Robert Stordalen shows us around his Asian retreat in East Lakeview.
Natural light wasn’t a big priority for Robert Stordalen when he rented his 800-square-foot East Lakeview apartment in 2004. In the living room, an eight-foot-high, eight-panel black lacquer Chinese screen stands between the long, low-slung, biscuit tufted metallic gray sofa and a bank of windows, completely blocking the main source of daylight. The image on the screen depicts a wealthy man’s compound (concubines and all), carved into the lacquer and painted in metallic shades of gold, green and red. “It’s an evening apartment,” Stordalen, 57, a self-employed accountant, explains. “It’s kind of magical at night.”
Between the large screen and a smaller second set of screens, a spotlight calls attention to a four-foot-tall wood statue, a goddess of mercy in the style of the Tang dynasty. On the opposite wall, dimmable track lights illuminate an extensive collection of clay Chinese tomb guardians, each standing on its own silver shelf.
“Most of this stuff was stacked in Chinese warehouses for years until the Cultural Revolution,” he says. “I don’t know if I bought anything in the U.S., because everything here was so expensive.”
While political wonks and world leaders debated the implications of President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China, Stordalen eagerly anticipated a market flooded with antiquities. He began taking regular shopping sojourns to China and Hong Kong, amassing a large collection that includes a “very simple, very fine” pure Ming cabinet with inlaid burl wood panels, a pair of red horse sculptures made from clay and hay, and black silk shades for every lamp in the apartment.
“Billy Baldwin [the 20th-century decorator] always said that lampshades should be black,” says Stordalen. “They look so much better.” It’s one of Stordalen’s staple colors. Shortly after moving into the unit, Stordalen ripped out the new wall-to-wall carpeting and painted the concrete floors and a few of the walls black. Tibetan wood floor coverings featuring images of tigers and dragons and layered atop sisal rugs add notes of color to the room.
As for his collection of Buddha heads, Stordalen keeps them on display in the front foyer but points out, “I’ve never had them blessed. I don’t like Westerners adopting Eastern religions they don’t understand.” That said, out of respect for his Buddhist friends, he maintains a strict no-Buddhas-in-the-bedroom policy.
To make room in the one-bedroom apartment for new acquisitions, Stordalen estimates he’s given away nine pieces of furniture and 40 pieces of art, plus he recently posted a few items on eBay. In a sign of how much things have changed since 1972, a bidder in China just won three miniature Chinese display stands, paying six times what Stordalen paid for them 20 years ago.
“They were made in China, and they’re going back to China,” he says. Like many things in life, it all comes back around.