The Chinese philosophy called wŭ xíng (五行), or the Five Elements, recognizes distinct elements of cyclical change as water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Yaoyu Tong, owner of the Five Elements Home goods shop in Andersonville, has challenged himself since he began this venture in 2016 to view his life and his shop as dynamic states of change related to the philosophy.
Five Elements Home features housewares that double as practical, domestic goods and art. The products, which are curated by Tong from artisans and small workshops in China, South Korea and Japan, include kitchen and bathroom items, as well as journals, stationary and jewelry boxes. No two items are exactly alike and all are made (many by hand) with natural, organic products.
When he opened, Tong focused his time on sourcing products. “But now the store is a three-dimensional experience, like an interactive gallery almost,” he says. “Customers smell our store’s incense; listen to our playlist on Spotify, which anyone can look up; peruse our items (whether or not they buy something) and have good conversation. These days you can shop online for everything, and you can do that with us, too. But it’s nice to be able to come in to Five Elements Home for a few minutes and say, ‘I’m not buying anything today, but I just want to feel calm.’”
Five Elements Home came about when Tong contemplated the gap in American and modern Asian design. Something that stands out in Asian design, Tong says, is that it has a long history, and the design elements are basic and natural. “This can get lost in many interpretations,” Tong says. “I feel sometimes that when people think of Asian design, they think of antiques, and they miss out on seeing how modern Asian design can fit into our lives. Even our newest items never forget their heritage.”
Since opening the store, Tong has learned to appreciate simplicity merged with artistry. Take one of his popular cups, modeled after a Japanese choko sake cup. It has a wide, open mouth, and is in the Kotani style, a beloved way of making porcelain in Asia, but the artwork is a modern leaf display with a pug. Tong describes himself using his favorite elements (lover of wood, paper and cotton) and his astrological sign (Taurus, earth-loving). “When I was a kid, I really enjoyed playing with dirt. I would pour some water on it and would mold a house. I enjoyed touching it and connecting with the earth.”
Hearing him talk about his love for the elements, he seems as if he were destined for design and art. But Tong grew up in Northern China and came to the United States ten years ago for school, majoring in finance and getting an MBA. He found an opportunity in venture capitalism, which, to his surprise, he enjoyed and found creative and challenging. He could only nurture his entrepreneurial spirit and love for design and art in stolen moments. “I would be on a plane going somewhere for work, and I would have less than an hour where I could turn off my phone and unplug,” Tong says. “I would immediately get out a book on Bauhaus or something in design. It was about passion and learning for me.”
Eventually he felt a now-or-never push to open the store. Tong doesn’t have a background in retail, so every day is an educational experience. His greatest joy is hearing about his customers’ connections to the store. In fact, many of his staff members began as customers. As the seasons, colors and temperatures change over the course of a year, Tong simply wants the collection of Five Elements Home to do the same. He invites people to reform their way of thinking about design.