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Make Yourself Useful

When I first stumbled upon Spirit of Asia two years ago, it was called Spirit of Vietnam, and it was a relatively new presence on the 1500 block of East Las Olas Boulevard. Stepping into this combination gallery/home furnishings boutique was a transporting experience. The hint of incense in the air was just enough to be evocative without being overpowering, as was the soft, Asian-flavored music playing in the background. It was the first of many visits.

Alas, it was not meant to be. The toxic mix of sluggish offseason business and the high overhead of a Las Olas address — even one well to the east of the heart of the Las Olas strip — ultimately led owners Thad and Lisa Hooker to pack it in. They still had Art & Animals Import Collection, their 6-year-old Pompano Beach wholesale operation, and they compiled a mailing list to notify devoted followers of special events there. But it just wasn't the same.

In April, however, Spirit of Asia returned in a new guise: a hybrid warehouse/showroom in a little strip of bays just off Broward Boulevard between downtown Fort Lauderdale and I-95. (Getting there can be a little tricky, so it's best to call first for specific directions.) The Hookers merged the contents of their Las Olas and Pompano sites and set out to serve not only interior designers looking to work with ever-popular Asian themes but also the general public, all of whom can buy at wholesale prices (a minimum of 40 percent off retail, Thad says).

There were compromises. Hours were scaled back to weekends and by appointment. The roughly 2,000-square-foot space had to accommodate the contents of the other two locations. And on my first couple of stops by the new place, the air conditioning wasn't yet functional, leaving visitors to sweat it out among a few overworked room fans.

The Hookers have ambitious plans, though. As Thad explains, a loft is in the works, to take advantage of the high ceiling and to serve as warehouse space, freeing up the ground-level area to expand the showroom, which now cedes the jam-packed rear half of the bay to storage. Even so, the front of the shop already boasts more furniture — and larger pieces — than would have been possible on Las Olas. (There's an emphasis on wood of many varieties throughout the store.)

Not that the furniture is ordinary furniture by any stretch of the imagination, and that's one thing that makes Spirit of Asia special. True to the name, the items on display are all from the continent of Asia — mainly the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, supplemented by additional goods from Nepal, China, and Japan; a big shipment of Burmese antiques was anticipated the last time I visited.

Thad, a veteran traveler, goes to Asia himself on extended buying trips, so everything you see he has handpicked. Given the vast American market for so-called antique Chinese furniture, much of which turns out to be fake, this is reassuring. At any rate, most of the furniture here is as decorative as it is functional. Take, for instance, century-old Chinese chests made of remarkably well-preserved leather, or traditional Japanese tansu chests of hand-crafted wood and metal fittings.

Showiest of all are huge chairs and tables that have been carved from gigantic single chunks of teak root, a renewable resource. A symmetry of sorts has been imposed on the sprawling wood, which retains a raw, knobby wildness despite its highly polished surfaces. They're a little too bold for my taste (although I have a more subdued Balinese teak-root coffee table that's similarly sculptural), but in the right setting, I suppose they could be magnificent.

The point is that while almost everything at Spirit of Asia is or was utilitarian in its own way, almost everything can also be thought of as an objet d'art. I remember a visit to the old Las Olas location when I became fascinated with some strange little contraptions of ceramic and metal that, Lisa Hooker told me, were actually old opium pipes. They're still on hand, along with complementary sets of elephant-shaped weights that were once used in the opium trade. Talk about conversation pieces...

Some items are slightly less exotic but no less intriguing. A tiny Tibetan table lamp is fashioned from a simple wood frame and a colorful paper currency note. Nestled serving trays from Vietnam are finished with a thick lacquered surface that contains crushed eggshells. A carved teakwood box from Thailand opens to reveal a lining of handmade paper.

Usually, a few musical instruments are scattered throughout the gallery: gongs and drums of various sizes, strange stringed instruments that look more like mixed-media sculptures, miniature wooden xylophones housed in ornately carved holders. Again, these can actually be played, but they're just as interesting to look at.

Likewise the countless other objects that fill the space: bowls and baskets, urns and vases, boxes and trays, candleholders and incense burners, parasols and pillows, lamps and lanterns, even birdcages. When I mention a couple of old-fashioned metal household irons — the kind that presumably would have been filled with hot coals before use — Thad, who picked them up in Asia, points out a small trademark for an American company on one of them and speculates that they were made in the U.S. for export.

There's so much to take in that the space practically calls out for lengthy browsing. On one pass, you might pick up on brocade wall hangings and silk scarves; on another, you might notice odd pieces of trim or wooden panels that were probably once part of doors or window shutters. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mix is rounded out by some more traditional fine art, in the form of small framed Vietnamese prints, elegant in their simplicity, and larger paintings, also Vietnamese. The Hookers plan to expand on this segment of their inventory.

Then, of course, there are the ubiquitous Buddhas, in sizes small, medium, and large and in such materials as bronze, stone, and wood. Some are elaborately detailed, others crude and rudimentary. Thad says that a sizable portion of his clientele comes from in-the-biz designers, and while it's true that Buddhas are popular as decorative accessories, I prefer to think that they're more suggestive of the harmony that can be achieved between one's art and one's living environment. Oscar Wilde was wrong when he declared, "All art is quite useless." Much of what's on view at Spirit of Asia confirms that art can be beautiful and useful.

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Michael Mills