bonnie tsui


A Global Flair Enlivens the Hunt for Home Goods

View Article Clipping

Vancouver is known for a globally inspired culture that celebrates East-West fusion. Now those design influences have moved with gusto into the Canadian home arena.

The trend is evident in the latest crop of Asia-Pacific import shops that have popped up here, many with an emphasis on distinctive interior design that includes vintage and contemporary housewares and furniture.

At Kozai, a Japanese furniture and lighting gallery that opened last year in the South Granville neighborhood, everything is designed and custom-built in Japan by artisans using hardwoods and native materials such as washi (traditional handmade art paper). Free-form Hokkaido tables in Japanese oak and American walnut are crafted around the wood’s original shape, though most other tables are typically built to order. Much of the furniture available in the domestic Japanese market is quite different from what is available outside of the country, says shop owner Ron Cromie.

“Domestic Japanese design tends to celebrate the wood in its natural state — even the splits and the imperfections,” says Cromie. Over the last five years, during which he lived in Japan, he became aware of the country’s strong design culture and made it a point to import back to Canada the Japanese design work that was not available in North America. His shop, Cromie says, is a reaction to recent European design trends that focus on beautifully styled furniture but tend to lack warmth.

“We’re trying to bring the feeling of more warmth and solidity to the home with the hardwoods and their organic nature,” he says. “Wood is something very tactile; when people come into the shop, the first thing they want to do is touch and run their hands over the surfaces.”

The focus on evoking warmth extends to the soft ambience created by the shop’s three lines of lighting, made from wood and in some cases washi. Lights designed by the well-known Japanese artist Horiki Edo (her work is at the prime minister’s residence in Tokyo, as well as in stage backdrops for the cellist Yo-Yo Ma) have no inner frame. Instead, the paper used to build the fixture has its own structural integrity. The artist uses a traditional material in an innovative, modern way to create what is in essence light sculpture. Prices range from $550 to $900.

Simplicity and clean lines are also on display at Peking Lounge, though the vessels are mid-century modern Chinese furniture and Shanghai Art Deco pieces. Co-owner Michael Bennett opened his shop a year ago to showcase his finds in a contemporary setting, a conscious departure from the cluttered atmosphere that he found common in Beijing’s street markets. Peking Lounge is in a tiny storefront in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown, just steps from the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and the long-established Ming Wo kitchenware shop.

Brightly colored reproduction paper lanterns hang in the windows, above mahjongg sets from 1930s Shanghai and $90 bracelets made with vintage cow-bone tiles dovetailed with bamboo. Low antique tables and painted wooden cabinets — including a prized 200-year-old elmwood armoire with a carved bottom and its original black lacquer finish — are especially attractive to the condo market in Vancouver and tourists looking for smaller specialty items.

A red and green painted wooden cabinet from 1920s’ Inner Mongolia is about $440. Most of the shop’s inventory comes from Beijing and the surrounding provinces, and is secured on buying trips every five months.

A spacious home design outlet in a century-old converted Yaletown factory, Honeycomb Interiors focuses on unique pieces from India. The store’s first line of furnishings concentrates primarily on artisan workshops based in northern India.

“Our specialty is recycled architectural pieces, like an old doorway from Rajasthan made into a bookcase,” says Johanna Duprey, a trained chef who opened the store a year ago with her husband, David, a photographer.

Honeycomb’s furniture and accessories reflect the couple’s aesthetic of quality handmade crafts sold through fair trade.

In the front of the showroom, accessories such as hand-painted enamel boxes and cups, sequined tribal textile cushions patched together from old fragments, and colorful pillows made from sari silk take center stage.

“I love to travel and take the time to make contacts with people,” says Duprey. “You get much more interesting work that way. We work with a women’s collective in Udaipur in Rajasthan; lots of nongovernmental organizations in India have crafts divisions, and they make beautiful silk-cut work: pillows, bedspreads, tableware.”

Painted mango wood screens carved with “tree of life” floral patterns cost about $550, a hand-carved contemporary sleigh bench is $600, and an iron jali (“open fretwork”) table costs $290. The store’s look is eclectic, interspersing 1940s teak furniture with hanging colored glass lanterns.

“We find lots of clients mixing our ethnic ornate pieces with midcentury modern,” Duprey says. “And because we try to do fair trade, we can sell our pieces at moderate prices.” Whimsical items such as hand-carved fabric printing blocks are $11 each, and heavy wood and iron wall hooks are $42.

New 20-foot containers filled with home goods arrive every six weeks or so, and the Dupreys are hoping to expand their product sourcing to Morocco.

Vietnam is the muse at Sate, a vividly colorful “lifestyle essentials” shop with inventive window displays in South Granville.

Most of the products (shiny lacquerware, intricately embroidered silk kimonos and pajamas, woven bamboo bowls) come from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, where co-owner Lorne Tyczenski meets with craftspeople twice a year to go over design concepts. The buying is done from Vancouver, and regular suppliers ship periodic containers as they finish agreed-upon works.

“The idea for the store came from a trip to Vietnam,” says Tyczenski. “We saw so many beautiful fabrics and materials — linens, silks, lacquer, wood furniture — that we knew would do well in Vancouver, and we saw the potential to bring it all back.”

The store has done well in its first year-and-a-half. Among Sate’s most popular items are crushed silk dresses, particularly handy for travel, and an extensive line of silk and linen handbags, ranging from understated evening clutches to more casual, funky shoulder bags with big flaps and embroidered red dragons ($30 to $185).

“But above all, lacquerware is our main seller,” says Tyczenski. Indeed, the shop has an impressive collection of Vietnamese tableware and home accessories: serving trays in navy, salmon, and pale yellow; pink paperweights; plates and bowls in bright blue-green ocean hues; even framed lacquer paintings of flowers hand-processed on wood.

Sate also imports Vietnamese coffee (a half pound of Trung Nguyen is $5.15, “cheaper than Starbucks and a lot better,” says Tyczenski with a laugh). The coffee beans, grown in the central highlands of Vietnam, have a rich, complex, chocolate flavor. Visitors to the store can buy a cup of the aromatic coffee then browse for a new chair to sit in and enjoy it. Vintage furniture finds from early- to mid-20th-century Vietnam sit alongside contemporary spins on traditional Chinese-style hardwood tables, chairs, and cabinets.

Imported antique furniture from China can be found at Pacific Orient Traders, in Yaletown. Founded by Richard Krajchir, the company has its own finishing facility in southern China and showrooms around the world, including in Guam and Honolulu.

The three-year-old Vancouver shop is strong in distinctive, one-of-a-kind home design accessories, such as yellow painted pillow-style jewelry boxes ($172) and a pair of tiny red and green elmwood stools from the Qing Dynasty ($230 a pair).

Buyers do all their purchasing in China, though sometimes they will bring back Korean or Tibetan items; 80 percent of all pieces are true antiques, while the rest are labeled copies. Most of the inventory comes from markets in Shanghai, and most are from the late Qing Dynasty era (19th and early 20th century).

Inventory in the showroom has a quick turnover, but on any given day you’re likely to find items such as hat-style chairs in elm and fir, long medicine chests, ceramic wick lamps, and Fujian polychrome wood Buddhas from northern China (all $20 to $1,525). Potential buyers can e-mail the store with dimensions and request e-mailed images of what is in stock.

Shoppers who want to experience the thrill of the hunt themselves can visit tiny Travel Trunk Imports; the small space is chock-full of “unique pieces from unique places,” such as red cloth Chinese lanterns, silk brocade pillows, and imported Thai silk scarves, and the owners have begun taking limited numbers of clients on buying trips throughout Southeast Asia.