There is an emerging trend favouring rarity, whimsy and history, writes Amanda Suriya Ariffin
YOU may wonder about the logic behind the decision to acquire a piece of vintage or retro decor that costs more than what some people earn in a month. But when you consider that a space as personal as your home contains mass-produced pieces which could inspire labels like cookie-cutter or, worse, herd-mentality vanilla, you may understand the logic.
This, and curiosity, lead me to sniff out the story behind the elegantly sparse collection in The Curiosity Shop, in the wonderfully bohemian Art Row at Publika.
It’s more than about quality, I discover, when I chat with the friendly manager, Danny Ho. The 27-year-old is extraordinarily knowledgeable and feels no reticence in sharing the eclectic stories about these decor conversation pieces.
I cast my inquisitive gaze about the cosy store with its contrasting stone floor on which stands a collection of long-forgotten oddities, one-off design pieces and hard-to-find antiquities.
The stories behind these pieces are well worth the price tag.
“Sometimes I learn from customers too,” he says, smiling as he unravels his journey.
Ho, who has a passion for aesthetics and an unwavering curiosity for experimentation, began his foray into furnishings and decor in 2006 with an outlet (housed in a duplex pre-war house) in Changkat Bukit Bintang’s Jalan Berangan when he was merely 21. He had met successful stockbroker Lang Chua then, who is an ardent collector of antiquities, curios and rarities. “She’s more hard-core (collector) than me,” he says.
“It’s not an instantly successful business that yields regular income,” he concedes without a trace of regret. “Slowly through word-of-mouth and social media such as blogs and more recently, Facebook,” he adds, “business has picked up after the first four years.”
The customers are mostly expatriates, (“young, in their 30s, married but childless couples”, he adds) and “because they are familiar with the designs and they are used to the lifestyle associated with these pieces”.
“They had the same idea that they didn’t want mass-produced items, and with the long-term view that they want to bring these items back home when they leave the country.”
He also gets local customers who want new furniture for Raya and Chinese New Year. They often seek his advice on redecorating.
BUILT TO LAST
Dining chairs and the sofa sets are initially the faster-moving items but the outlet in Publika holds some hand-picked rarities that elicit unforced admiration, such as the stand-alone simple leather chair with the hefty price tag.
Manufactured in the 1950s by Knoll in the US, this original leather chair, part of a pair, has already been sold and its twin is en route via shipment as we speak. But, says Ho, the manufacturers stopped production in the 1960s. Looking at it, you’d never think it is that old, as it looks new, but, as Ho assures me, “you can’t find a new piece anymore.”
A 24-drawer Art Deco free-standing teak cupboard intrigues me and I press for details. “It belonged to a clinic in Penang,” he says, opening the top drawer. “You can still see the original tags on the front,” he continues, pointing to the yellowed but intact paper fronting each drawer. How old is this piece?
“From the 1940s,” he says, chuckling. As he reads out the five-digit phone number on the original tags, he tells me of the unique vertical-bar central locking mechanism borne of “old-fashioned carpentry where no nails, but screws, were used” that negates the need to lock each and every single drawer individually. Found in a Penangite’s private collection, this piece of history will set you back four figures. But it is beautifully well-preserved. It is a one-off and Ho has yet to find anything like it.
“I didn’t know what was inside when I found it,” he says. “I simply liked how it looked.”
And his answer is an emphatic and unapologetic ‘no’ when I ask if he had had restoration work done to it. So you see, these things were built — then — to last. Decades.
“If you ask any carpenter nowadays to do a similar one, they’ll tell you they won’t do it,” he adds.
It’s not all about designer items here. This is patently obvious by the inclusion of the late-18th Century camera sourced from a Japanese battleship that, oddly, does not look incongruous at all sitting among the unmatched chairs and tables. With its iron stand and wooden legs supporting its five-foot high bulk, the camera is the perfect oddity that you would expect an eccentric collector to, err, collect. Upon closer inspection, and as Ho guides his hand around the parts, you see the German lens, is, in fact, intact. A piece of iconic history for sale.
Speaking of icons, the Curiosity Shop is also host to two pieces by the noted industrial designer Eva Zeisel, who passed away in December 2011 at 105. “This ceramic creamer,” Ho shows me, “was made in 1946.”
It is, like everything else, an original, beautifully preserved.
“If nobody wants them, we keep them for ourselves,” says Ho, as I show interest in an 18th Century stacking unit made in luscious and hard-to-find tiger oak. “I had to bid for this one,” he says, laughing as he lovingly lifts the lid and takes an appreciative whiff of the antique-y smell. “It is a competitive market between dealers, art galleries and private collectors.”
There’s even a wooden chair rescued from the set of the film Anna And The King (“obtained from the propmaster”) sitting alongside a round table from France & Son. “I like furniture made by architects,” says Ho, “because they study mechanics — they know how to be exact and precise.
“A lot of these items, I think, are now hot commodities because they trigger memories for a lot of buyers. Maybe it is because of the passing of a loved one — maybe they want to hold on to that memory.
“You have to remember that most of these items were not made for commercial or retail use. But these industrial-design items,” he says, gesturing to other rarities, “people are now looking at industrial-strength items for home use.”
It’s not difficult to see the attraction. Like one’s own DNA or fingerprint, these items are the antithesis of indifferent, impersonal and indistinct mass production. They are, like how a home should feel — special, unique, filled with personal history, and built to last.
Details at www.thecuriositygallery.blogspot.com