A stalwart on the city’s interior design scene, Altfield has been in the business of beautiful homes for 35 years. We spoke to founder Amanda Clark about the brand and all things Chinoiserie when it comes to home decor accessories and furnishings.
Tell us about the early days of Altfield. It was set up 35 years ago when I came out to Hong Kong as a young designer and met my business partner David Halperin. I had grown up in HK, and our business began with a focus on antiques, however with my background in design I very soon added interior furnishings and decorative accessories to the mix. We were certainly one of the first such businesses here to offer lifestyle, interior design, antique furniture and works of art. It’s always been a mix of old and new, East and West, with fine expensive collectable pieces mixed with contemporary versions. I have clients who, like me, were in their early twenties when we began, and are still collecting and decorating with us all these years later.
And how about the business today? Our Altfield Gallery (now in Prince’s Building) continues to flourish but our main business is Altfield Interiors, which supplies about 35 of the top international brands of interior fabrics, wall coverings, leather, lighting and accessories to the interior designer and architectural offices in HK. We opened a showroom in Macau to handle the growth of the casino market there, and then showrooms in Beijing and Shanghai followed; and last autumn we opened in Singapore. Our London showroom is now 20 years old, based in the Chelsea Harbour Design Centre.
Within a couple of years of starting Altfield we had an art studio set up that still creates lovely water colour paintings and screens. Often starting with copies of the antiques we bought and sold, or inspired by the private and museum collections I visited, I started creating a wide range of private label products – such as a line of Chinoiserie designs for mainly American fabric houses like Scalamandré, and products for retailers like Gumps and Neiman Marcus; the larger market overseas allowed us to invest in product development and to have decorative items to sell through our HK outlets. The products varied from paintings to needlepoint cushions, porcelain lamps, wall papers, lacquer or silver wares, and even jewellery. The font of inspiration is so huge and wonderful that I can’t imagine not carrying on creating!
As a designer, where do you find inspiration? I was a child who loved to draw; but while my friends were drawing houses with a front door and a chimney, I was creating floor plans and working out how you could live in a space. My mother was incredibly stylish and I grew up reading her copies of Architectural Digest – in a time before social media and the web and a million images a day flooding into our lives, every image, every page, every item shown was studied and re-studied and thought about. I honestly think that is where my passion for design, art, antiques, style, balance and the art of living comes from.
You’re known for your passion for Chinoiserie; can you tell us a little bit more about that? Growing up in Hong Kong, I was always captivated by the wonderful decorative arts of China, but also with the fabulous mix of cultures that was created by “the China trade” – the Chinese export arts that developed as the country gradually opened up to trade with the West from the 1700s onwards. A sort of fantasy of China was captured in the decorative designs painted on porcelains, silks, fans and walls, and over time a completely new sort of magical decoration developed. One must remember that prior to photography, paintings and drawings were the only glimpses into another country, and China was depicted as a land of exotic pagodas, flowers the size of dinner plates, and butterflies and birds in abundance in every possible colourful combination.
It was seen as a land of gardens and endless summery nature – very intoxicating! The Western appetite for pretty decorative pieces was so strong that they soon began creating their own versions of Chinese designs, including Delft porcelains, lacquer work and printed cottons, which are in fact correctly called Chinoiserie – a Western version of Chinese style. This mix of East and West is always what I’ve tried to create – it is in fact a long tradition. All the fine European houses would have in them a mixture of Chinese porcelains, lacquer, textiles or rugs and watercolour paintings from the China trade, so it’s a continuation in a way of that tradition.
Any tips for those of us who might like to add a little Chinoiserie into our own homes? There’s a strong trend at the moment to bring colour back into decorating. Also, after a long period of very cold and minimalist design, there is a clear move towards layering and cocooning. This involves mixing in products that are going to add colour and charm; as they are usually based on nature, using motifs such as florals, birds, garden settings, it’s possible to bring nature inside in a very appealing way. Also, there’s a strong sense of whimsy in the decorative motifs that adds a light-hearted charm into both traditional or modern homes. I think that there is a timelessness to Chinoiserie designs; for example, blue and white porcelains and fabrics never go out of fashion, and by mixing florals and fretworks that hint of the Orient it does bring into any interior scheme a hint of the exotic.
Altfield Gallery 249 Prince’s Building 10 Chater Road, Central
Altfield Interiors 1101, Nine Queens Road, Central
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