TRANSPORTING THROUGH DESIGN
WORDS Merlin Varaday | Photography Tim Sugden
Asia America (79 SE Taylor, Suite 200) owner Dan Barbato wants to provide an opportunity for you to “travel to Asia right here in Portland”. After accepting a Peace Corps assignment in China in his youth (as he puts it, “the flourish of someone else’s pen set the course of my fate”), Dan spent over fifteen years in various Eastern countries. His travels even led him to his wife, Ningshu. Returning to the United States to raise their children, Eli and Kaia (now seven and four), the couple decided to settle in the Pacific Northwest. Serendipitously, Dan met former Asia America owner Nick Louthan, and the two hammered out a deal transferring ownership of the vast import business. Dan recounts with delight how similar the endeavor is to a business plan he created while pursuing his MBA at Thunderbird, an international management school in Arizona.
Don’t skimp on time when you visit Asia America’s two locations, one in close-in Southeast, one at 0315 SW Montgomery Street, Suite 330 on the South Waterfront. The journey is worth the time. Dan has brought back design elements from as far away as Sichuan, China, Bangkok, Thailand and Jaipur, India. And there is a story to be told behind each piece.
You spent fifteen years in Asia. How did those experiences influence you? Travel is an education that continues to inform my life every day. The conclusion I came to after all those years of travel is that there are a million ways to live life, and none of them are more right or correct than any other. I think it’s important to bump yourself out of your frame of reference, or what people call their “comfort zone”. It helps me remember what is important to me on a day-to-day basis, and what I want to pass on to my kids. Most of that relates to trying to keep what I call a “blue sky” in my mind – it’s an openness to other cultures and other ideas, and all of those things that are really valuable. I find if you are too focused on your daily routine, it can be easy to forget to stay open to new experiences.
Those two years in the Peace Corps were tough, but it was worth every minute, because of the trajectory that it has launched me onto. I think about the fact that Eli and Kaia have been to China and Japan, and seen lots of things, and they are only seven and four! I didn’t travel until I was about 20. It’s fun to see them absorb all of these different experiences without an overly critical mind.
Thinking about Portland and Shanghai, what do you feel is most similar and most different? How did these two experiences shape you as an individual and as a business leader? Shanghai is a coastal city. The two characters that make up the name mean “on the ocean”. And Portland isn’t on the ocean, but it is pretty close. Cities along the coast lines have an openness to outside influences. Shanghai has historically been known for being open to different ideas, making them its own. It was a very cosmopolitan city in the 1930’s or so, with the French Quarter and Japanese Quarter. That willingness to accept outside ideas is one of the main similarities between Portland and Shanghai.
What inspires you? Whatever promotes human connection. Experiences that are informative in ways that you wouldn’t expect them to be. For example, in China the majority of tables are round. Why is that? Because it is a very collaborative culture. Round tables facilitate everybody contributing to a decision-making process, versus having a head of the table with everyone seated along the sides. It’s one of those art-reflecting-life-reflecting-art things. At a round table, you are surrounded by people who are a part of the decision-making process, and the decision sort of gets made collectively by the structure of where you are seated.
I am inspired by ideas culturally that have a lot of historical value, and there was intention behind it. Ideas that are distilled down through time and generations are what inspire me. Different cultural perspectives fascinate me – you can drill down on each one in terms of why they do things the way that they do. For example, in Japan design is so much about man-made objects melded with the natural environment. For example, the air and space in a vase – the negative space – is considered part of the vase. Those concepts are influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. And they consider warm and cool, the yin and yang, and Feng Shui. I like the fact that exploring these ideas makes you shift your sense of reality in a very fundamental way.
Asia America supports an organization called Bridges Between. Can you describe what their work is about? In the DNA of Asia America is the idea that in your everyday life you can be doing more to help communities that could use help or resources. Our staff member Katherine Demsky is the Founder of Bridges Between, and we support her in that and promote the effort. Katherine travels to Nepal to provide resources to women educators in the community. We will have events from time to time where 10% of sales go to Bridges Between. For more information, please see www.bridgesbetween.org.
What makes you feel most comfortable/comforted at home? One of the things that I really like about this work is that every piece here has a story, and every piece comes with its own history. That’s what I want to be surrounded by, rather than something that is new or trendy, and was made in a factory. From the incense we carry that was made by a Buddhist friend in Shanghai – it’s just sandalwood, no perfumes or additives – all the way to large-scale projects, like lamps made from grain-sifting pots from India, we’re all about bringing back things that really speak to us, that we would want in our own homes. That’s how we make our decisions about what to get when we go on purchasing trips: “Is this something that I would want in my own home?” Our target audience is people who find the history in objects interesting.