A gallery vignette at Pagoda Red.

Once you step inside Pagoda Red, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of Chicago’s industrial West Town neighborhood. The spacious gallery, which includes a magnificent outdoor garden decorated with commanding stone sculpture and vessels, is brimming with exquisitely crafted Asian antiques, modern design, and fine art that spans centuries.

The garden at Pagoda Red.

Founded by Betsy Nathan, Pagoda Red is a favorite among collectors and interior designers thanks to its one-of-a-kind inventory. This skillfully assembled collection is the handiwork of Nathan, who established her first showroom in Chicago in 1997. The daughter of a well-known Chicago gallerist, Nathan grew up surrounded by an eclectic mix of folk and fine art, contemporary paintings, and handcrafted furniture. This unique environment played a pivotal role in shaping Nathan’s aesthetic as well as her taste for honest forms and finely crafted pieces. In the early 1990s, Nathan moved to Beijing to study Mandarin, ultimately falling in with a group of legendary Chinese furniture experts who became her mentors—an experience that would set her remarkable career in motion.

We caught up with Betsy to discuss what she loves most about her field, her advice for collectors, and much more.

Betsy Nathan.

InCollect: How did you get involved with this industry and learn about the material?

Betsy Nathan: While I was living in Beijing, I met some seasoned and influential Chinese furniture dealers. One, in particular, took me under his wing; I’ve learned from and worked closely with him now for twenty years. Through his networks I’ve been able to look at a tremendous amount of wonderful material, spending years developing and training my eye. I made lots of mistakes early on because the material can be tricky, but that was a great way to learn!

InCollect: What informs your approach when acquiring Asian material?

BN: I approach the materials differently than most classical Chinese furniture dealers, many of whom are primarily interested in specific woods since this often determines the furniture’s value. Though I have a deep appreciation for and collect some of these hardwood pieces, I have an appreciation for folk forms that have long been passed over by other collectors. I’ve had a great time collecting outside of traditional spheres.

My mother is a contemporary art dealer and a collector of African art and folk art. That’s the stuff I grew up around, so I have a different approach to this material than most people. I buy what I love—things that seem to be created by people who think differently than others, as opposed to designers and carpenters who follow very traditional forms. Once you let loose from that mindset you can have a lot of fun. It’s a pleasure for me to explore deviations from those traditional paths.

A group of chairs. Courtesy of Pagoda Red.

InCollect: What do you enjoy most about this field?

BN: I truly love my things. They have never tired. They're timeless. I have made incredible relationships with very talented people in China and with designers and collectors all over the world. It has truly opened up the world for me. People come to us from all over. It was shocking when we started shipping works back to China and Asia, which started about six years ago, as the demand for Asian furniture rose. That’s something I wouldn’t have imagined twenty years ago. Last week, there were probably a dozen occasions where young Chinese people came into the gallery and I found myself in the curious position of telling them about these objects from China. China has changed so fast and the young people there haven't experienced this kind of material culture that was very ordinary to their parents and grandparents. They’re fascinated by it and to be a translator in that way is an honor.

InCollect: What is your best advice for young collectors?

BN: I’ll share some advice that my mentors gave me—once you become interested in something, stick with it. It can be almost anything, but you want to educate yourself deeply and then you want to see as much of it as you can. If each year you buy one thing, in twelve years you will have a collection that’s meaningful. But stick with it! With this kind of material, which is really still emerging, things like bound foot shoes aren’t really being collected by a lot of people yet so there’s a lot of opportunity to gain a foothold. Folk art in America is already accepted and respected, but Chinese folk art is still coming along. It’s in its infancy.

Blue and white porcelain at Pagoda Red.

InCollect: When someone has bought something from you, what do you hope they will take away?

BN: We had a client last week who came into the gallery and bought some blue and white porcelain. She called me after she had taken it home and said “I just want to tell you, I had such a great experience.” The experience of acquiring things has changed so much in recent years and it’s great to just look at things and select and learn.

InCollect: Do you live with the kinds of objects you offer? What are some of your favorite objects that you have collected?

BN: I collect Chinese headrests, reverse glass paintings, bound foot shoes, and erotica. I also collect furniture from the early-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the Shanxi Province. At one time, it was a banking center and was home to a lot of wealthy people who, for their stately homes, commissioned works in finishes and configurations similar to folk furniture today. You can tell that the pieces were made for someone in some special way. Those pieces have been my favorite.

An apothecary chest. Courtesy of Pagoda Red.

InCollect: What do you see on the horizon for your industry?

BN: The market has evolved significantly as hardwoods become less and less available. Prices for lacquer furniture, folk art, and provincial furniture have risen remarkably. But there are still opportunities to break into the industry as a collector. It has been incredible to watch the world of Chinese furniture change during the past twenty years. As tastes evolve, the market evolves, and it has been endlessly interesting. It’s also exciting to see how contemporary Chinese artist and designers are juxtaposing the new with the old and using traditional materials in innovative and exciting ways. For instance, one of the artists we work with, Taikkun Li, embarked on a new series that involves creating porcelain apples that he then paints with traditional blue and white landscapes. His works were featured this past spring in a retrospective of 5,000 years of Chinese ceramics at a museum in New Mexico. He was one of four contemporary artists representing this moment in time.

InCollect: Have your tastes evolved over the course of your career?

BN: When I began, I had very little appreciation for traditional Chinese painting. I just had no palate for it. Now, I have really come to enjoy it and I understand the power of a single stroke. Interestingly enough, at the end of September, we’ll be presenting an exhibition of contemporary Chinese ink paintings, which would have never happened at the beginning of my career.

A collection of ten Dreamscape paintings by Liu Jian will go on view at Pagoda Red (400 N. Morgan Street, Chicago, IL 60642) on September 23. For more information, visit https://www.pagodared.com/t/paintings-by-liu-jian