The Light of Asia pix
In Hamburg, Germany, design guru Peter Schmidt infuses his belle epoque villa with Far East mystery
Claudia Steinberg -- Interior Design, 3/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
A 300-year-old Japanese Buddha surveys designer Peter Schmidt's living room on the ground floor of his three-story villa in Hamburg, Germany. The 18th-century Japanese screen, one of a pair depicting birds, is mounted on the wall like a painting. The custom sofas and armchairs, all covered in Thai silk, are Schmidt's own design.
A perforated door covered in gold leaf leads to the entrance hall. The glass cabinet displays Chinese objets d'art. The chair is 18th-century Chinese.
Schmidt coated his custom dining-room table in a high-gloss piano lacquer. The 15th-century Chinese statue of a Lohan stands between windows shrouded in silk taffeta.
The 18th-century Chinese carpet in the living room is wool, the low rosewood table is 13th-century Chinese, and the lacquered cabinet is by Schmidt. He retained the 1896 villa's original molded ceilings throughout.
A custom vitrine in glass, steel, and wood in the kitchen holds Japanese tableware. The ceiling pendant is neon and stainless steel.
The designer on a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe leather-covered daybed in his second-floor library, which houses books on philosophy and music.
Schmidt's downstairs library, devoted to books on Asian art, is a study in symmetry. The 15th-century Chinese Buddha is perched between a pair of 18th-century Chinese rosewood armchairs. The decorative columns are mounted on gold- plated bases.
The circle motif, symbolizing the moon and seen throughout the house, appears in the form of a light fixture in the master bathroom. The tub surround and countertop are Thassos marble, the drawers maple.
For his bedroom, Schmidt chose Italian silk curtains, and he gold-leafed his custom circle-cut headboard. The screen is by 17th-century Japanese master painter Kano Naganobu.
As a set designer for ballet, theater, and opera, Peter Schmidt is a minimalist who primarily works with light, allowing singers and dancers, music and movement to take full possession of the stage. At his belle epoque residence in Hamburg, Germany, Schmidt is a master of shadows and glinting opulence—a low-key, Asian-inspired theatricality where each dimly lit room is filled with the radiant presence of a gilded Buddha.
"He has an incredible aura," says Schmidt, caressing the golden skin of his 600-year-old sculpture of a Lohan from China that stands in his dining room. No direct sunlight touches it or any of the other antique treasures he has collected since his first trip to Asia 20 years ago. The hushed twilight not only protects Schmidt's prized objects but also his inner peace: Except for a few flecks of light dancing on the curtains, the outside world is completely filtered out. '
"A designer has to build a sense of secrecy and charisma into a product," says Schmidt, who is creative director of the Peter Schmidt Group, a corporate branding, design, and packaging consultancy that first gained fame in 1974 for its perfume flacons for Jil Sander. "He needs to be somewhat of a magician." Schmidt has applied this principle to the interiors of his three-story, 5,400-square-foot, 1896 villa. While keeping the linear layout, stark white walls, and molded ceilings typical of Hamburg architecture in the late 19th century, he has nevertheless conjured an intriguing setting, the home of a scholar of the Far East.
When Schmidt bought the building more than 20 years ago, it was in a state of disrepair. Formerly the Czechoslovakian consulate, and later the offices of a shipping company, it had been abandoned for 30 years. It took more than a year before the designer was able to move his collections of Georg Jensen silver, contemporary paintings, and thousands of books into the carefully restored residence.
Then, in 1985, Schmidt visited Asia and discovered a new passion. He sold his paintings and began an intensive study of Far Eastern art, culture, and antiques. (He became such an expert, for example, that he was able to re-create an authentic Japanese garden in the inhospitable northern German climate.) He hoped to curb his acquisitive appetite by limiting his collecting to just one period, country, or color. "I tried buying only oxblood ceramics, but I couldn't stand it. There were just too many other gorgeous things," he recalls.
The temptations included celadon vases—their misty green now Schmidt's preferred color for ceramics—and 13th-century Chinese furniture, such as the low rosewood table in his living room. Most irresistible to the animal-loving designer were a pair of 18th-century Japanese six-panel, standing 'screens depicting life-size birds. The screens are mounted like paintings on the walls of adjoining living rooms, where they face each other through a wide doorway; it's just one instance of the mirror effects that Schmidt the illusionist employs throughout the house.
Schmidt has designed custom furniture to complement the hoard he has imported from China, Japan, and Malaysia. Many of his pieces have a shiny finish—gold leaf on the headboard of his bed, Thai silk upholstery on the sofas and arm- chairs in the living room, high-gloss piano lacquer on cabinets and tables in the dining room—that glows discreetly in the villa's perpetual dusk. Schmidt's mastery of Zen aesthetics so impressed the Japanese food company Juchheim that it commissioned him to design all the furnishings for its headquarters in Tokyo; he has also developed Asian-inspired rugs for the German carpet manufacturer Vorwerk & Co.
Despite the deep influence Eastern philosophy has had on him, Schmidt is reluctant to call himself a Buddhist; his love of the material world prevents him from achieving the obligatory detachment. Some of the possessions arrayed in his residential shrine exist only to be ad- mired: Indonesian textiles that took 10 years to weave and are never worn, or a Japanese tea box that must not be touched by ungloved hands. Nevertheless, Schmidt is adamant that his impeccably arranged trove of objects offers more than mere fleeting pleasure to the discriminating eye. "If you don't state the beautiful, you won't understand the ugly," he says, paraphrasing Lao-tzu. For a design professional, that's not metaphysics—it's utilitarianism.