Shopping: Keeping Eastern promises

Rhiannon Batten finds a purveyor of quality oriental home accessories
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The Independent Culture
WALK DOWN any British high street this summer and you will see just how popular eastern-style home accessories have become. From House of Fraser to Habitat and The Conran Shop, the volume and diversity of eastern goods is striking. If, however, you are looking for something really individual, an item you'll definitely want to keep when the latest trend has been replaced, there is one place that certainly deserves a visit.

Hurrying into Snap Dragon off a rainy summer street in south west London, I felt as if I was stumbling into the shelter of a tropical forest. Solid chunky tables seemed to emerge from the floor. Like tangled shrubs, ceremonial food boxes and cabbage baskets lolled about the room and, strewn on top of a Chinese day bed, were antique wooden baskets and smooth, dark storage pots. Simple bowls in delicate shades of green looked as if they were curled up like spring leaves and bamboo-carrying baskets hung overhead like a canopy.

There is something intrinsically pleasing about the rich, warm colours, soft textures and smooth, almost glassy, shapes of this furniture, and proprietor Leonie Lee-Whittle has built up a successful business on the premise that many people share this taste. She points out that she only stocks goods that she likes and that the furniture on sale is not representative of all Chinese styles.

Leonie grew up in Hong Kong where she developed a childhood hobby of rummaging through abandoned local villages picking up an old lantern here or a crumbling desk there. These formed the basis of a collection when she later returned to the country as a stockbroker. Becoming dissatisfied with the financial world, she eventually decided to start up her own business - learning about Chinese furniture from museums in Taiwan and California, and spending hours at the V&A.

From time spent in China, meeting people and making contacts, she came to an arrangement with one particular Chinese family. Having explained what she wanted, and how much she was prepared to pay for it, she let them get on with finding the goods for her business while she travelled back and forth, at first selling mainly to the States.

That was six years ago and her business has grown enormously. Snap Dragon has been open for almost two years and, keen to maintain direct links between her customers and China, Leonie always likes to talk to her clients - sometimes visiting their homes to get a feel for what they are looking for - before a visit to the East.

The shop's staff are fully briefed in the history of the furniture, and each piece for sale has a little label explaining its background. A set of four screen doors are displayed with a note that lattice-work panels helps the air circulate, even though the doors are dividing up the room. And certainly, from rice buckets to dowry cabinets, narrow console tables or an 18th-century day bed converted into a coffee table, these are useful, practical things.

However, such pieces do come at a price. An antique herbal medicine chest with smudgy ink lettering on each tiny drawer is currently on sale for pounds 1,500; and the lattice-work panels - a set of four - are pounds 3,500.

As well as antiques, pieces can be made or adapted to order. In the shop, shimmering red and gold cushions, silk lampshades and giant yellow incense sticks highlight the aubergine colours and polished surfaces of the antiques. This is a place to come back to again and again - it's not just a passing trend but a shop offering classic simplicity.

Snap Dragon, 247 Fulham Road, London SW3 6HY (0171-376 8889).

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