Personal touch for fancy pieces

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 1998, 12:00am

ONE of the great design cliches in this part of the world is the concept of East meeting West. There have been so many pairings of East and West that one day someone will come up with a novel idea, market it as uniquely eastern, untainted by the merest breath from the West, and it will be a huge success.

Until that day arrives, we seem to be stuck with those two points of the compass.

Occasionally, however, there really is a marriage of East and West. This is what led to the formation of the design company Lotus Arts de Vivre, which has more of a right than most to market itself as a blend of oriental and occidental.

Rolf von Bueren, a descendant of noble German stock, met, courted and wed Helen, who comes from a prominent Thai family. They have two sons, Sri and Nicklas.

While these boys were enduring the arctic comforts of school in Scotland in the 1980s, their pining mother decided to devote her energies to collecting and commissioning beautiful objects.

In 1985, the first Lotus Arts de Vivre was opened in Bangkok and it has flourished in the region's smartest hotels ever since.

More recent openings have included Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia (courtesy of the Raffles hotel group) and Delhi; two further shops are planned for Bombay this autumn.

There is no Lotus Arts de Vivre outlet in Hong Kong but those who wish to buy from the Lotus range are advised either to fly to exchange-friendly Thailand or to call in at the China Club this week, from Tuesday until Friday, where the family is showcasing its latest collection.

There will be about 500 items available, ranging from handcrafted coconut bowls and brocade waistcoats to the company's own line of scents (called Siam 1, 2 and 3, blended in France and available in bottles with handcarved stoppers) to jewellery from the Princess Luciana Pignatelli collection.

Who is Princess Luciana Pignatelli? 'She is a designer based in London and she comes out twice a year to our workshops,' Sri von Bueren explains.

'Her style of jewellery fits with our style. It used to be very bold - she's a tall lady and can wear these huge pieces - but she's adapted it to the market and to the slim ladies of Hong Kong.' Mr von Bueren, himself, is a trained goldsmith who learned his craft in Germany then returned to Bangkok to become involved in the family business.

Like the princess, he has recognised the art of being flexible where commercial needs are concerned, particularly in these uncertain times.

So although, for instance, the family does sell antiques - an extraordinary metre-long ivory dragon, which was brought to India by a Chinese group of officials in the last century, will be on sale this week - he thinks this particular market is saturated.

'It goes in waves and the current one in antiques is running out, but there will be another one along one day,' he explains. 'We hope to win people's hearts for these pieces by winning their confidence.' And how does he propose to do that? 'Oh, I'm cheeky that way,' Mr von Bueren says, laughing. 'I'd rather try to sell a piece that's harder to sell, it's more of a challenge. In Hong Kong, some of the ladies are great, their characters can be outrageous, but they're held back in certain ways.

'They can be conservative. It's a matter of getting them used to what they see in the mirror.' Or the sitting room. Lotus will take customer orders for unusual pieces with which to decorate your home.

Fancy a conch-shell as a caviar bowl? Lotus will find one for you. Need a cigar box big enough to hold 500 cigars and covered with stingray leather? Lotus has contrived that too.

The family has an obliging set of craftsmen all over Asia who will attend to private customers' visions. The typical Lotus product seems to involve a high degree of ornate work which marks it out as memorable to the point of eccentricity - 'a conversation piece' as Mr von Bueren puts it - and he is convinced that this is what is required in the SAR.

'Everyone is very fashion conscious in Hong Kong, very street smart, but they're really looking for something personal which identifies them more.

'They're looking for fun, for something to make them smile and bring pleasure to the day,' he says. If you do not have the time to order a particular item, of course, you may wish to opt for the sterling silver hedgehog toothpick holder or the ostrich egg container, both of which will be available in next week's sale, along with a selection of unusual items of cutlery.

Many of the bigger home pieces have proved too difficult to bring to Hong Kong so why doesn't Mr von Bueren open a shop here? 'I think a shop would ruin the magic,' he says. 'I enjoy seeing people be surprised at exhibitions. And I'd rather be a friend first than a salesman. It's important to have a good personal relationship.' Naturally, these pieces are not loitering at the cheaper end of the price range but Mr von Bueren, who describes himself as 'not shy', grows slightly coy at the mention of money.

'It can be discussed,' he says. 'If people think that we're expensive, then we go to an effort to talk about this.' And perhaps that is the happiest result of a marriage between East and West.

Mr Von Bueren may have been educated in the chilly north but he is willing to accommodate his customers in the pliable traditions of the East.

As he happily puts it: 'We enjoy bargaining.'