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Asia Major

Ancient Chinese scholars’ stones find homes in three elegant North Shore gardens

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Wormser’s garden combines rocks of many sizes and shapes with varied foliage: the dark needles of a topiary pine (at left), the soft leaves of a Japanese maple (front) and a cedar (rear), and the spiky uprights of irises (center). Photo Gallery »

Some art and antiques provide their own context; they can be displayed just about anywhere, and their owners will have a pretty good idea how to use them—a chair, for instance, or a painting. Not so with an ancient, twisted, perforated, water-gnarled, ten-foot-tall pillar of limestone.

“People love these stones,” but sometimes have trouble imagining how to use them in the garden, says Michael Keeley, Pagoda Red’s creative director, of the Chinese scholars’ stones at the Winnetka and Bucktown stores, which specialize in Asian antiques. To help make the imagining easier, he has created a Chinese-style garden behind the Winnetka store that displays scholars’ stones and other wonders in a suitably serene environment.

In Ed Wormser’s Northbrook garden, a polished slab echoes the mirror-like surface of the stream and the interaction of trees and sky. Photo Gallery »

The naturally eroded stones, or gongshi, come mostly from watery areas around China’s Lake Tai, on the Yangtze Delta plain, with the most precious of them originating on the lake’s bottom. Used as objects of contemplation as far back as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D), the captivating forms come in many shapes and sizes—evoking mountains, monks, and many other things.

Northbrook resident Ed Wormser has been a fan of Asian gardens since living in Japan several years ago. The garden at his home is a Midwestern adaptation of the Japanese aesthetic, incorporating plants, water, and rocks to suggest larger natural tableaux. “It’s an aesthetic that you respond to immediately or you don’t,” he says. “I do.”

When he first encountered the scholars’ stones in Pagoda Red’s courtyard garden, he appreciated their serenity and poise. “The water has been going through them for centuries and centuries, making these beautiful, unique forms,” he says.

Wormser initially bought two large gongshi and placed them in a prominent spot in his garden; within a few weeks it became clear that they needed a more naturalistic setting. Because the stones are both large and expensive, Keeley says, “people often think they should be put in a very important place in the garden, but after a while they see how much more effective they are in a more contemplative location.” A grouping of stones—the newest and largest weighs five tons—now stands near a waterfall at the edge of Wormser’s large, rocky pond, where it meets a wooded area. It is his own evocation of an earthly paradise.


Photography: Linda Oyama Bryan


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