Where can you find a 17th century Chinese sculpture, 19th century Baltic mahogany sofa, and a mid-century Billy Wilder chaise by Eames—all under the same roof? This incredible range of styles and origins can only be found inside Pasadena, California’s furniture showroom Susanne Hollis, Inc. With over 30 years of experience, Susanne Hollis and her son, Mik have traveled to all corners of the world together in search of the best antiques and artwork. “The point is to make somebody feel like they’ve traveled the world without them having to have done that,” says Mik. He sat down to talk to us about how he fell in love with antiques, what it’s like to work with his mother, and more.
How did your mother’s upbringing in Denmark and travels around the world influence her to start her own antiques business?
When my mother was younger she would go out with my grandmother and buy antiques to fill their home. It started out as much out of frugalness as it was out of wanting to have a nice home. Then they started commissioning artists to paint portraits of the family. This began the process of creating a thoughtful, curated home together.
So my mother caught the bug. My father’s international banking career moved my parents to Taiwan. They started putting their first home together when everything was supposed to be chrome and glass, and everyone in Taiwan was getting rid their antiques. There are some amazing pieces that my mother essentially got off of trash piles that ended up being featured in Architectural Digest.
You’re a second-generation antiques dealer. Tell us about your early exposure to antiques
I spent my early childhood in Taiwan and then my mother opened up her shop relatively soon after returning to Pasadena. Our time in Asia was the big influence in the beginning. She started expanding her style after her first container of Danish pine. We would go to Sweden, England and Germany for Art Deco and Biedermeier pieces.
When I was younger it was a chore to go to antiques stores and fairs. But began to see how political history and economics dictate the style in people’s homes–everything from how furniture is made and the aesthetic styles. I’m fascinated by how a single piece reveals so much about the state of the world at the time it was made.
What is that you love about antiques?
Every piece of furniture has a physical and aesthetic history beyond what the craftsman shows. One reason is political history. When they beheaded the nobility of France for example, you nobody wanted to be associated with her type of gold embellished furniture. So then you start to see pieces that are more sedate and other styles like Biedermeier that was a new rising business class. Still amazing materials, still great craftsmanship but a new political statement being made. So every piece of furniture speaks to the political and social climate of the particular time.
In Sri Lanka they had the Portuguese for 150 years, the Dutch for 150 years, and then the British for 150 years, and you can see all of that mixed into their local furniture. Sometimes it would look like they put a cabinet together upside down and that’s just how they left it. It’s one of the few places in the world where ebony grows indigenously so we would see beds of solid ebony or satin wood. It was amazing to see these natural materials used solid where the rest of the world was happy for some veneer.
Another layer is that these pieces have existed for 200 years. They’ve been cared for and maintained and you can read that history on each piece. You can tell if it was in a home with someone who took the time to do regular maintenance or it was basically ignored or maybe exposed to the elements. You can examine a piece, from its surface to how the drawers are now and how they were repaired it all tells a tale of life it’s had.
Susanne Hollis, Inc. specializes in pieces from Asia, Europe, and South America, but what do you feel like you bring to the marketplace that’s distinctive?
We mix styles. There’s nobody that is putting together a single room of all Georgian furniture. No one is doing a whole house full of Biedermeier. So everything we have has a certain elegance and simplicity to it that you can mix with other styles and more modern pieces. It’s probably a little cliché to say it has to be curated, but you can come in here looking for chair and we can find you ten different options, each of which will work but they’re from different parts of the world, different centuries. The point is to make somebody feel like they can shop the world in one space.
What’s it like working with your mother?
It’s great! We have worked together for over 20 years we have learned to travel well together. It was a bit more tense when I was younger but in end we both share a passion and have different strengths. Things like Chinese porcelain I don’t know as much about. But then there’s other things, especially mid-century pieces when she looks to me.
Where do you source the items in the shop?
Our mainstays are Denmark, Sweden, England, France, Italy, and Belgium. Less so than we used to, we’ll go to China, India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. We average about three to 4 trips a year.
What do you look for when looking to add new items to the shop?
We want to find pieces that look like they’ve been in the same home for generations and well-maintained, or pieces that have a unique history. Places like Sri Lanka for example, a cabinet will look half-Dutch and half-English and a little Portuguese and that mix of influences is special.
You can see it in Danish modern furniture too, which are reinterpretations of the best ideas of the Georgian period and the best ideas of the Ming period in China. If you look at the classic “the Chair” designed by Hans Wegner, that is his version of a classic Chinese horseshoe back chair. One craftsman looks to another and refines it and reinterprets it for that period.
Have you ever come across a piece that you couldn’t bear to give up?
As a dealer I’m used to things moving in and out. I’ve got price tags on things at home, but my wife didn’t come from an antique dealer family so it took her a while to get used to a piece disappearing from our house if I thought there was a client for it. Now she gets it. But it’s not often that there’s something I wouldn’t want to sell for the right price. There are things I hold onto for a while and then lose interest. It’s fine and it’s fun to share those pieces with others.
Any stories to share with us about adventures in buying and selling antiques?
Well, the Sri Lankans have a unique way of saying “yes” with their head. They don’t nod up and down, they make something of a figure eight. But if you don’t know that, it looks like they’re saying “no.” So when you’re negotiating with someone and they’re saying “yes” but you think they’re saying “no” and you keep increasing your price…you can see where this is going, so it’s really important to understand the culture when you travel for a buying trip.
Do you have any advice for new collectors?
Find something that you love and pursue it. Don’t be afraid to change courses. You have to go with your interest. The first couple of times you start collecting something you might not like it so much after a while, because you will refine your taste. So switch it, sell it, and find something new.
The other thing is go see the pieces in person. It’s easy now to shop online but you don’t get the connection to the craftsmanship, age, weight, etc. of the piece. Collecting is better done with your hands than your eyes.
What do you wish more people understood about antiques?
Remember that these things were made for a different time. Maybe that antique cabinet doesn’t fit your flat screen television, but we can’t just go order these things. You have to be able to be a little accommodating with the dimensions.
Images via: Susanne Hollis’ Instagram