5 May 2020

Bucking the trends #16 - Humble House

| Suzanne Kiraly
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What’s in a name? Names are important. Very important. (I heard somewhere that the most important word in everyone’s language is in fact, their own name, which from an early age is the sweetest sound to all humans.) It is all about identity, you see. And in business, your name should reflect something about who you are, what you do and how unique you are in your sacred space – your passion. It’s important, and yet, not many businesses get it right.

Humble House, however, is spot on!

When I enter this establishment, I am transported into another world; it’s a world of peace and tranquillity, a world awash with culture and ‘objets d’art’, infused with love and artisan skill, emanating from a culture that is renowned for its ancient wisdom, and… I feel at peace. Better still, time stands still for me and I feel focused and not the least bit distracted for once. The essence of a long, lost art, is preserved here in ways that are unique. Frankly, I am overawed and humbled, yes humbled, as I immerse myself into the depths of Chinese history, and a culture about which I need to learn so much more.

Roger Carter and his beautiful wife, Weilian, are the proprietors and their story is truly a human one, full of passion and worth exposing. They are bucking the trends in retail, driven by a passion for culture and revealing hidden stories behind their antique and modern pieces displayed on their showroom floor. You are transported to another (often antiquated) world, to a unique, exotic world far away, where you can feel the great aesthetic magnetism of the true artiste, or dedicated craftsman. It’s a place for the discerning, the culturally aware (or those who wish to be), and those seeking to decorate their homes in ways that will make their home their castle, with class.

“Furniture talks to you,” Weilian tells me with a sparkling smile driven by enthusiasm. “When I go in search of these unique pieces in China, I am never lonely.” They are creating an oasis here, one with a conservationist philosophy behind it. She touches her heart many times during our interview and it’s symbolic of the core of this business. In 1997, Weilian established a conservation workshop in Beijing where these unique pieces are restored lovingly to last a lifetime. We are sitting at a table over 100 years old. But I am ahead of myself here… let’s go back in time to tell their story.

Roger has an interesting background too and he admits to having some serendipitous opportunities, which have all led him along the path to this business. Coming from an army family, they settled in Canberra when he was just 9 years old and he attended public schools here.

After a gap year (before we even called it that), Roger moved to Melbourne to study naturopathy. (You see he had been an Aussie Rules umpire and got interested in massage and therapy from a person who treated their injuries). However, he soon got diverted to Chinese medicine, studying at a private college and helping at his teacher’s practice. At the end of 3 years’ study, he went with a group of students for further study in Taiwan.

Roger practised in Melbourne, but such was his interest that he returned to Canberra to study classical Chinese, and graduated from ANU in Asian studies. His private practice continued throughout these years, treating sports injuries mostly. He continued his studies at UC where serendipity kicked in, and he was granted an exchange scholarship to Shanghai to study Chinese language. When that scholarship finished, Roger won a DFAT scholarship to study acupuncture at the Shanghai Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a prestigious institution indeed, Weilian assures me. He also worked at the Consulate for 20 hours a week, which was a bonus.

It was during these two years in China, that he met and married Weilian, who was teaching at a Shanghai university at the time.

Roger later got a job with the Department of Immigration. He was posted to Beijing for work, and simultaneously, their affair with classical Chinese furniture began. They learnt all they could and started a collection.

Roger returned to Canberra while Weilian stayed in China, continuing to pursue their passion for authentic Chinese furniture. In her desire for authenticity, Weilian travelled far and wide throughout China to find artisan furniture pieces, all hand-crafted, with hand-made tools. They wanted to preserve these ancient pieces that told stories and after the Cultural Revolution storm, so much had been destroyed, so it was not easy. Weilian set up the conservation workshop and then the business opportunity in Australia entered their thoughts. If they loved this furniture so much, surely others would benefit too? With that in mind, in 1998 they set up a tiny showroom in a shared space in Reid with a friend’s Persian carpet business. But they soon outgrew this and moved to Fyshwick initially co-locating with Artisan Art & Craft and then occupying the site alone from 2003 to 2011. During this period it became obvious that they needed their own building to house this obsession, as they collected more and more beautiful pieces, lovingly restored in their Beijing workshop. The couple bought and renovated what was originally a smash repair shop in Wollongong Street — amusingly, a restorative business of different sorts, and they have been there ever since.

Roger and Weilian love to share their passion and to spread cultural education whenever they can. For instance, they lent their beautiful classic carriage to the National Library of Australia for their foyer display during their major Chinese exhibition last year. They host local artist exhibitions, partake in charity fundraising and cultural exchange activities.

“The time for the collector has passed,” Roger tells me. “The time for the decorator is now; people buy these pieces to make their home individual, beautiful and inspirational.”

“Beauty is timeless, however, and sits in your heart,” Weilian adds, touching her heart once more.

This is Humble House. Roger explains, “The name reflects respect for the design and craftsmanship of traditional Chinese furniture and extends to the creativity and inspiration of artists, producing the contemporary art and ceramics we display.” If this resonates with you, go and see for yourselves.

Do you know of any other retail business that is bucking the trends like this? Please let us know. We need to expose such businesses. In this world of bland mass production, we seek unique.

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