How a Hong Kong socialite mixed contemporary art with interior design and took both worlds by storm.
High above Shanghai, inside Pearl Lam's psychedelic baroque penthouse, the table is set for 55. An inconceivably elaborate 100-foot-long centerpiece grazes the ceiling. There's a Chinese lyrist playing, a tablecloth made of peacock feathers, and an army of black-clad waiters. The scene is precisely what the eccentric Hong Kong socialite and gallery owner is known for: high drama.
If China had a "Page Six," Lam would own it. A daughter of the late Hong Kong real estate and media tycoon Lim Por-yen and property developer Koo Siu-ying, Lam was born into notoriety. Her family grabbed headlines when her mother and father split in 2002 and battled for hundreds of millions of dollars in a volley of lawsuits. This type of juicy fracas would land anybody in the gossip pages, but Lam has proven herself to be much more than a celebutante. Her homes in Hong Kong, London, and Shanghai serve as incubators for a rapidly expanding network of art and furnishings galleries in Asia, with a new one scheduled to open next year in Los Angeles. Thanks to a deft eye for audacious modern design, Lam suddenly finds herself a member of the international art-and-design elite.
Tonight, to celebrate the opening of her Shanghai gallery, Lam has brought together art critics, academics, curators, and assorted dignitaries. Looking exhausted, she slumps into her chair at the table's center next to Marko Matysik, a fashion stylist for Chinese Vogue who happens to be wearing a cape and mascara. Nearby sits Jochum Haakma, consul general of the Netherlands, Karen Smith, an expert on Chinese contemporary art, and Nora Sun, a granddaughter of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary. Lam quietly apologizes for her clothing, explaining she hasn't had time to change for dinner. When guests call for a toast, she sinks further into the chair and waves off the task to one of her assistants. For a moment it seems she might slip under the table, but soon she reignites, summoning guests around a couch designed by Mattia Bonetti, which looks as if it were upholstered in Chinese newspaper. Closer inspection reveals a portrait of Lam and racy Chinese double entendres intricately woven into the fabric. After a half-dozen courses are finished off with Champagne, she escorts all her visitors to a vestibule of mirrored walls for a goodbye, promising a rendezvous with the group at a dance club later that evening after she changes clothes. She never shows up.
Alien spaces that clash periods and aesthetics are Lam's passion. In her Shanghai apartment one finds a red-and-white Op Art kitchen of the Dr. Seuss school, Chinese Deco furniture, a painting by Simon Casson, and a shiny carbon-fiber chair by Ron Arad. The living room is long enough to give the feeling of a gallery; the walls undulate with massive bas-relief swirls concealing built-in doors. A computer-operated lighting system projects saturated color onto the walls, creating theatrical shadows. Like their designer, Lam's confections are go-for-broke attention-grabbers—her London flat has a private staircase dressed in red paint and erotic art by Cathy de Monchaux, which Lam has called "a deconstructive thing with vaginas everywhere." The interiors of her Hong Kong office were inspired by Star Wars, James Bond, and Austin Powers. The high-rise itself (Jardine House), famous for its porthole windows, Lam refers to as "the building of a thousand assholes." She loathes designs dictated by layouts in decorating magazines—they're "Xerox-copy interiors." She, of course, relies on her instincts. "I don't know what I'm doing, actually," says Lam, who has had no formal design training. "Many people think I'm mad."
A guest at Lam's penthouse dinner party, Simon Groom of the Tate Liverpool museum describes being in a Pearl Lam space as a disordering of the senses. "The more the head swirls," he says, "the more one feels that the world can in fact be no other way."
In 1992 Lam started a decorative arts business in Hong Kong called Contrasts Gallery. It was her first professional project. After weathering the financial crises of the late nineties and the SARS epidemic, Lam has recently launched a plan for rapid global expansion. In November she introduced the gallery to Shanghai, and the Los Angeles location is planned to open in the next year, with an outpost to follow in London. She says she is learning television production to create a program for Asia in collaboration with LuxuryCulture, an online magazine based in Paris. Meanwhile, she also manages a design workshop, XYZ, which produces custom furnishings and lighting of her own design, made solely for her galleries and apartments.
Lam fuels up with Diet Coke and sleeps only a couple of hours a night. She frequently implores her staff of assistants, publicists, and craftspeople to pick up the pace. "I'm very impatient," Lam says. "I like to do ten things all at the same time." Her choppy English is delivered with a posh British colonial inflection, although she occasionally bursts into Chinese—say, when it's time to summon her driver with her black RAZR phone.
Lam is infamously late and calls tardiness her only vice. In December she was scheduled to display at the Design.05 Miami exhibition, which coincided with Art Basel Miami Beach. Unfortunately her container arrived more than a day late and she had nothing to present at the press preview. But as usual, her showcase of furnishings was well received, holding its own in a space crowded with work by the biggest names in the business, including Patrick Seguin, Cristina Grajales, and Barry Friedman. Amy Lau, a codirector of the exhibition, sees Lam's conceptual work as part of the design zeitgeist. She says that pieces such as Shao Fan's Ming chair with Lucite—a traditional Chinese seat embedded in clear plastic—are pushing the boundaries of design. "Is it sculpture, is it furniture, what is it?" Lau says. "Pearl is interested in conceptual work, which is really hot right now." Lau explains that Shao's creations belong in the same cerebral category as those of Maarten Baas, the fashionable Dutch designer and artist famous for burning classic furniture pieces into one-of-a-kind works.
Although she has many friends in Asia and Europe, Lam says her new business campaign leaves no time for a boyfriend. "This year I can't afford it. He'd have to travel with me," she says. "He'll die." Constantly moving, she divides her time between Hong Kong, Shanghai, and London.
Her independent spirit emerged early. At the age of 12 Lam left Hong Kong for boarding school in Brighton, England, outside London. While she was happy to have some distance from her mother—"a domineering woman"—Lam was not happy about the room the school provided. So instead, she checked herself into a London Hilton. After two months her father rented her a flat ("A really fantastic address," she says) where she cooked for herself, and during that time she decided to stop attending school. The education department threatened to revoke her student visa and notified her parents. "That's when my mother took over," she explains. Lam was sent back to school but allowed to live on her own in an apartment bought by her parents on Cadogan Place.
By now, Lam had developed a passion for fine art and architecture; she loved museums and obsessed over the form of structures and objects. Her father, however, insisted she study accounting and law. After graduating, she did something that changed her life forever: She redecorated her flat. With the help of a friend at Christie's, she shopped at flea markets for vintage Deco and took design inspiration from Joseph's, a London boutique. The mission was clear: "I demolished everything my mother had done. The Versailles drapes—they just annoyed me." Lam had tapped into a talent for histrionic design.
She also channeled her rebellious spirit into her wardrobe. As a girl, her mother dressed her "like a Barbie doll," Lam says. "Hated, hated, hated." Lam has, over the years, honed her own very personal and flamboyant style: short skirts, high-heeled boots, fishnets, and a large Quinting watch with a transparent face and pink crocodile band. Her black hair is streaked with purple and cropped into a bob that reaches high then falls around her head. She's probably in her late thirties but refuses to divulge a number, citing Chinese tradition.
Shopping is done in quick bursts because of Lam's short attention span. When in Paris, she will take a five-minute break at one of her three favorite designers: Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Azzedine Alaïa. "I dash into Gaultier. I pick up everything and then I go. I don't ever try on, I don't have time. I go in, I pick up. Bop, bop, bop! I arrive in Hong Kong and then I go to my seamstress."
She draws no lines between art, design, and fashion. Even the most decorative works Lam calls contemporary art because she believes strict definitions don't hold up in contemporary culture. Besides, she remarks, "art isn't about constipation," it should be fun. Her colorful Shanghai gallery is filled with sculpture and painting. Art critics from the West attending the opening wondered aloud if Lam is ready to cross over from haute design into the world of art. One purist whispered, "It's more a bordello than an art gallery."
Lam views herself as a patron and gallerist first—interior design is just a hobby she enjoys and she does it for no one else. She has declined offers to plan interiors for friends or clients. "Selling it is like selling yourself," she proclaims.
In December Lam sent an e-mail to some 100 friends and associates from her Rolodex (subject: "To all friends of our Pearlissima!!!"). The letter hastened to explain that her Shanghai penthouse is her own design, not Andrée Putman's, as had been rumored: "I cannot have a home designed by another person," she wrote in capital letters. "I'm too much of an individual with very distinct style."
There is one person, however, who has recently created a Pearl Lam interior, without the designer's involvement.
"Now she's copying me!" declares Lam triumphantly. "Ask anyone."
Inspiration comes in the most unusual places for a jet-setting gallerist—at the dinner table, in a new museum, flying business-class. The world is, so to speak, Pearl's oyster.
1 De Young Museum, San Francisco Lam's taste in design gravitates toward the always provocative. The new De Young Museum by Swiss superstar architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron is a favorite. She says she particularly loves its perforated copper façade, which will turn green as the building ages. "The museum will eventually disappear into the environment," Lam predicts. "Ingenious." Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; 415-863-3330
2 Thomas Heatherwick's Rolling Bridge, London Lam loves multidisciplinary English designer Thomas Heatherwick, famous for his Rolling Bridge in London's Paddington Basin. "Thomas doesn't have any restraint," says Lam, a kindred spirit. "I would commission him to build a museum if I got the opportunity." The bridge is lifted on Fridays around noon in low-wind conditions; call 44-207/402-5299 for details.
3 Zhang Qingfang chairs The chairs of Zhang Qingfang, one of the designers Lam represents, appropriate the form of a Chinese spoon. Both traditional and contemporary, the seats perfectly illustrate Lam's creative perspective. "They defeat the usual perception of Chinese design as being very severe and serious," she says. For her personal collection, Lam commissioned a series with polka dots instead of the classic blue-and-white porcelain pattern. $10,000 apiece; www.contrastsgallery.com
4 The Royal Pavilion, Brighton, England As a young girl, Lam moved to England, where she discovered the Royal Pavilion in Brighton— an enormous villa that was renovated in the 19th century into an Indian-style palace with Chinese-inspired interiors. Lam, who calls the decor a fantasy of China, says her favorite detail is the dining room chandeliers, adorned with dragons and phoenixes. 44-1273/292-820; www.royalpavilion.org.uk
5 Georg Jensen When Lam discovered thirties Art Nouveau silver by Georg Jensen, she became obsessed with his work. Though she buys new Jensen, her holy grail vintage patterns are Bittersweet, Nordic, and Viking. www.georgjensen.com
6 Forty One Hengshan Road, Shanghai Lam's lavish Shanghai apartment is located in a luxury high-rise she developed. Another posh penthouse in the same building, designed by Andrée Putman, is available for $3,000 a night. (FYI: It has three bedrooms and sweeping views of Shanghai's French Concession neighborhood.) www.41hengshan.com
7 Korean Air's Prestige Class cabin Ever an aesthete, Lam appreciates the newly redesigned and upgraded interiors of Korean Air's 747 aircraft; flights leave daily from New York and Los Angeles for Seoul. Business-class amenities include new seating with a built-in massage function, personal monitors with on-demand entertainment, and in-flight wireless Internet. www.koreanair.com
8 The Peninsula, Bangkok Lam says she rarely gets a respite, but when she does, she checks in to the Peninsula in Bangkok. The restaurant's striped ceiling, reminiscent of the walls in Lam's London flat, makes her feel at home. From $210 to $2,600; 66-2/861-2888; www.bangkok.peninsula.com.