at S. van Leeuwen first stood out to me as an exceptional exception among its peers.
Alexander showing Diva Clients the inside of a Dutch Armoire
Perhaps this lack of antique shops specializing in strictly Dutch antiques owes to Holland’s seafaring past. You see, even before online boarding passes were being printed on your home computer, Holland had a global perspective. Knowing their country was small and their own language limiting, the Dutch studied languages for centuries, becoming polyglots gobbling up the world’s languages and absorbing its cultures in its seafaring past chocked full of global trade.
Not only did the Dutch explore the world, but Holland also became a refuge to a multitude of a global residents seeking protection from persecution. It was a cultural melting pot long before America claimed that title for its own.
The Empire Commode I coveted at S Van Leeuwen
Over the centuries with new residents from far away countries making their Home in Holland, came foreign furniture styles & designs (as well as an influx of immigrant furniture makers to help fuel the fire). As Holland kept its eye on the world, they were able to pick and choose among the best the world had on offer, designing their own furnishings, borrowing a taste of this and a touch of that to their own well-established traditions.
Wandering through S. van Leeuwen Antiques, I pause before an Empire Commode, “Are you sure it’s not French?” I inquire and Lex laughs as he shakes his head, “No, it was made right here in Holland…” and he goes into a wonderful story, detailing the past of this particular piece.
He tells stories of Dutch furniture makers and points out the various woods, names foreign-sounding villages in the northern most reaches of The Netherlands and as he talks he brings the past to life! “Once upon a time” is indeed a reality!
Pointing to a beautiful blue & white porcelain piece sitting on a ledge, he inquires, “Do you know where this is from?” My immediate response, given that we are in Holland after all, is that “The piece is clearly Delft.” As he shakes his head in the negative he responds, “Before there was Delft, the Dutch conquered the sea, founding the Dutch East India Company, ushering in the great Golden Age. Dutch traders roamed the sea, bringing home porcelain from China and Japan – it was these patterns upon which Delftware was based.”
He lifts a precious piece from a perch and begins to explain the difference between Asian porcelain and Delftware, showing how Chinese & Japanese antique porcelain became true immigrants to Holland, having spawned high-quality Delft reproductions over the years.
To listen to him speak is to obtain a verbal “Masters in the History of Dutch Antiques”. He drops names and dates and you can read his passion on his face as if it were a book with large-print. As he shares his knowledge, my desire to own a piece of the mighty Dutch past grows and as I look about his shop, I’m overwhelmed with choices – much as I’m certain the Dutch have been throughout the generations. They say “the world is your oyster”, but rarely have I seen a country – to mix metaphors here – “suck the marrow from life” as well as the Dutch have… and in S. van Leeuwen Antiques, this jewel of a shop, you find the proverbial pearl in the oyster.
A few of my favorite pieces include:
A Louis XVI Mahogany Buffet with tin sink, made in Holland’s province Zeeland.
Dutch Mahogany Empire Commode, circa 1810
And I’ve saved my favorite 2 pieces for last!
Kruisvoetkabinet (apologies I don’t know the name in English) made in Holland between 1690-1720. Note the strong English influence of this period marked by the marriage of the Dutch Head of State Willem III and the English Queen Mary.
And, last but not least, the piece I want to bring home!
Dutch Renaissance-Style Cupboard, end 19th C
Visit S. van Leeuwen Antiques in The Hague – Antiques Diva Tested, Antiques Diva Approved!
Happily Ever After,
The Antiques Diva™
As often as WG travels, he is usually stuck inside one hotel or another and often forgets which country he is in, needing to read the hotel brochure when he wakes in the morning to remember whether to kiss, bow or shake hands. That said, each December WG’s team at work celebrates the end-of-the-year with a conference in an exotic locale – and from my perspective, these conferences are more about an end-of-the-year-party than actually doing business! At last year’s party, WG called me from London to wish me goodnight from a private cruise on the Thames as Tower Bridge was opening to let his yacht pass and fireworks were exploding overhead. This year I’m expecting a phone call from the Badaling portion of The Great Wall. If I know WG, he’ll be doing Nixon impressions, muttering Richard’s infamous phrase “It sure is a great wall” and I fear my Christmas stocking might be stuffed with an “I Climbed The Great Wall” t-shirt. While his mornings might be filled with lectures on “Doing Business in China” and tours of client sites, his afternoons are packed with outings to The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and The Temple of Heaven.
Don’t get me started talking about the nights… Dinner the first night will be nearby WG’s Beijing office in his lavish hotel, The China World Hotel, which hosts some of Beijing’s best restaurants. One night WG has managed to finagle an invitation for a private tour of The Bird’s Nest, followed by dinner in the area – on the next, he’s been invited to a traditional Tea House for some authentic tea rituals.
The coup de grâce, if you will, is dinner at the Hepingmen Roast Duck restaraunt, a culinary treat WG’s described to me repeatedly as he awes over the art of a perfectly roasted duck. Beijing Duck (also known as Peking Duck for obvious reasons) is served with thin pancakes, plum sauce and slivers of scallions and cucumbers. You dip the duck into the sauce and roll it up like a pancake with the garnish resulting in a mouthwatering combination of the cool crunchiness of the cucumber contrasted against the sharpness of the scallions and the rich, delectable flavors of the duck! On his last night in China he’ll be dining on paper plates at the Donghuamen Night Market where grasshoppers, chicken hearts, yak butter and kidney are prepared while you watch and served straight from the grill – hopping hot!
While all this food sounds incredible, the thing I am most saddened to miss out on is the Panjiayuan Market, whose name translates to “The Dirt (or Cheap) Market”, where next Saturday WG will spend the day scouting for a perfect Christmas present for his lovely bride whom he has forlornly abandoned at home in Holland. Here, amongst 3,000 vendors and 50,000 visitors, WG will haggle and barter for genuine Asian antiques (though I have warned him to be weary of anything that is stamped with the word “genuine”)! He’ll also find Cultural Revolution memorabilia as well as Chinese Arts and Crafts.
Though I’d prefer an antique for Christmas, I’d be willing to accept a vase from Beijing Curio City, or better yet something in silk from Xiushui Silk Market. Perhaps I should be whispering the words “freshwater pearls” to WG as he sleeps, then surreptitiously sneak the address of Hongqiao Pearl Market in his pocket.
I haven’t figured out how he could get it home as pewter tends to be a bit heavy for the luggage, but a friend turned me onto a shop called Tumasek, which carries beautiful, gleaming goblets, trays and chess set
s all made of Malaysian pewter!
Perhaps a more packable present from China would be a set of calligraphy brushes – but, as I am a diva, not any brush will do. I’m dying for 3 new brushes – a weasel hair brush, a goat’s hair brush and a wolf’s hair brush – all of which are essential for perfecting my calligraphy. These, of course, can be purchased at Rongbaozhai, a typical state-run store, which is a bit of a disaster inside but has an excellent selection from which to choose!
With all this shopping WG’s set to do, I wonder how he’ll find any time to do business in China? Such a pity he isn’t taking me along with him, I could have saved him a bundle of time, scouting out my perfect present and perhaps even purchasing it for myself on his behalf leaving him plenty of time for work, work, work!
Until next time, keep your fingers crossed that I get a killer Christmas present out of this blog!
The Antiques Diva™