James Lowther's design education was "incredibly stately-home and tea-stained," he says. He grew up in a traditional English house decorated with antiques and florals. His first job was at the classic British textile company Colefax and Fowler.
But his aesthetic worldview changed during his college years, while on a trip to Burma. There he discovered the East Asian art of applying lacquer, a painstaking enterprise that bears little resemblance to the current vogue for power-blasting wood with glossy paint. He purchased an antique lacquered betel box that he took with him when he relocated in 2003 to New York to work in event production and interior design. "It reminded me that I just wanted to be in Asia, making lacquer," he says.
In 2008, Lowther founded , initially focusing on custom orders. Recently, using the Rug Company as a model, he commissioned designers in the U.S. and England to create individual collections. These collaborative lines are a sophisticated mix of centuries-old Asian craftsmanship and contemporary European style. "I'm trying to introduce people to the idea that lacquer isn't just high-gloss IKEA furniture," he says.
Lowther spent months in Vietnam overseeing production. Each wood piece goes through a process that includes painting with tree resin and cashew-nut oil, underwater sanding, and applications of color and decoration. Polishing creates a finish that can range from matte to gleaming.
New York designer Steven Gambrel chose matte finishes for his lacquer-and-burnished-metal candlestick, crackle-finish side table, and keepsake boxes inlaid with duck eggshells. "The authenticity of the artisans' work really comes through in matte," he says.
London-based Rita Konig fashioned a 1960s-style ice bucket, and cocktail and side tables with wavy edges that were inspired by the French Riviera. Swedish designer Martin Brudnizki made two-tone trays with chiseled wood borders. Lowther says, "We're trying to create something new that is as beautiful as something old, using traditional finishes and fresh designs."