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In the Ruinations

Having done a post-Wilma update on three of my favorite places in the Gateway Shopping Center in Fort Lauderdale a couple of weeks ago, it seemed only fair to revisit a pair of their counterparts in Wilton Manors, in the little strip mall anchored by Old Florida Seafood House. So I checked in on both Ruinations Company and Asoka Bali and discovered that, in different ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The two, which bracket Old Florida Seafood like bookends, are both combination galleries and home furnishings outposts, and there the similarities pretty much end. Ruinations, which opened almost five years ago under the ownership of partners Robert Zorzi and Norman Taylor II, emphasizes considerably less exotic items than Christopher Cartwright's Asoka Bali, which, as the name implies, specializes in Indonesian items.

What first drew me to Ruinations a few years ago was an impressive selection of lamps, many unusual enough to pass as sculpture. I was pleased to see that Zorzi and Taylor still stock versions of one of my favorites, undulating constructions made of reinforced corrugated paper that are sort of like elongated Japanese lanterns. An especially pleasing piece on this visit was a short, broad, fluted lamp made of small glass mosaic tiles that give off a warm red glow. Another had a base and stem formed from a trio of stacked elephants culminating in a glass shade with palm fronds with gold-edged green leaves.

The bad news at Ruinations is that the shop suffered considerable damage from Hurricane Wilma, according to Zorzi. About a third of the rear portion of the roof was affected, leading to leaks and flooding, and on the day of my visit, the air-conditioning system still wasn't fully repaired. These problems, coupled with power outages, forced the store to close for three weeks.

Fortunately, there's good news too. Ruinations recently — as in around the time of Hurricane Katrina — more or less doubled in size, to nearly 5,000 square feet. The expansion was made possible by a sudden vacancy in the space next door, formerly occupied by a store specializing in Scottish merchandise that never seemed to be open anyway. The extra window-display space provides for a greater visual presence in the plaza, and Zorzi says sales had skyrocketed before Wilma and, with any luck, will soon resume.

This expansion is just the latest for the guys, who earlier this year also added a location in North Carolina and last year opened a shop near Target in the Coral Ridge Mall. Although much of the merchandise is the same at the mall site, that place just doesn't seem to have the same feel as the original Ruinations, which has a warmth and coziness that have, surprisingly, been enhanced by the extra space there.

Some of that space is being used for an expanded selection of ceramics and glassware. One knockout is a massive ceramic platter from Poland, featuring a big, red, sunlike spot, slightly off-center, encircled by red and orange rings. There are also lots of lovely vases, including a tall, broad cylinder made of glass blanketed with a dense network of tiny, spidery lines.

The art at Ruinations remains mostly of the decorative variety, although I noticed some new works in one side gallery, including some pleasingly simple abstracts emphasizing shape, texture, and color. A batch of large canvases, however, left me cold, even one of a pair of rugged cowboys, perched side by side on a railing, who almost look like an inadvertent plug for the upcoming (and much-talked-about) homoerotic Western Brokeback Mountain. And the shop was also going into its festive holiday mode, which the guys do quite well but which also leaves this Scrooge unmoved. Still, this is a place worth multiple visits to find out what's new.

I was surprised to find Asoka Bali also getting into the seasonal spirit. After all, Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim, with a Christian minority of only 9 percent or so and even smaller Hindu, Buddhist, and Animist minorities. Then again, for a lot of Americans, Christmas has become a largely secular — or, perhaps more accurately, commercial — affair. And anyway, the shop's holiday trappings take a back seat to what Asoka Bali is really all about, which is teak.

You may well get the sense, as I always do when I stop by, that the small cluster of rooms that make up Asoka Bali contain more teak than you've ever seen in one place. There's teak furniture in varying degrees of splendor, from pyramidal chests of drawers to ordinary chairs to not-so-ordinary ones (including one in the form of a giant hand) to life-sized and larger-than-life torsos of male and female nudes.

There are also sculptural (and anatomically... emphatic) teak nude torsos, male and female, in miniature up to life-sized and beyond. Other wood items, similarly, are essentially art objects. One gallery boasts an array of cobras of varying sizes, including the terrifyingly large, carved in amazing detail from single blocks of suar wood. There are also equally intricate dragon lizards in all sizes.

Shadow puppets, ceremonial masks, silk sarongs, and a few generic paintings all remain standard items at the store. New to the lineup is a line of books filled with pages of delicate handmade paper and bound with leaves, twigs, and other natural ingredients, ranging in size from address book to diary to scrapbook. And I can't resist mentioning some new lamps, including a large, vaguely cylindrical lamp made from thin pieces of rattan, soaked and molded into shape, and a pair of large wall sconces woven from coconut husk fibers.

Next to teak, Asoka Bali is dominated by Buddhas. There are whole Buddhas and Buddha heads, Buddhas in metal and wood and volcanic rock. There are tiny and medium and large Buddhas. There are freestanding (sitting?) Buddhas and Buddhas encased in glass and plastic.

Again, this might seem odd coming from a country as heavily Muslim as Indonesia. But religion on the island of Bali is apparently dominated by a peculiar blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancestor worship called Hindu Dharma. In that light, the abundance of Buddhas makes perfect sense, as does the presence of a massive, magnificent representation of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha displayed at the head of a bed and, for that matter, the Christmas items. Maybe this harmonious blend of seemingly incongruous cultures is what makes Asoka Bali such a strangely serene place to visit.

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Michael Mills

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