Zen Is In

Jennifer Barger
Special to washingtonpost.com
August 21, 2001


     '' Breathe deeply and think serenely. Arise home accents will help. Courtesy of Arise Gallery
Silk lanterns, Buddha paintings and pristine dark wood chopsticks set the scene at downtown's popular, newish Asian fusion restaurant TenPenh. It's fitting that one of Washington's hippest dining spots represents a major trend in interior design. From Ethan Allen to the Washington Design Center, American dealers now carry sleek looks inspired by Japan, China and Southeast Asia. The goods range from simple armoires to chairs covered in silky fabrics. "Washingtonians lead busy, stressed out lives," says Christopher Reiter, owner of Bethesda shop Muleh. "Asian goods help them create a serene mood."

Seeking retail enlightenment? Follow our mini Silk Road. Keep in mind that a few Asian accents – a red lacquer tray, a couple of candles made to look like bamboo stalks – pack a big design punch. Imports often mix best with popular U.S. styles – Mission, Shaker, art deco – which draw influences from the Far East.

A gilded Buddha sporting a rakish scarf welcomes shoppers to Muleh in downtown Bethesda. Reiter spent several years stomping around Jakarta before opening this shop, whose name translates "to come home" in Javanese. Housewares, mainly from Indonesia, include spun-bamboo platters and vases ($80), antique teak curtain rods with elaborate finials ($90 each) and see-through kimono stencils meant to be used as wall hangings. Wooden furniture makes a strong statement here, from Asia-meets-America dining room tables to quirky "opium beds," cushioned and angled for, er, relaxing. Reiter drapes more conventional plantation-style canopy beds with white gauze, "so you feel like a Raja every time you sleep." Other covetable goods: candles trimmed in faux snakeskin, bleached white sandstone taper-holders with curvy or zigzagged silhouettes.

A few steps from the Takoma Park Metro stop, Arise Gallery conjures visions of geishas and floating worlds with its stock of kimono, antique furniture, baskets and dolls. The 10,000-square-foot space – the retail outlet for one of the country's largest Asian importers – spills over with finds like thoroughly modern silk Duponi tops and pants for women and a thoroughly traditional Japanese tansu chest of light kiri wood ($895), meant for storing folded kimono. Also sold in the maze-like store: Philippine baskets, carved Chinese doors (which could be used for their original purpose or fashioned into a screen) and rice-paper covered lamps shaped like birdcages ($200).

But Arise's biggest love, and the subject of a new book co-authored by Arise owner Paul McLardy, is kimono and other textiles. The book – "Kimono Vanishing Tradition: Japanese Textiles of the 20th-Century" (Schiffer Publishing) – mirrors Arise's copious stock of vintage kimono and obi (sashes). Patterns on these ritualistic and special occasion garments range from cranes and rabbits to airplanes and surprisingly art deco-esque circles. Both obi and kimono can be worn or used as home decor; kimono hung on the walls, obi used as ultra-stylish table runners.

Near Arise in Takoma Park, dZi: The Tibet Collection deals in textiles, religious items, incense and other goods made by Tibetan refuges in exile in India and Pakistan. Red walls painted with traditional temple paintings set the scene for strings of colorful cloth prayer flags (hang them outside on the patio), tinkling brass bells and brocade hats ($140) worn by monks, which are so sculptural they can be displayed.

In the District, Georgetown's Carling Nichols packs an American rowhouse with Chinese antiques: altar tables ($1,425), round, wooden offering trays ($100), a stunning, museum-quality pair of circa-1800 black-lacquer cabinets ($15,000) which would look dramatic in a living room or foyer. Accents include a red lacquer document box and silk pillows ($125 each) in yellow and gold printed with a Chinese poem from 600 A.D.

Other dealers in all-things Asian pepper the area. In Old Town Alexandria, King Street yields Banana Tree, with its high-end antique Buddhas (from around $350), Chinese carved panels and furniture, as well as Women's Work, an Indonesian-island handicraft shop with shadow puppets ($45 each, use as eye-popping wall decor), batiks, baskets, pots and statuary. (Tip: Don't miss the lower-level mask room at the latter.) In the District, visit Somsak Pollart's modern Simply Home for Thai silk pillows, unusual candles and pristine pots and chopsticks.

If all this shopping makes you hungry for sushi, shrimp dumplings or moo shu pork, head to Chinatown's Du Hua market, where the first floor offers Chinese groceries (soy sauce, chilis and more) and the upper-level yields straight-from-Shangai surprises like lacquer chopsticks, sauce bowls and even rice cookers.

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