Something Old, Something New
Antique oriental furniture gets modern management
Issue: May 2010
Simply elegant – the bright red of the coffee table and a hint of Chinese influence in the design of the legs gives this piece of furniture an Oriental touch
For Danielle Lee, Sundays were always days spent with her dad. While other girls her age hung out with their friends checking out the latest fashion at stores, she would be with her father at a store of a different kind, checking out the newest sales.
“I would work as a cashier at my father’s shop on Sundays. These mornings usually started with breakfast with my dad and then we would head to the shop together,” recalled Lee. “My cousins used to work for my dad as well and I have fond memories of working with them around. In fact, one of them joined us again recently.”
Keen Interest Honed From Early Exposure
A study in contrast - a Chinese-inspired table used as a modern study table
34-year old Lee is now the director of Just Anthony, one of Singapore’s oldest antique Chinese furniture stores. She is also among a rising new breed of young entrepreneurs who have succeeded the old family business and given it a new twist. The shop, named after her father, Anthony Lee, is one of the most established of its kind here. She took over the reigns of the 30-odd-year old business from her father right after she graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Business Administration degree.
“I have an older brother but he’s not interested in business. I have always been interested in furniture and design so when my father asked me to join the family business, I agreed,” said Lee.
Although she recently got a Master in Applied Finance from the Singapore Management University, Lee has had no formal training in Chinese design or history.
“Back when I was pursuing my degree, there were no interior design degrees available here,” lamented Lee. “I would have done a degree in design then if it was available.”
Danielle Lee - young blood in old trade gives antique business a new life
Instead, what she does have are knowledge and experience culled from years spent at her father’s store in Upper Paya Lebar.
“There is so much to learn from the designs, the motifs, the words on couplets and plaques. It’s just amazing. People always associate Chinese furniture with gaudy, heavy designs, and a lot of intricate carving. This is a big misconception. Many of them are very simple and elegant and timeless. You will be surprised at how well it fits into a modern space and how it can instantly give a nice serene (even scholarly) feel to your home,” enthused Lee.
Lee constantly reads books and magazines to increase her knowledge in the area of Chinese furniture and design.
New Ideas from Old Items
Chinese furniture can be artfully used in a modern setting
Just Anthony not only deals in antique Chinese furniture, they also have their own factory in China that custom makes furniture from a variety of woods including huanghuali, zitan, jichi, elm and camphor. The elder Lee spends most of his time in China supervising the factory and sourcing for new finds, leaving his younger daughter to take care of the business end of things in Singapore.
“When I joined the business, we realised that we had different tastes in design. Some of the pieces that he thought were nice, I didn’t think so and vice versa,” recalled Lee. “But the different items that we picked still sold. So, in a way, our differing tastes helped to widen our clientele.”
Of course, early days in the old business were not without their hiccups.
“Initially, the only small issue was that all the suppliers were my father's generation and I couldn't "clique" with them,” said Lee. “But it is fine now, and there are also many young people working in this business in China.”
A typical day sees Lee working on custom-made orders, arranging the displays in the store, liaising with overseas clients, replying to email enquiries and then working on new designs to add to their collection.
“I take my cue from my customers and what they need. One of the things I did in the earlier years was to improvise on furniture we already had,” said Lee. “We had a slim cabinet that was quite popular. When it got sold, we created other similar slim cabinets with different configurations to meet different needs while keeping to the original design.”
But however adventurous she gets, Lee always goes back to her Chinese roots and draws inspiration from them.
“The design of the Ming-style pieces is very simple; very elegant lines and forms. It is the most popular. A lot of reproductions are based on this style. However, late Qing country furniture is also very attractive in their own ways. They may be less refined because they are used by peasants, but the primitive is full of character,” said Lee.
Rooted in Tradition, Growing Towards the Future
Chinese furniture need not be heavy and ornate, the inter-locking ring motif of the book shelf gives it an Asian touch without affecting its clean lines
And while Lee may inject new blood into an old business, lessons from the senior Lee over the years have also proved invaluable.
“From my father, I learnt all about the distinct styles of the different provinces of China, the different structures and construction of the furniture, the different types of wood and what to look out for to help me ascertain the use of the furniture, for example, if it was used for a wedding,” said Lee.
The knowledge gained has helped her to value add.
“If you want the attention to be focused on just one single piece, the pieces around it should be simpler and not grabbing for attention as well. If you are decorating your home on your own and not sure how to mix and match, simple Ming-style pieces is a safe bet; they mix well with modern furniture and also gives a distinct oriental look,” said Lee.
And the most memorable of her customers must be American comedian, screen writer and director, Rob Schneider, whose big screen outings like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and The Hot Chick have tickled an international audience.
“He was very quiet and spoke mainly through his manager. But he bought a Shanghai painting from us,” said Lee.
At the end of the day, what keeps Lee in the business is always the customers.
“When we find something that is very good, we prefer to share it. And it gives us more pleasure when a beautiful piece finds an owner that loves it as much as we do,” said Lee.