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October 18, 2009

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Strong art streak runs through family home

A 1930s Shanghai villa in the former French concession area gives full rein to the collecting instincts of its owner, Elisabeth de Brabrant, who displays her pieces with an impeccable eye for art and who knows in her bones the right and wrong of fine things.

Her house on Huaihai Road M., known as Shang Fang Garden Villa, was first designed in 1937 by English architects, where many famous Chinese politicians, lawyers, bankers and poets lived in individual houses, each with a private garden. Michael Graves, who designed the most talked-about destination in Shanghai, Three on the Bund, did the makeover of the de Brabrant house in 2003 and 2004.

Sharply contrasting with the 60 years of stories on the facades, the handsomely proportioned, three-floor interior is stunningly contemporary with sensual curves, contemporary Art Deco details and a palette of natural materials including Italian marble, jade and solid wood.

The house makes an instant impact through its unexpected sense of space and light, a perfect manifestation of a good mix of old-world qualities and modern simplicities.

De Brabant, her husband and two children moved into this well-designed villa in 2004. With a fairly strong artistic streak, a great sense for color, and a unique eye for beauty, she had very clear ideas about what she wanted for the house, and designed and chose everything to reflect a boldness of spirit, with layers of her personality.

De Brabant's attention to detail is impeccable, and inspiring juxtapositions of texture and style infuse the distinguished rooms with even more character. The villa provides a sequence of generous, well-lit spaces for both formal entertaining and family life. The ground level has floor-to-ceiling French windows without curtains, establishing a strong relationship with the garden. "Your eyes are never bored," she said.

Spending time with her you get the feeling she is a New Yorker with a Parisian heart, effortlessly elegant and comfortable in her own skin.

Clearly de Brabant knows her prey °?- more than 80 percent of the villa's furnishings are antique or vintage. The approach is broadcast loud and clear when entering the ground floor, where Chinese antique furniture pieces are carefully arranged and placed, here and there.

Throughout the house, she also added some of her own designs, custom-made to fit the house, such as the lacquer closet on the second floor. The result is a house of layers, with a combination of good antiques and her own designs. It is luxurious, but comfortable.

After comfort and simplicity, the most beautiful of all de Brabant's contributions to the house is her extraordinary collection of Asian contemporary art. The home is filled with some of the most stunning pieces of contemporary Chinese art imaginable. She chose every piece with great passion, as each element had to have its own personality. Coming from a family of art collectors, the acquisition quest is a passion for de Brabant that has become an obsession.

"I love to combine Chinese antiques with contemporary art. Neutral, simple furniture choices are the answer to the house's design scheme. When the pure, neutral background is created, the artworks' dramatic effect on the eye is maximized,'' de Brabant said.

Her respect for Chinese culture and art developed early because her family owned a big fine Asian art and furniture collection. "I came from a family of three generations of art collectors and museum benefactors. They had been in Shanghai since 1908 and left in 1942. I was born in New York City and brought up between Asia and New York because some of my family still lives in Bangkok.''

De Brabant has had a long association with the art world. Her first gallery was called Art Scene China, which was started with her business partner seven years ago. Last year, she felt it was time to go in a new direction and opened the new gallery, the Elisabeth de Brabant Art Center on Fuxing Road W.

She works closely with an international network of artists, museums and collectors to create culturally relevant art programs in Shanghai. As a curator, she selects outstanding content, conceives and produces international level exhibitions and events that encourage critical reflection and dialogue around Asian contemporary art. She is frequently sought out as a speaker to visiting museum and gallery buyers including prestigious names such as the Guggenheim and MOMA.

"Chinese contemporary art is very different to what you see in London, Paris and New York. It is not the most sophisticated and talented but its dynamic, freshness and inconsistence attract me a lot. It is very exciting to be part of it,'' she said. "We present very well-known artists such as Wang Xiaohui, Shan Sa, Liu Beili, Ma Shuqing and Luo Erqi.''

At home, de Brabant likes to regularly rotate the art on display. Currently, her villa exhibits the works of two esteemed artists, Wang Xiaohui and Ma Shuqing. "Wang was completely inspired by my house and created a series of photographs here called 'isolated paradise,' centered upon the story of the girls that might have lived in the house during that time. In this context, Wang's work is about the parallel between Chinese women in the 1930s and contemporary Chinese women.''

The beauty of de Brabant's house is how it suits the quality of a family's life, while also accommodating stunning pieces of art. The family is very happy living here. To de Brabant, the property is a complete accomplishment in that she has successfully achieved what she set out to do.


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