A Collector’s Bijou

Joan and John Potter’s home is the result of both a new way of looking at their East Chop property and an integration of an eclectic array of antiques – many from the Far East.

Many Vineyarders know Joan Potter as the proprietor of All Things Oriental, the elegant antiques shop she ran for twenty-seven years on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven before relocating to her East Chop home in July of last year. Joan and All Things Oriental helped popularize Asian antiques on the East Coast.

What Vineyarders may not know is the story of how she came to live in Hong Kong and became a collector of Far East antiques. While Joan still returns to the Orient, she no longer haunts China’s back alleys looking for “finds,” but her love of all things Oriental remains as strong as ever. It is reflected in a home designed to showcase the treasures she has accumulated over a lifetime of collecting.

Designing the house

Angled like the wings of an osprey, the Potters’ one-story house sits on a bluff overlooking Vineyard Sound. It began life as a carriage house to the grand summer home built by Joan’s grandfather Henry Stone Hand in 1905. The one-and-a-half-acre compound Joan was first brought to as a four-week-old infant served as her own family’s summer residence during most of the thirty-eight years she and her husband, John Potter Jr., lived in the Far East. Their three sons – John III, who owns the Vineyard party boat The Skipper; Bill, proprietor of Squash Meadow Construction in Oak Bluffs; and Robert, a corporate pilot – grew up spending summers at the Vineyard home. In those years, John was based in the Far East, working as Union Carbide’s director of planning for Asia Pacific and then as a consultant.

When China acquired control of Hong Kong from Great Britain in 1997, John closed his consulting business, and the Potters decided to live year-round on the Vineyard. “I really never thought I’d want to sell any part of this property,” Joan says. But they decided to sell the larger house, which was not fully winterized, and opted to keep the cozier carriage house that had long ago been turned into a guest cottage. Working with Edgartown residential designer Geoffrey Thors of GT Design and with DM Construction in Oak Bluffs, they expanded the cottage, incorporating architectural details attuned to a couple who had spent most of their adult lives in the Orient. The house now has an entrance and roof with a lower pitch – though not flared like a pagoda, it hints at something more exotic than a traditional cape.

Geoffrey, whom they met through their son Bill, doubled the old cottage’s size to 2,500 square feet by adding a wing that includes a hallway gallery to show off Joan’s favorite curios and artwork, a new living room, and a library. Two small bedrooms blossomed into the new kitchen-with-dining area, while the old kitchen was turned into a master bath and the former living room (with fireplace) became the master bedroom, with a guest room and bath nearby.
“It was a very interesting and satisfying project,” says Geoffrey, who has continued on to other East Chop projects, thanks to enthusiastic recommendations from the Potters.

“It’s like a bijou,” Joan says of her house. “When I drive in the driveway, I look straight through and I see the sea, and it takes my breath away. You wake up and pinch yourself.”

The gabled entrance invites the eye to move inside and beyond – across the funnel-shaped property and past the East Chop Lighthouse all the way across the water to Woods Hole. “What I love so much is the different colors of the water,” Joan says. “Sometimes it’s green, sometimes blue. It turns black in winter.

“The light is singularly the most beautiful thing about the house,” Joan says. Almost every room has windows to take advantage of the spectacular view and its light. Transom windows over double-hung windows add light in all the common rooms.

Joan wanted columns to act as dividers between the main entrance hallway gallery and the living room to the right. Columns also separate the entrance from the dining area to the left. Her must-have list included a nice entrance hall, a big deck, and cornices. Also, double baseboard moldings and French doors. “I think I got everything I wanted,” she says.

For the living room, Geoffrey designed a tray ceiling, which employs a variation of height, instead of a flat ceiling, to create the illusion of greater height.
“I didn’t know what a tray ceiling was,” Joan says, “but it keeps the room open and airy.”

“It was quite a shoehorn,” says Geoffrey. To keep the plan for the newly enlarged house on the same footprint with the required setbacks for the property challenged the designer. The new section had to jog back and over the original to fit the footprint. He helped plan a leaching field for the septic system, engineered by Vineyard Land Surveying of West Tisbury, under the crescent-shaped driveway in front of the house. A backyard location would have placed it too close to the water. To screen the new Potter residence from the house they sold, they filled in a row of cedar trees planted by Joan’s grandfather a hundred years ago.

One of Joan’s favorite perches is a récamier (chaise lounge) under the windowed rear wall in her hall gallery, where she often enjoys her morning coffee, surrounded by some of her favorite Asian art and artifacts. She calls putting the récamier in the gallery “a bit of whimsy,” as that kind of furniture usually goes in a bedroom.

Asian influence

The Potters’ Far East connection originated not with Joan, but her husband. John’s parents met in Shanghai, and John grew up there. His father, John Sr., was a banker and businessman in Shanghai, and his mother, Edna Lee Booker Potter, was one of the earliest female American war correspondents in China. Though Joan met and married John in New York, his work took them to Hong Kong.

“When we first moved to Hong Kong, I really wasn’t into it at all,” Joan says of her love for Asian antiques. “My parents didn’t own one scrap of anything Chinese in their home.” Joan’s mother sent her a check for a hundred dollars and told her to buy something nice for the couple’s new home. So on the advice of a friend, she went to the antiques district.

“That’s when it all started,” she explains. “From these weekly trips to Hollywood Road and Cat Street [Hong Kong’s antiques sector], I became totally transfixed. I still am.” The merchants began educating her, and a lifetime of collecting was launched.

“I adore bargaining,” Joan says. “I became quite well known as the lady people dreaded to see coming, because I was such a hard bargainer. It’s expected, and you gain great stature.” Tough as she might have been about prices, she cared about the people she did business with.

“When babies came or weddings,” she says, “I was always invited, and I always went. Other gweilos [Cantonese for white-faces] wouldn’t bother.” Joan still remains in touch with a number of the Chinese families she met during her bargaining years in Hong Kong. “It’s about friendship,” she says.

When John was transferred and the Potters moved for six years to Singapore, Joan made the leap from collecting to selling antiques as well. Because she speaks Italian – Joan was engaged to an Italian when she met John – she became involved with an Italian women’s organization there, and the Italian ambassador’s wife asked her to organize a fundraiser.

“We went to the Thieves’ Market [Singapore’s antiques district], where we would rummage around and find things,” Joan says. She and a committee of six Italian women fanned out and bought treasures. It was very hard to let go of what they found – items that often cost no more than five or ten dollars but were then marked up for the charity event. These were the glory days before antiques from the Far East became popular and a big business.

“I had the first fundraiser at my house, and it was a big success,” Joan says. “That was the beginning of my thinking I might do this some day as a business.” That idea, which began in Singapore, came to fruition much later in All Things Oriental on the Vineyard.

While still in Singapore, she happened upon an antiques shop run by an English couple, and soon acquired some Edwardian furniture as well. Proceeds from the sales of cocker spaniel puppies she had started breeding went right into this new love, and now the Edwardian furniture she collected then blends beautifully with the Far East antiques in her East Chop home.

“A lot of what we do is in the presentation,” she says. That statement, which applies to her home as well as her antiques business, doesn’t do justice to her natural eye for beauty and value, finely tuned by experience. Two porcelain pieces on the living room mantle took her two consecutive Sundays to land – until the porcelain dealer finally wrung his hands, tore at his hair, and gave in. It was all part of the drama. Pointing at two French gilt mirrors and two halves of a silver food warmer, she says, “It’s all kind of a hodgepodge.” That eclectic style is the Potter signature.

“It’s not that what I have is the best; it’s what I like,” she says. “Nothing was handed to me. I’ve worked my whole life. We are really very simple people, so everything means a lot.” She points to a small sandalwood chest as an example. “It’s a piece nobody ever looks at – the first piece I bought in Singapore. Its origin is Vietnamese, and I’ve never seen another.”

What Joan likes she takes pains to learn about. Sitting on the coffee table in her living room is a porcelain bowl from the nineteenth-century Tung-chih period, which she explains, didn’t last long (1862-1873), as the emperor Tung-chih was a young child when he came to the throne and seventeen when he died.
“It’s very calming,” Joan says of the bowl. “Tung-chih wanted to make his mark on history through fine porcelain, and Tung-chih pieces are decorated with birds, flowers, and butterflies.”

Nearby is a collection of sterling silver boxes from India. “I killed myself getting them for the price I could afford,” she says, laughing. “There’s a story behind absolutely everything. Everything was bargained to death.”

Two garden stools come from the eighteenth-century famille-rose period, named for the predominant color of the enamel work. “The only way I could afford to buy these pieces was if they had minor repairs,” she says. Only an expert could tell, and Joan paid two hundred Hong Kong dollars – thirty-five American dollars – in 1967, for antiques that would otherwise have cost five figures.

She observes that every room should have red in it. “It’s warming, elegant, and good luck,” she says. By tradition in China, red symbolizes good fortune, success, and fertility, and Chinese brides often wear red. Chinese side tables in red lacquer stand on either side of the récamier in Joan’s gallery, and a red cabinet appears under the scrolls in the living room. That color accent – along with the light – gives elegance to the Potters’ home.

Crouched on the windowsill behind the living room sofa are two fat pottery figures, which look like sumo wrestlers and still have remnants of the dirt they were dug up from in some distant province. They are examples of Joan’s eye for the unusual and came from Joan’s second trip to Shanghai. She describes the adventure of being taken to a large building and climbing the stairs to the top, where she found tribal merchants who came in from the mountains only once a week to sell their wares.

A couple’s collection

Although John Potter graciously defers to his wife in matters of décor, he has made important contributions to the Potter collection, sometimes through his family and sometimes through early purchases on his own. Scroll paintings and wall hangings that are a striking part of the Potters’ collection were purchased by John just before the Communists occupied Shanghai. Two scrolls hang on a wall in the living room, with several more hanging in the adjoining library. One scroll in the living room portrays the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu riding a water buffalo; another, a Chinese poet. In the library is an exquisite, double-sided Kasu embroidery depicting women in a garden, made of silk and sewn with gold threads, that John purchased from a vendor on the street.

“Each of the scrolls narrates a part of Chinese history,” says John, who is an author (his 1960 The Treasure Diver’s Guide is still in print and considered a diver’s bible) and is writing a memoir. He recounts the story of the Communist takeover in Shanghai in 1949, the scene still vivid in his memory. At the time, a joke went around the foreign community about the great wall of Shanghai – built to protect the city from the Communists. Made of bamboo and one-inch thick, it was totally useless.

“The Nationalist soldiers had fled; it was very quiet and the streets were strangely deserted,” he says. “We stayed up all night, and we heard a shuffling noise in the dark, followed by gunfire. It was the first group of liberation soldiers, and by the next morning, the city had been occupied. There were posters on every corner, saying, ‘We are your friends.’”

There was a silk peddler who would turn up at John’s parents’ house every six months or so, and he’d lay down a sheet to spread out his goods from all over China. When he came the last time before the occupation, he brought many of the scrolls and hangings now in Joan and John’s home.

It took many months to get the documents that allowed John to leave Shanghai after the Communists had taken over. Because of their Nationalist connection, his parents had already left for the U.S. (his mother had played tennis with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, whose husband was head of the Nationalist party, and his father worked for the Bank of China) and many of their belongings were confiscated. But John was able to keep the scrolls and hangings. Two hangings in the library come from a pale-pink silk coverlet that John calls A Thousand Babies. Traditionally used as a fertility blanket for the marriage bed, the coverlet was carefully cut in half for hanging by Joan. Nearby on an Edwardian cabinet sits a collection of figurines representing the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.

“All of this stuff has traveled the world with us,” John says, with affection. “Everything moves around in this house,” he adds. Rearranging objects in order to see them freshly is a sign of a true collector.

Now Joan keeps her remaining inventory from All Things Oriental – one-of-a-kind and hard-to-find antiques from the Far East – in a salon downstairs, as well as in a child-sized cottage next to the house. If people call, she has a bit of this, a bit of that: architectural elements from old wooden houses in Beijing that were torn down, washboards that can be used as hors d’oeuvre trays, pedestal dishes for sweets. But the favored antiques and objets d’art that grace her home are not for sale.
Joan tells the story about one more beloved object: a betel nut container with a solid brass inlay from Sri Lanka. On a full day’s journey up the mountain from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, she and John had stopped on the way at an antiques shop.

“How much?” Joan asked the vendor, who wanted thirty dollars. “No. I will pay you ten dollars,” she insisted. Negotiations continued, until Joan left to return to the car without the betel nut container. The merchant came running out to the car, crying, “Wait, wait!” Joan got her price.

“That was the biggest bargain. It was a lot of fun,” Joan says. “It really is one of my most prized possessions, and he never would have sold it to me if he hadn’t made a profit.”