Q+A: Jan Lee, Sinotique

If you've never turned right onto John Street from the Brooklyn Roasting corner of Jay Street, walked past Melville House Books, and come across the narrow staircase leading up to an industrial door at 70 John Street, you've been missing out on a hidden gem. Sinotique is one of the most authentic places for art in DUMBO. Jan Lee has been making and selling Asian crafts, fine art, antiques, and home furnishings in the DUMBO neighborhood for over 20 years, and in the process has created something that reaches far beyond his breathtakingly-designed objects to bring you a truly timeless experience.

How did it all start? What brought you into the field of design, and the business of collecting and selling Asian antiques and Fine Art?

Well, going way back, my background is in Fine Arts and Business Management. I opened a store in Chinatown in 1992 as an antiques dealer— antiques and home furnishings, mostly from China. In the late 1990’s, I started to transition my business to carry fine art, and started to work on manufacturing my own line of furniture. And then into the 2000’s, I studied fine carpentry under someone who I actually hired as an employee of mine, and I started designing and making furniture for designers, and to sell here in Brooklyn at my shop. So, the business today is a combination of a showroom for my work, and a showroom for artists and craftspeople from all over, including internationally— to showcase their work and my work together.

In my head, [the showroom] will always be a place where fine art will mix with crafts, contemporary furniture, and antiques.

Jan Lee, Owner of Sinotique

So, your space is both a showroom and an art gallery?

I want to promote this space as not just an art gallery because I think that people have a very fixed idea in their head if they say it’s an art gallery— it’s actually so much more. In my head, it will always be a place where fine art will mix with crafts, contemporary furniture, and antiques. The idea is to give the art a context, a sense of scale, and a sense of living with art— fine art— in an environment that’s curated by me.

I’m less interested in precisely where a piece came from and more about how it was formed, looks, and is textured. I really like pieces that you can see were used a lot.

Jan Lee, Owner of Sinotique

What do you look for in design?

Being that I’ve been in the business since 1992, I have a very specific style, and a specific inspiration that I like to share, and so over the years I think that’s kind of what I’ve become known for in the commercial world. I tend to like rustic surfaces; I tend to like a lot of texture, and things that are not too frilly. When I tell people that I deal with Chinese antiques, they always think I have red wedding cabinets and lacquer, and something that’s completely the opposite for me. I always like the primitive pieces, both from Asia and Africa. You’ll find throughout the collection different natural objects, pottery, and just rustic, worn surfaces. So I’m less interested in precisely where a piece came from and more about how it was formed, looks, and is textured. I really like pieces that you can see were used a lot. The pieces that I make tend to be a reflection of that— simple, but functional, well-made, and always with a hint of Asian influence, in some way.

Do you see your work and tastes as primarily Asian-influenced?

The Asian influence comes from being in the antiques business for such a long time. I like to combine mid-century modern with Asian influence. Interior design tastes have changed, so that’s where I’ve filled in with my own designs that have been Asian-feeling but sort of based on mid-century modern— clean, unadulterated lines, more along the lines of mid-century American and Scandinavian influence, a little bit from Asia. A lot of the masters of mid-century modern furniture drew their inspiration from Asia anyway, so it’s sort of coming full-circle, re-introducing these pieces to modern homes, as something a little more timeless, but with interesting materials. I use materials that are either responsibly harvested, or recycled completely. You’ll see that in the antique bamboo that I use, the material was made a long time ago. It’s kind of a signature of mine.

So, you combine mid-century modern with Asian influence?

This creates something very timeless in today’s interiors, something that will grow with a person. The clientele I’ve had over the years have come to appreciate the kind of simple lines that will grow with them and pieces that, even if they move, they’ll still take with them. Most of the work that I do is by commission, so custom sizes, custom colors. That’s really what people come to me for, a custom piece made for you, depending on your house or apartment and where it’s going to go.

How do you find new pieces?

I am constantly collecting— I’m always looking for new craftsmen, but also, always looking for interesting things. For instance, I got these two 19th century Chinese rosewood tables that are very rare finds— and rare particularly to find them in the condition that I did— at an auction in the Midwest. They were imported into the US maybe 100 years ago. The amazing thing is that these two tables came from two different families in the Midwest, and they are almost identical tables. So, it’s rare to have them, it’s rare to have a pair, and it’s really special that they’re kind of together now. So I’m hoping that an interior designer or client would keep them together. But these are recent purchases, from just this year, and that’s an example of pieces I find that I have to have, to add to the collection.

Do you travel much?

I still travel a lot, mostly along the east coast, and overseas. I spend a lot of time in Hawaii now; I have family in Hawaii, and my furniture designs are represented in Honolulu at another showroom called Fishcake. They’re similar in the sense that they do fine art and craft. I’m very fortunate to be able to manufacture in Hawaii and also sell there. I go back to Honolulu about two or three times a year, and have another shop there that I rent. It’s important to people in Hawaii that the pieces are actually made in Hawaii. There’s a strong sense of importance on where the pieces are made— there’s a very strong furniture-making community there— so, I’m very proud to be a part of that. I also do a lot of business with Lower Manhattan and in the Hamptons. I have a strong presence in the Hamptons; I’ve been doing antique shows there for twenty years. A lot of my really high-profile clients, I meet out there. The Hamptons is a great place to meet some of the best designers on the East Coast, so usually I show there at least two or three times a year. The fine artist I’m showing now, Audrey Lee, is from the Hamptons, and she sells very well; she sold three paintings here just opening night. We’re hoping to sell more— her work will still be up for another few weeks.

Since moving to DUMBO, how has your business changed?

When I first came to DUMBO, in 1995, to this building, it was desolate, there was no one walking around the streets, and most of the time I’ve been in this building it’s been by-appointment only— it was mostly to the trade. It’s only been very recently that we’ve gotten a lot of foot traffic, since we’re open to the public now. When I opened my doors, people asked, ‘Did you just move here?’ and they’re surprised to see that we’ve been here for twenty years, because they’d never seen anybody outside. But that’s changed a lot in the last couple of years— we’re seeing a lot more foot traffic, and a lot of local patronage. The cold weather was difficult for foot traffic, but now that it’s warmer we’re going to be open a lot more. I’m just starting with First Thursday walks, and those have been very helpful, and have gotten people here.

What’s your favorite spot in DUMBO?

I really love eating at Archway Cafe; I think the food is great, the staff are friendly, and the atmosphere is relaxed. I take my lunch breaks at Archway, and I make a point to take friends who've never been to DUMBO to that place.

Mentioned in this article

Archway Café