Pearl Lam: A Shanghai Auntie Mame
By CHRISTOPHER MASON DEC. 20, 2007
“It’s quite bonkers,” Pearl Lam said of her 22nd-floor, 9,700-square-foot loft in the French Concession district here. The apartment, a mix of ancient Chinese artifacts and Western and Chinese contemporary art and design, may in fact be the wildest interior in the city. Decorated over the course of the last four years, it is also one of the most impressive — not to say overwhelming — showcases of the work Ms. Lam champions through her Contrasts gallery, which now has four branches in China.
Ms. Lam, a daughter of the late Lim Por-yen, a Hong Kong tycoon, has been a pioneer in the Chinese art world. With the 1993 opening of the first Contrasts, in Hong Kong, she began promoting Chinese contemporary art long before it enjoyed even a hint of its current worldwide popularity, or fetching the jaw-dropping prices it now does. (On Oct. 12, Sotheby’s sold Yue Minjun’s “Execution” for $5.9 million, a record price for Chinese contemporary art at auction; six weeks later, the record was superceded by a Christie’s sale of a set of 14 gunpowder-on-paper drawings by Cia Guo-Qiang for $9.5 million.)
She is also proving to be a major force in the emerging market for Chinese contemporary design. In September, she launched the Design Consulate, a branch of Contrasts in Shanghai, which shows work by designers who share her keen interest in cultural cross-fertilization. The gallery’s current exhibition, “The Essence of Chinese Sensibility,” includes work by XYZ, a group of four young Chinese designers that Ms. Lam said she had bullied into the profession, and by Shao Fan, a sculptor and painter whose “deconstructed” chairs merge elements of traditional Ming-style furniture with contemporary materials and styles.
Outspoken, enthusiastic and prone to shrieks of excitement, Ms. Lam is like a wound-up Chinese Auntie Mame. She stands just five feet five in high-heeled boots, but is a striking physical presence in her fuchsia-dyed chinchilla coat and her mauve-streaked hair, which resembles an unkempt chrysanthemum.
Her super-size persona, too, makes an indelible impression. Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, calls her “a force of nature,” while Hervé Aaron, a leading Paris antiques dealer and a longtime friend of Ms. Lam’s, is more direct: “Pearl is sometimes insane,” he said.
MS. LAM divides her time among homes in Hong Kong and London as well as here, but it is in Shanghai, she said, that she has come to feel most at home, after a rocky start.
“I never wanted to live in Shanghai — it was too near Hong Kong, my mother’s home,” she said. “I wanted to be free from familial obligations and pressure.” But she came to the city at her parents’ insistence, in 1992, after graduating from the University of Buckingham in England. She was assigned to oversee the construction of 41 Hengshan Road, the high-rise luxury tower where she now lives, which was built by her mother, Koo Siu-ying, a real estate developer.
The project was often “a nightmare,” Ms. Lam said. “I fired I don’t know how many contractors. A lot of them weren’t used to the standard I wanted, so there was lots of redoing. A friend of mine said it was like we were building a spaceship in the jungle.”
Nevertheless, she fell in love with Shanghai. “This is where I learned to become Chinese,” she said. “I’d never been proud of my heritage because I’m from Hong Kong, where we’re not English, and we’re not Chinese. Before that I didn’t even like Chinese furniture. I saw it as grandmother’s furniture, boring and uncomfortable. But then I discovered Shanghai Deco.”
Standing in her long, narrow living room, which runs along the northwest side of the building between two terrace gardens, one Western and one Chinese, Ms. Lam pointed to a pair of sleek 1930s armchairs. The Shanghai Deco style was a local interpretation of Art Deco practiced by craftsmen between the 1920s and 1940s; its fusion of East and West sparked her interest in the crossing of cultures, she said.
In 1993, she began inviting Western designers — Tom Dixon was among the first — to come to Shanghai and design objects to be made by Chinese craftsmen. More recently, she has funded an artist-in-residence program, housed in a space above one of her galleries, for Western and Asian designers exploring cultural boundaries.
Her home has become a showroom for her ongoing hybridizing campaign. One of its most striking products is a sofa in her living room by Mattia Bonetti, the Paris designer, which Ms. Lam commissioned for an exhibition on cross-cultural influences that was shown at the National Museum in Beijing in 2005. From a distance, the sofa seems to be printed with images from French and Chinese magazines and newspapers, including a glamour-girl portrait of Ms. Lam on a leopard-skin rug and a page from a gay bondage magazine. On closer inspection, it turns out to be delicately hand-embroidered.
“We realized that most of the Chinese crafts had disappeared,” Ms. Lam said, “so we have to make something modern that makes a new use of the craft.” (The twin of the sofa, which belongs to Mr. Bonetti, is currently on display in New York at the Museum of Arts & Design as part of an exhibition called “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery.”)
Ms. Lam also commissioned Shao Fan to create an oversize version of one of his deconstructed chairs for her apartment. The result is an amalgam of three traditional Ming-style chairs combined with a modern wooden bench painted scarlet. It could loosely be described as a sofa, but one unlikely to appeal to a couch potato.
“It’s like all Chinese furniture,” Ms. Lam said. “Shao Fan’s sofas are not exactly comfortable, but they make people look good when they’re sitting on them because you must sit upright.”
The apartment is designed for grand entertaining. There are no interior walls in the vast living space, and in lieu of them, Ms. Lam has used old Chinese artifacts — a pair of studded iron doors and a 19th-century cabinet — to delineate a dining area in the middle. (Sight lines are also obscured with a dozen or so cutout aluminum screens, in swirling arabesques, designed by Danny Lane, a London artist.)
Ms. Lam, who calls herself a frustrated designer, drew up her own plans for the 52-foot-long table that fills the dining area, with the idea of separating it into smaller sections for more intimate dinners. “I did not take into account the glass top,” she said, which is so heavy that she cannot break up the segments. The table seats 66, though she is quick to point out that her dinners aren’t always so ambitious. “Very often I have 40 to 50,” she said. At a Sunday dinner in late October, a black-uniformed fleet of waiters served six courses to 40 people on plates that they were obliged to insert between the fingers of white porcelain hands, one pair for each guest, sometimes with difficulty. (“They’re all handmade,” Ms. Lam explained later, “so the shapes of the hands are all slightly different.”)
Ms. Lam also designed the two light fixtures over the table, each about four feet in diameter, in which peacock and ostrich feathers and sewn-together Chinese traditional woven buttons, called frogs, are used to create the shapes of Western chandeliers. “The table is very straight and simple,” she explained, “so I wanted a chandelier which is O.T.T., over the top, using all exotic materials.”
With the exception of Mr. Bonetti’s sofa, all of the upholstered furniture in the apartment is covered in outlandish fashion fabrics — “home furnishing fabric is so boring,” Ms. Lam said. An eye-popping swirl of pink, red, mauve and black striped silk adorns a formal 18th-century gilt-wood sofa, and the cushions of the 66 gold ballroom chairs around the dining table are upholstered in mauve and electric yellow.
Overall, the effect is whimsical and absurd, a Chinese version of Pee-wee’s playhouse. Plywood cutouts in the shape of flowers, designed by Ms. Lam and painted white, are suspended from the ceiling in the dining area, and cartoonlike panels shaped like clouds hang from the living area ceiling at varying heights. At night, concealed pink lights above the cutouts lend a phantasmagoric glow. The plaster walls have deeply grooved, swirling patterns, created using wooden templates. Visitors enter the apartment for cocktails on its west side, where the arrangement of furniture and objects is symmetrical, then move to the long dining table and, after dinner, toward the east side of the apartment, where the art and the furniture, including a curlicue loveseat upholstered in a pink-and-black zebra print, are asymmetrically laid out.
“When you arrive at my house it’s more formal,” Ms. Lam said, “but then after a few drinks during dinner you will be more relaxed in a more vibrant and lively room.”
As much as she has made herself at home here, Ms. Lam can’t seem to stay put very long. At the October dinner, she had been in Shanghai for just a few hours, having taken a booth at the Design Art London fair the week before, and would be off again in a few days for an exhibition at Mr. Aaron’s Paris store, the Didier Aaron gallery, which she had redecorated in a wacky combination of 18th-century French furniture and contemporary Chinese design.
“Pearl has the great qualities of being extremely dynamic and extremely inventive,” Mr. Aaron said. “What she does is not always the best taste,” he added. “But she gets things moving.”