PAST WINDOW DISPLAYS
by Louis Bofferding
After fourteen years of tending shop here at street level, and eight before that dealing privately from a parlor-floor apartment around the corner, I’m now about to move up in the world — to much larger quarters (five thousand, sun-drenched square feet) on the 5th floor of 232 East 59th Street, the so-called Fine Arts Building. There I’ll be joining up with my colleague and friend Pierre Durand, who, with the late connoisseur Khalil Rizk, established the universally celebrated Chinese Porcelain Company in 1984. Come May, you’ll find me at the new location. Until the end of April, however, rest assured I’ll be conducting business here on Lexington Avenue as usual.
The thought of packing up for the eleven-block voyage south has inspired my latest — and last — window display, anchored with a vintage Hermès suitcase. I’ve filled it with my usual mix of unusual objects: a 1920s Venini glass bowl, a contemporary painting of a Mercedes-Benz engine by Justen Ladda, a Vietnamese mother-of-pearl-encrusted tray, an Early American swift, an 18th-century trompe l’oeil drawing, a Victorian “switchblade” fan, a 19th-century French drawing of a lady’s shoe, and a harpoon-like Swedish folk-art carving. Should something catch your eye, do come in to take a look. And to say, I hope, not goodbye but au revoir.
It may be a dog’s life, but for some lucky dogs that life is a cushy one. Take little Fifi, for example. Back in the 1960s she was living on easy street, or, to be more precise, Fifth Avenue. When her owner Mrs. X wasn’t cajoling her with baby talk and spritzing her with French perfumes, she frolicked in Central Park under the watchful eye of a lady’s maid, dined on meals prepared by the chef (no Purina Dog Chow for her), wore Hermès leashes, and slept in an 18th-century dog bed. This window display features that very bed, which suited Fifi to a tee, given her descent from one of Marie-Antoinette’s lap dogs (or so the breeder claimed).
Mrs. X noticed the bed in the window of Celine Briton’s Madison Avenue antiques shop, when on the way to Côte Basque for lunch, where she was to meet Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, the collector of fine French furniture (known to the cognoscenti as FFF). Over the quenelles, Mrs. Wrightsman mentioned her recent purchase of an 18th-century dog bed — the one she eventually gave to the Metropolitan Museum. After coffee and petits fours the competitive Mrs. X made a beeline back to Miss Briton’s shop, where she bought (price be damned) the bed. A squalid cushion in a basket wasn’t worthy of Fifi, she reasoned, and besides, one of her darling’s ancestors may have slept in it.
When delivered to Fifth Avenue, Mrs. X positioned the bed in an alcove with a pair of tiny chandeliers, and a miniature 19th-century table, on which the chef placed each night a bone-shaped marzipan treat as a midnight snack. If the elegant decor matched Fifi’s impeccable pedigree, her unruly behavior most certainly did not. She yapped incessantly, gnawed through leashes, and, when taken to the park, would scamper into the bushes for suspiciously long periods of time. Mrs. X wondered if these were atavistic impulses stemming from an ancestor’s liaison with a lesser breed. But then, a lady in 18th-century France wouldn’t have thought twice about a fling with a stable boy, so how could her dog’s progeny be held to a higher standard?
This reverie on ancien régime morality was interrupted by the maid’s return from the park, with her tail between her legs, so to speak. Fifi, she confessed, had darted into the bushes when unleashed, as usual, but on going in to fetch her, she shot out the other side with – sacre bleu! – a common looking mutt. And so it was revealed that the bushes had been a place of assignation all along, and that Fifi had cast aside for love — carnal love! — the doting Mrs. X, an devoted maid, a Cordon bleu chef, expensive perfumes, designer leashes, and an exquisite 18th-century French bed.
Some years back when the antiques trade was in a lull, a friend suggested I put a crystal in my “prosperity corner.” I love rock crystal, but I wasn’t about to buy into crystal power or new-age philosophy. Yet I have to admit that my friend was on the same wavelength as the popes and saints who endowed this mineral with mystical properties (if not blasé geologists who classify it as mere quartz).
The ancient Greeks thought rock crystal was ice congealed by intense cold over millennia. Their Roman successors carved it into jewelry and luxury objects for patricians. And then, at the dawn of the Dark Ages, St. John of Patmos likened rock crystal to the purity of the water that flowed before the throne of God. No wonder subsequent popes arrayed their alters with liturgical objects that were made of it.
In the secular age of the Baroque, the stone was treasured for its rarity, beauty, and crystalline refraction of light. That’s why Louis XIV’s agents bought antique rock-crystal objects for the king’s pleasure, and newly unearthed hunks of it too, which were cut, polished, and mounted in ormolu to create the chandeliers and candlesticks that illuminated Versailles.
Fast forward to 1950s Paris where Dior-clad divas trawled the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and gazed through the window of Bonzano, a purveyor of luxury goods for the home. Their rock-crystal candlesticks were so admired that Art et Industrie, a magazine covering the latest trends in high-style design and décor, devoted a page to them in 1951. On it, front and center, against a Surrealist backdrop, is the model we feature in our window display. The caption rhapsodizes on “this mineral that’s a precious stone, clear as a diamond, slightly frosty, refracting light rays like a prism. Its beauty is in its natural form, and its virtue lies in the intense life of the material itself.”
And the other items in the window? Well, there’s a group of small rock crystals on a miniature Japanese altar that’s placed on a 1950s French cocktail table (which might have belonged to one of those aforementioned divas). Tucked beneath is a 1960s Jansen telephone table from the collection of Brooke Astor, which was later painted a high-gloss white at the command of her decorator, the legendary Albert Hadley (who ended the aforementioned business lull when he dropped by with a free-spending billionairess in tow). On it is an 18th-century silver shoe buckle set with paste diamonds emitting a smokey glimmer, which compliments the rock crystal’s authoritative flash.
You don’t have to be a jaded New Yorker to be suspicious of a man in a fur-trimmed suit who comes down the chimney during the night — even if he’s stuffing presents in the stockings that were hung by the chimney with care. Or to worry that in the process he’ll send the opaline-glass urns on the mantle crashing to the floor, break the porcelain vase next to it, and leave soot on the adjacent chair’s white-satin seat. Imagine, then, our relief next day on finding nothing amiss, and our joy at the embarrassment of riches he’d left behind.
Among the stash was a trove of fine jewelry, like the 1970s silver pin in the form of a delicate leaf. There was a French 1960s gold brooch by Line Vautrin, no less, of boys and girls dancing with letters that spell out “tous les garçons et les filles,” the title of a 1962 hit song by Françoise Hardy. And we can’t not mention the pair of gold Tiffany cufflinks by Jean Schlumberger set with lapis lazuli.
Among the porcelains were two gilded “pebbles,” and a sandaled-Roman foot, by Piero Fornasetti from the 1960s. There was also a charming winged cupid balancing on a ball (fickle love!) that was modeled by Karl Tutter in 1920s Germany.
Our eye was then caught by the shimmer of glass, and low and behold, there was a 1970s cobalt-blue perfume bottle by Seguso of Venice. Next to it was a 1930s Art Deco candle holder in the form of a star by Steuben. And best of all was the 19th-century candlestick with a white-and-blue spiral in its stem, which had once belonged to the connoisseur Baron Max Fould-Springer.
Filling us with wonder was the bestiary of sculptures made by artists and artisans on three continents. From Japan came an exquisite rosewood carp with ebony eyes, from America an Arts-and-Crafts giltwood pelican, and from France a Neo-Rococo bronze dolphin cavorting on a swirl of ormolu.
We couldn’t possibly list everything our nocturnal visitor left behind — so enormous was the haul it overflowed into the shop. Which is why you should come inside to see it all, rather than gawk through the window. If you do, you’ll understand our embarrassment over leaving the intruder a measly glass of milk and a plate of cookies. Next year it will be a magnum of champagne and tin of caviar.
When Chinese wares landed on European shores in the 18th century, a buying frenzy ensued, prompting Western artisans to cash in on the trend with their own versions called chinoiserie. And when Japanese wares arrived in the mid 19th century, the descendants of those Western artisans came up with japonisme. This window display features Chinese and Japanese wares, and the European ones they inspired.
The remoteness of Asia resulted in some infelicities on the part of 18th-century European craftsmen and designers. That’s why the Chinese empress in The Empress of Tea tapestry is seated on the ground following Japanese rather than Chinese custom. In the West, this suggested lèse majesté, so she was placed on a luxurious tasseled cushion, which brings us to our pair of trompe l’oeil stools that were carved from wood to look like stacked cushions. They were made in Venice in the 19th century, embellished with giltwood tassels, painted in faux-lacquer (since the real thing wasn’t available in the West), and mounted with wheels, allowing them to be rolled across the terrazzo floors of a palazzo.
Between the stools is a 1930s Japanese pot with a craqueleur glaze, containing three giltwood lotuses symbolizing different stages of enlightenment, according to Buddhist teaching. The pot rests on a lacquered stand from the 1970s that was probably made in the Paris workshop of C. T. Loo, an important Chinese art dealer. There, Asian artisans were employed to restore antique pieces, and make stylish, modern versions of traditional Eastern ones.
In front is an elegant black-and-gold lacquer Japanese tray that’s painted with a fierce-looking hawk perched in a tree. It’s difficult to date, but we suspect it was made for the Western market in the 1920s, when it would have come in handy for the distribution of cocktails before dinner. And the 1940s, gold-infused glass astray and matching lighter? They were made by Seguso on Murano, and have absolutely nothing to do with Eastern wares or their influence. They’re included because the chic of them would have appealed to the owner of our tray, whom we can picture lighting up a Lucky Strike, air-kissing a departing guest, and flicking an ash into the shimmering, golden ashtray with nonchalance.
“I loathe nostalgia!” So said Diana Vreeland, then a consultant at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, and a former editor-in-chief at Vogue, before proceeding to rhapsodize about the past. The irony wasn’t lost on George Plimpton, her editor, who took the quote as the opening line of her 1984 memoir. In so doing he made the point that she adored nostalgia. As do we, which is why this window display is dedicated to the role it’s played in 20th-century design.
Take, for example, the ravishing little Italian chandelier from the 1950s. It’s a streamlined version of the 19th-century gas-burning ones (below right) that were equipped with glass globes to prevent gusts from snuffing out the flames. Ours, however, was designed for electricity, so the globes are purely decorative. It was made in opalescent-blue glass, and held together with gold-metal fittings wrought as finely as jewelry. We attribute the design to Ercole Barovier, the direct descendant of a glassblower who settled on Murano in the 13th-century.
Beneath it is a diminutive pair of Louis XVI-style chairs from the 1930s. Back then the decorative arts were believed to have reached their apogee in 18th-century France. Collectors have since developed an immunity to the allure of that time and place, which has been supplanted by a vogue for “mid-century modern.” That style will eventually fall from grace too, for, as every fashionista knows, snob appeal vanishes with the public’s embrace.
And lastly, resting on a table draped with blue-silk moiré, is an elegant 1920s Chinese blanc-de-chine porcelain made in the Qing Dynasty style of the 18th century. It represents Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, swathed in pearls and seated on a rockwork island rising from the sea. It is said that when the souls of the deceased grow weary on their pilgrimage to Sukhāvatī, the “Land of Bliss,” she deposits them into lotus blossoms where they can take rest.
Anna Wintour, the current editor of Vogue, famously urges fashion designers to “be modern.” And right she is to do so. But, in a Post-Modern world, just what is modern is open to interpretation. Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs, two of her favorites, pilfer history for inspiration, as have many 20th-century furniture designers. Which just goes to show that when it comes to real style, whether modern or nostalgic, as Mrs. Vreeland said to Mr. Plimpton, “all who have it share one thing: originality.”
“Allô allô, Christian? C’est moi, Patricia — your costumes, they were all anyone talked about at the ball!” So might have begun a ship-to-shore telephone call placed in September of 1951 from the Gaviota IV, the most luxurious yacht of the day, as she made for open sea. Christian was Christian Dior, who would have been exhausted when that call came in, having designed, fitted, and overseen the execution of a multitude of costumes for that ball. And Patricia was Mrs. Lopez-Willshaw, who cut a glamorous swath through European high society. She and her husband Arturo had made a spectacular entrance stepping off a junk dressed as the emperor and empress of China (seen below). With them was their yacht’s decorator Georges Geffroy (standing right), and Arturo’s lover Baron Alexis de Redé (standing left). It would seem that Patricia’s lover, a French playwright, stayed at home.
And the ball itself? It was held in the Palazzo Labia, and given by Charles de Beistegui, the heir to a Mexican silver-mining fortune. The subject of breathless press coverage at the time, the ball has since passed into legend. The invitations were fought over, and guests squandered fortunes on costumes. As Redé noted in his memoirs, it occasioned “an extraordinary procession of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces that passed through the Simplon Pass in the direction of Venice, with large Dior boxes strapped onto their roofs.”
Having set the worldly scene, let’s return to the Lopez-Willshaw yacht (above). According to Vogue, “her passage into port never fails to create a sensation.” And no wonder, since the owners lived grandly, and the Gaviota’s appointments were lavish. She was filled with treasures that ranged from a priceless 18th-century giltwood chair made for Marie-Antoinette, to a pair of made-to-order mahogany deckchairs (seen below) that match the one in this window display. They were produced by the Paris antiquaire Jean-Pierre Hagnauer (who had run for France in the 1936 Berlin Olympics), and followed the lines of a 19th-century English pair he sold to the film star Jean Marais.
When the yacht was featured in Realités, a French magazine that covered the world of politics and the arts, the writer marveled at how “radar and antiques live side by side.” She also mentioned a ship-to-shore telephone, which may have been kept out of sight since its rudimentary appearance would have undercut the refined decor. This supposition prompted us to include a 1930s French telephone box, which was veneered with 18th-century book bindings to look like a small traveling bookcase.
And now, let’s go back to where we began, eavesdropping on Madame Lopez-Willshaw’s telephone conversation with Monsieur Dior, which is being brought to a hasty conclusion: “…Christian, darling, Arturo thinks we’ve talked about clothes long enough, and says he wants the phone to call a dealer about a chair that belonged to Marie-Antoinette, as if we don’t have enough of those already. Alors, au revoir cheri!”
A vivid green shoot between snowdrifts may be the first sign of spring, but it can’t be said to have truly sprung until a woman sheds her winter woolens for something a bit more flou. This change in weather and wardrobe will prompt her to take a seat at the dressing table to recalibrate her toilette. And if that table happens to be graced with a looking glass and matching lamp by Venini, the greatest Venetian glass maker of modern times, so much the better.
Not surprisingly, Paolo Venini gave just such a set to his daughter Laura — in fact, the very one we feature in this window display. It would follow her from the family home in Venice to the one she made as a bride in Milan, to those she shared with her husband and two daughters in and around Boston, and finally to an apartment in New York, where, as a widow, she worked for the celebrated product and graphic designer Massimo Vignelli (who had designed a line of glass lamps for her father).
Humor us in our conceit: it’s Venice in the spring of 1954, and butterflies flutter through an open window as Laura sits in a gilded chair at her dressing table (to set the scene, we’ve cheated a bit by including a few things she never laid eyes on). A letter has just arrived in the morning post from her dashing American fiancé, Stanley Hancock Hillyer. With heart aflutter, she opens it in tearing haste with a silver-mounted, malachite-and-rock-crystal letter opener, to read of his immanent arrival for their wedding. She then rushes off to tell her parents, leaving the letter behind in her excitement.
Taking into account the emotional symmetry of love, his heart was probably all aflutter too when he penned his letters to her, which he most certainly did in those days before email. This brings to mind a verse so famous it’s become a cliché: “in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” It rings as true today as when it was written by Lord Alfred Tennyson in 1834. Presumably Laura, who had studied English at Oxford University, knew it well. And surely her betrothed, when setting off for Venice to marry, lived and breathed the sentiment expressed.
With freezing temperatures and blizzards buffeting much of the country, you may have come down with a severe case of the winter blues. But it’s the colors themselves — ultramarine, indigo, sapphire, turquoise, lapis, periwinkle, among others — that we celebrate in this window display.
The deepest shade here is the midnight-blue of the elipse-shaped “mirror” painting by contemporary artist Justen Ladda. It’s actually a combination of two shades of blue set asparkle with iron flecks that look like diamond dust. Next to it is an 18th-century, hand-colored print of the Palais Royal in Paris, which has a vivid sky-blue sky (a much-treasured gift from a much-loved former employer, it’s not for sale). Also dating to that refined time and place is a silk panel with a pattern of picturesque ruins silhouetted against a powder-blue background.
We wheeled over the silk panel a gilded, wrought-iron Napoleon III table with a tilt-top that depicts flowers on a cornflower-blue ground. Made from thousands of tiny glass beads, they haven’t faded a bit since being stitched on in the 19th century. Next to it is a Chinese parchment box, hand-painted in a symphony of blues and greens channeling the cool elegance of Deeda Blair, it’s former owner, who placed it in her Washington, D.C. home, with the aid of her decorator Billy Baldwin.
We fudged the theme by including a greyish-brown glass bottle by Venini, but it goes so well with its cerulean mate that we couldn’t bear to separate them. And before gazing on our two apothecary jars, who would have thought Windex blue a beautiful color? (Madame Bovary fans take note: one is labeled arsenic.) And last, smallest, but not least, are the two paperweights. One in a watery, Scandinavian blue by Gunnel Nyman, and the other in a strident Venetian aquamarine by Zecchino.
Winter blues? Don’t turn against the color itself. Just think of the warm, shimmering waters of the Cote d’Azur, which was itself named after a shade of blue. Or the sky that isn’t really blue, except at the twilight hour the French call l’heure bleue, which is the name of a classic Guerlain perfume that’s inexplicably yellow, and comes in a box that’s inappropriately gold. Go figure…
“Gariboldi? Do you mean the general who unified Italy in the 19th century?” No, that was Giuseppe Garibaldi — I’m talking about Giovanni Gariboldi, the 20th-century designer whose ceramics are avidly collected today by those in the know. Admittedly, he’s less important than the history-making general, unless you’re passionate about the so-called mid-century modern style as so many are these days.
On graduating from the Brera art academy in Milan in 1926, our Gariboldi became a protégé of Gio Ponti, the great architect and designer. Ponti, who was then art director of the Richard-Ginori porcelain company recruited Gariboldi to design for the firm. Early on he did a small series of ceramic-tile panels of flower-filled vases. Each was unique, and ours, signed and dated 1931, has flowers with roots that burst through the vase, while butterflies flutter, dragonflies buzz, a snail creeps, and a grasshopper rests between grand jetées.
Gariboldi’s panel was inspired by 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings that were allegories on the transience of life, like Balthasar van der Ast’s shown above. In both, flowers symbolize beauty that will wither, butterflies human folly, and grasshoppers vainglory, since they refer to the plague of locust that descended on pharaoh in the Old Testament. Gariboldi, however, shook off these anxieties, religious and otherwise, to revel like a pagan in nature’s robustness.
Gariboldi also designed for Ginori the small 1936 porcelain pot that prefigures the mid-century modern style. Designed more as an object d’art than for daily use, its opening can barely accommodate more than a single flower’s stem. What makes the pot remarkable is the perfection of form, and the contrast of the velvety-red exterior with the shiny-gold interior, revealed by the outward curl of the lip. You might say this hidden luxury is the equivalent in ceramics of the fur-lined trench coat in fashion.
The other things in this window display are French — the 1840s painted-and-gilded-metal lamp, a gilded-wrought-iron Neo-Rococo chair, and a lacquered, gilt-rimed cigarette table. As they’re all part of sets, we have their mates inside, along with some other mid-century modern pieces. But if you’re keen on the Italian designers of that period, and Gariboldi in particular, look through the door and you’ll see an oxblood-glazed ceramic umbrella stand and a white-glazed planter, both from the 1940s when the style was gathering steam. But then, why stand outside and peer in when you can come in and see the work of some other Italian masters of that day, like Seguso, Bianconi, Venini, and Chiesa?
In Paris one hears this three-word phrase – in translation “it’s madly chic!” – tripping off the tongues of the fashionable. It might be said melodiously by the Countess de Ribes describing a debutante ball, in staccato by Karl Lagerfeld steering a couture client to a cocktail dress, or with multiple exclamation points by Susan Gutfreund, the international society decorator, coming across an antique treasure on the Quai Voltaire. The phrase, in other words, isn’t wasted on just anything that’s merely pleasing, but bestowed on something that’s wildly extravagant.
Which brings us to our window display featuring a showstopper of a candelabrum, or girandole as it’s also called, from girandola, an Italian firework that was all the rage at Versailles in the 18th century. The lighting fixture was so named because with candles lit its prisms flashed like fireworks. Typically, girandoles were made of glass and brass, but those that would have been found in the palace itself were of rock crystal (a stone prized for its transparency) and gilt bronze, or ormolu, which looks like gold molded, or as the French say or moulu.
Some two hundred years later the Paris bronze-casting firm of Baguès updated the girandole for The Roaring Twenties (or to continue with our ‘madly chic’theme, The Mad Years as they’re known in France). By then, for the better part of a century, Baguès had been making fixtures and furnishings of superb quality that ran the gamut stylistically from historical reproduction to modernistic invention. Fine materials, however, were as dear in the 20th century as they were in the 18th, so while a glass and brass girandole from this firm was expensive, one in rock crystal and ormolu cost the earth.
Our monumental rock-crystal and ormolu girondole stands a proud three feet, and weighs in at a hefty eighty-five pounds. More interesting than the statistics, however, is the design itself, which is a stylish riff on a traditional form. This is seen in the ormolu frame that begins symmetrically at the base, before rising to a botanical fluidity, sprouting tendrils and buds along the way. It’s also seen in the embarrassment of rock crystals, some as large as a fist, which were hung asymmetrically, and others as small as flower petals, which were wired together to form blowsy blossoms. And the final, artful effect of frame and crystals combined is one of madcap sumptuousness, which would have left us uncharacteristically speechless were it not for that apt, aforementioned phrase “c’est follement chic!
So soothing is this vowel-laced Latin prayer to the ear, one could imagine its having been worn down to soft sibilance by the endless incantations of the faithful. According to the Gospel of St. Luke, these were the very words spoken to the Virgin by Archangel Gabriel — in translation “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” — that revealed her destiny to be the mother of Christ.
Unlike the prayer, this diminutive statue of the Virgin Mary has been literally worn down by the faithful in prayer [see ARTWORK]. Finely carved in early 18th-century Flanders from a single piece of wood, it has lost some of its surface decoration through veneration. Yet traces remain of the white paint on her face and hands, the gilding of her dress, and the stippled gilding and blue and red paint of her cloak.
The sumptuousness of Mary’s dress might strike some today as jarring, for we live in an age that conflates the spiritual with the ascetic. But in the past, when richness was called on to evoke the divine, the opposite was the case. Back in the early 12th century, for example, Abbot Suger commissioned liturgical objects for the monastic church of St. Denis outside Paris that were wrought in silver and gold, and carved from rare hardstones. That’s why it didn’t strike us as inappropriate to place our devotional statue of Mary on an ormolu-mounted table with an Indian alabaster top inlaid with lapis lazuli, malachite, and other semi-precious stones.
And the mirror? For centuries their representation in art symbolized vanity, one of the seven cardinal sins, yet this mirror’s halo-like shape and gilded rays made it a serviceable stand-in for a divine aureole [see MIRRORS]. Which goes to show that when it comes to styling a window display, we make use of what we have at hand. After all, the point is to please the eye of the passerby, even if it results in an infelicity that might ruffle the feathers of an art historian.
To hear Ave Maria in Latin and set to music by the 16th-century composer Palestrina go to:
“The waving line…how inelegant would the shapes of all our moveables be without it?” asked the English painter William Hogarth in The Analysis of Beauty, his 1753 treatise on the arts. What he called moveables we call furniture, and in writing on the subject he observed that “there is scarcely a room in any house whatever where one does not see the waving line employed in some way or other.” Hogarth was so taken by those waving lines that dozens of schematic drawings of them were included in his book.
Hogarth lived in the Age of the Rococo, when the curve held sway, but in our own Age of the Right Angle, the curve is looked on askance. This is a legacy of the Modernists who preferred the rudimentary straight line that machines turned out with precision. Yet even a quintessential Modernist like Mies van der Rohe couldn’t resist the elegance of the curve, the defining characteristic of his iconic Barcelona chair of 1929. Back then, however, the machine wasn’t up to the task of shaping the chair’s supporting steel arcs, so, ironically, they were handcrafted by artisans instead.
This window display is devoted to pre-Modern curves — those that are both wavy, which Hogarth called “the line of beauty,” and serpentine, which he called “the line of grace.” By any name, they abound in the unfurling acanthus leaves of the 18th-century German mirror frame, the cabriole legs of the French bench made around the same time, and the undulating salamanders of the 11th-century Chinese vases, which are now wired as lamps.
Since Mies designed his famous chair, technology has mastered the curve. Yet to many buyers, and even some professionals who should know better, the curve looks old-fashioned. Needless to say, that’s not the case among sophisticated collectors, decorators, and designers. Take, for example, the celebrated architect and furniture designer Zaha Hadid. Her Polyurethane sofa and ottoman of 2007 are proof positive that the curve has lost none of its allure since Hogarth sang its praises nearly three centuries ago.
Noël Coward — composer, playwright, and sometime actor — wrote these lyrics for what would be the hit song of his 1938 musical comedy Operette. They’re a send up of the scions of grand English families who, during the Great Depression, struggled financially to keep up their country estates without stinting on champagne at the Café Royal. Imagine their relief, then, on finding the means of their salvation hanging on their very walls. Coward (seen below with Gertrude Lawrence in his play Private Lives) continued in wicked rhyme…
Aunt Florence’s taste not withstanding, those collections of Old Masters, assembled over generations, saved the day when knocked down at auction in one go. An eldest son, however, would have been embarrassed to let on that he was selling off a family legacy. That’s why the provenance would appear in the sale catalog as “a gentleman of title” — a designation that ensured his anonymity, and tantalized bidders with its aristocratic ring.
The painting of the goddess Diana that’s featured in this window display, and its mate which is in the shop, may well have been commissioned by an ancestor of one of these impecunious, consigning gentlemen. While we don’t know his name or that of his ancestral estate, we do know of three stately homes on both sides of the Atlantic where they subsequently hung.
Flanking the painting is a pair of faux bois-painted English pedestals that were made in the late 1960s for Johnny Galliher, an American man-about-town who was then living in London. On them is a pair of French 19th-century, painted-and-gilded metal lamps that have retained their original, matching shades.
You may well ask what a pair of French lamps have to do with the stately homes of England. Grasping at straws, we could say they’re just the kind of thing a smart 1930s London decorator would have bought for the country house of a client who, in spite of it all, was still in the money. To continue with this iffy line of reasoning, we could say it was a mere accident of fate that our fine lamps didn’t turn up in one of them before ending up in our stylish, if less than stately shop on Lexington Avenue.
Hear Noël Coward sing The Stately Homes of England (you can skip the add) at:
Bitter rivalries in the art world are nothing new. In the 5th century BC, according to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, Zeuxis and Parrhasius each claimed to paint more realistically than the other. To settle who really did, they agreed to a competition in which both would present a painting for judgement. Zeuxis unveiled his of a cluster of grapes which was so life-like that birds swooped down to peck at them in vain. Certain of triumph, he told his rival to unveil his painting. Parrhasius coolly replied there was no veil for him to draw back — his painting was of a veil.
Almost 1,700 years later we don’t know if those artists ever lived, if the competition took place, or, for that matter, if this was the beginning of trompe l’oeil painting (“fool the eye” in French), or just the first recorded instance of it. But what we do know is that an illusionistic work of art is as engaging today as it ever was, whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, or a building. After all, only the dull minded wouldn’t experience a frisson on seeing Abraham Susenier’s shells revealed by a drawn curtain (circa 1655), Andy Warhol’s painted-wood object in the form of a Brillo box (circa 1965), or Borromini’s false perspective in the courtyard of the Palazzo Spada in Rome (circa 1635).
So when it came to devising a window display that would feature our 16th-century giltwood frame, we decided to go trompe l’oeil. But instead of putting in it a two-dimensionalpainting that looks three-dimensional, we filled it with things — a Chinese pot, Japanese giltwood flowers, swags of velvet — to masquerade as a still-life painting. And to make it even more of a tease, we pulled a bit of velvet over the bottom of the frame.
Odds are slim that a passerby will be up for hanging an empty frame on their wall, or have, say, a 16th-century Bronzino painted portrait at home that just happens to fit (one that would, however, recently came up at Christie’s and didn’t reach its 15 million dollar low estimate, should you care to make an offer). So what can we do, then, with our frame? Well, antiques dealers often slip mirrors in them, although that tends to look better when they’re smaller than this one. But we do have a Plan B fallback — we’re going to insert a sheet of cobalt-blue glass. Not only will it have the visual heft to hold it’s own with this gutsy, gold frame, but together they’ll make a dramatic statement.
The dictionary defines provenance as “the history of a valued object,” and since so many of the antiques in our inventory have distinguished histories, the eminent decorator Mario Buatta has rechristened our shop “The House of Provenance.” But we’re in on the joke — how could we not be when a list of the former owners of many of the things you’ll find here is a veritable send-up of snobbery? After all, among them are Queen Victoria, Andy Warhol, Pope Leo XIII, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, African-American chanteuse Lena Horne, Metropolitan Museum benefactor Jayne Wrightsman, tobacco heiress Doris Duke, cosmetics tycooness Helena Rubinstein, the Maharaja of Jaipur, and couturier nonpareil Christian Dior. Need I go on?
Probably not – you get the picture. Although you might think it’s silly to care about who owned an object when it is what it is, whether it belonged to an illustrious someone or a mere nobody. But it does make a difference to the museum curator and the donor he’s hitting up to fund the acquisition of a commode that belonged to Louis XIV, just as it did to the buyer of a $48,000 tape-measure at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis auction back in 1996. The fact is, you don’t have to be a romantic fool to fall under the spell of an intriguing provenance that burnishes an object’s luster.
So let’s review who owned what in this window display, and in the process, drop a few more names. We pulled the armchair out from under Pierre Le-Tan, the Paris artist (who put up some resistance since it was the most comfortable one he had). The Chinese end table belonged to Brooke Astor, along with the bird-leg lamp (although it’s hard to picture something so bizarre in the home of someone so proper). Hollywood is represented by the small painting by Fulco Verdura that was owned by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Two of the leather-bound books are from the library of the Duke of Windsor, and while we don’t know who pored over the pages of the third, it’s the catalog of the historic Duke of Hamilton auction, so it does have some snob appeal.
One of the many things that came up in that 1882 sale is my favorite piece of furniture on view at the Metropolitan Museum, a Jean-Henri Riesener lacquered commode. These days, there’s hardly an auction that doesn’t include a treasure being deaccessioned by a museum, but if that commode were to resurface at auction, it’s not the institutional provenance that would prompt my reverie. I’ll be mooning over its earlier history that began with Marie Antoinette, continued with the Dukes of Hamilton, and concluded with William Kissim Vanderbilt, who gave it to the museum.
Not that I want to sound like Scrooge, but all those store windows with plastic Christmas trees, twinkle lights, dustings of artificial snow, and mock ups of Santa’s workshop put my teeth on edge. Still, “tis the season” when the retailers get in the black, and even if that’s not the case for antiques dealers, at this time of year we typically arrange window displays of objects (known as “smalls” in the trade) that are suitable for gift giving.
Some years we throw caution and business sense to the winds, however, and install something that isn’t exactly a stocking-stuffer. Two years ago it was a large 18th-century giltwood sculpture of a nude woman, and a couple of years before it was a cut-glass-beaded sculpture in the form of the nose of Maria Callas by New York artist Justen Ladda.
With Walmart and other big-box stores pushing Christmas merchandise on Thanksgiving day, we decided to take a more genteel tack. We called Justen to ask if he’d lend Kimono, a 2004 sculpture he’d never exhibited before. We wanted to display it alongside his 2010 silver-leafed “mirror” painting, which we had in our inventory already.
In 1989, a decade after moving moving to New York, this German-born artist (who’s represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Israel Museum, among others) began his on-going mirror series. Concurrently, between 1998 and 2008, he was engaged in making a series of welded-steel sculptures sheathed in cut-glass crystals. With Kimono he dispensed with the crystals to explore the decorative potential of the steel itself, going so far as to depict fabric patterns in welded tracery.
That he took the kimono as his subject reflects Justen’s love of Japanese art and culture. In 1985 he traveled to Tokyo to install a sculpture in an exhibition, and stayed on to study the temple gardens of Kyoto. When there, he admired the ineffable grace of the women whose ancestors had been depicted in Ukiyo-e woodblock prints that had first captured the imagination of the French Impressionists in the 19th century. Not incidentally, at the time Justen made the sculpture he was in a relationship with a Japanese woman who worked in the fashion trade.
On installing the window we realized that the juxtaposition of sculpture and painting added up to something more than the sum of its parts. They coalesced into a tableau of a woman walking in the moonlight, a subject found in those old Japanese prints. It also conveyed a sense of peace and well being that celebrates the spirit of the holiday season, rather than it’s commercialization. Perhaps that’s why it brought to mind the poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Christmas day in 1863, which closes with the immortal line “a voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
The conceit of this window display is that a gentleman in evening clothes is about to glance in the cheval mirror, adjust his tie, and make certain nothing’s amiss in his appearance. Vanity satisfied, he’ll drape the silk scarf over his shoulders, slip on the gloves, and don the top hat at a slightly — but not too — rakish angle. He’ll then dash out to the horse-drawn carriage that will take him to the Bachelors’ Ball at the Metropolitan Opera House. It’s April 17th, 1884, and if you take a good look at the invitation tucked in the mirror frame, you’ll find we’ve given our protagonist the name of Percy Pyne, who did attend the ball that night according to the social pages of the next day’s New York Times. Then, Mr. Pyne was twenty-seven, and — who knows? — perhaps this was the night when he first danced with Miss Maud Howland who would become his wife five years later.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps he was keen on someone else then — someone he danced the night through with, or didn’t dance with at all because she was playing hard-to-get. Or perhaps he playing that game with her instead. In any case, who hasn’t at least once in their life sallied forth in high spirits and with great hope to a place where that special someone would be, only to return home crestfallen, if not heartbroken?
Since all this is mere reverie, let’s not be sticklers about chronology. Instead, let’s pretend a song that was written by Charles K. Harris six years after the Bachelors’ Ball was played by the orchestra that very night. After all, the lyrics fit our conceit so well. And so, to pick up where we began, and to repeat the line we started out with, which was, “after the ball is over…
See a 1936 film clip of Irene Dunne singing this song in Showboat at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXNJO6jgwyU
You may well ask how a jet-set Italian designer, a grand Paris decorating firm, a racy English decorator, and a New York socialite famous for her philanthropy, connect with blanc de chine porcelain. And the answer to that question is that they don’t in any meaningful way. To be frank, the things you see here, which were designed or owned by these people and that firm, are shown with the porcelains simply because they happen to look good together.
That said, the glass and acrylic cocktail table with steel mounts, and the pair of lacquered-wood telephone tables with brass castors, while stylistically unrelated, share a history. Both were designed in the 1960s, and both belonged to Brooke Astor. She bought the cocktail table from Alessandro Albrizzi, and the telephone tables from Jansen (along with another red one that we have). At the time, Albrizzi’s furniture was so fashionable that Jansen, the ne plus ultra of the decorating world (and makers of furniture themselves), bought his designs for their clients.
As for blanc de chine porcelains, Mrs. Astor collected and placed them in her Park Avenue apartment, Hudson River Valley house, and Maine retreat in Northeast Harbor. However, none of the ones you see here, in fact, were hers.
Technically, blanc de chine, French for “white from China,” is the white-glaze porcelain that was made from the Song to the Qing dynasty. By that definition, only the large pot from the late 19th century is the real deal. But the term is also used more generally to describe any all-white porcelain, and that permits us to include the 18th-century pistol, the early 20th-century boy on a dolphin by Paul Scheurich (who was raised in Brooklyn and later moved to Berlin where he designed porcelain), and the mid-20th-century knives marked “Made in Sheffield England for Syrie Maugham,” the celebrated decorator (whose marriage to Somerset Maugham went so wrong they nearly came to knife point, if not smoking pistols).
And the birds? These 19th-century Capodimonte porcelains from Naples are not blanc de chine, since they’re naturalistically painted in colors. But they went so well with the display that we just had to put them in. And if straying from the program wasn’t bad enough, we also broke a cardinal rule of shopkeeping by including things that aren’t even for sale. But we just couldn’t part with those Syrie Maugham knives, nor, for that matter, the plates from a Royal Copenhagen set that we use at lunch time, as did a previous owner, Elsie de Wolfe.
Pretty much any shiny paint surface is called lacquer, although odds are that what’s being identified as that is actually just a high-gloss paint, or a synthetic lacquer like the one sprayed on grand pianos. True lacquer, made from the sap of a tree found only in Asia, is simply too difficult to work with to ever be commonplace. Not only is it applied in multiple layers, but each one has to be sanded down before the next one can be be added. This requires skill, patience, and a bit of courage since lacquer is highly toxic until it hardens. No wonder a search for substitutes has been going on for centuries.
You’ll have to lean in close to get a good look at the 17th-century Chinese bowl in the window. Its silvered-copper interior is set in guri lacquer of alternating black-and-red layers that were revealed through decorative carving. Back in the 1970s this bowl was owned by the jet-set decorator Valerian Rybar (seen here dressed for a costume ball given by the Rothschilds). Rybar is remembered for his black-and-red rooms with silvery walls of stainless-steel — which is to say, rooms that look like this bowl.
Before taking leave of the ’70s, have a look at the cigarette table (one of a set of six) that was probably made by the Paris firm of C. T. Loo where Chinese lacquerers restored antique pieces, and made stylish new ones too. Moving back in time to the 19th-century (and towards the right), there’s an exquisite Japanese lacquered box in the shape of a carp, sensitively carved with carved golden scales, a silvered belly, and milk-glass eyes. It couldn’t be more different from the scroll box with a silk cord, or the miniature altar that are glamorously spangled in several hues of golden lacquer. In contrast, there’s the discrete writing box, sparingly decorated with lacquered tendrils that echo the swirling wood grain that was left exposed.
Fast forward to 1978 when Justen Ladda, a German artist, arrived in New York where he was soon celebrated for a trompe l’oeil installation in an abandoned Bronx public school auditorium. He continued his exploration of illusionism in a series of “mirror” paintings that began with this very one of 2003. To make it he cut an ellipse from a wood panel, painted it black, and poured on a metallic, green-tinted varnish before sealing it under a clear, epoxy resin that dried to a lacquer-like finish. Unlike a conventional mirror that reflects what we see, Ladda’s mirror reflects another world that is mysteriously, if not disconcertingly, parallel to our own.
Let’s ease into the fall semester by subjecting ourselves to a little quiz: of the three pieces in this window display, which one is 18th century, which one is 19th, and which one is both? Don’t fret if you get it wrong because an art history major probably would too.
The alabaster urns, which look like they could have been made just after the 1700s (say, around 1830), are actually 1930s Italian. The painted-and-gilded-wood panel that’s carved with a swag could be taken for 1930s American Federal revival, but it’s 1790s Italian Neo-Classical. And now, on to the bench, which is particularly tricky. For while its streamlined, metallic undulations evoke the glamor of 1930s cafe society, it’s actually a 1750s French Rococo piece that was gilded in the 1930s to match a Neo-Rococo dressing table by Frances Elkins, the California decorator.
The intention of this display isn’t to confuse, but to show how ideas ricochet through history and across frontiers, both aesthetic and geographical. This isn’t an antiques shop that specializes in any period or style — Art Deco, Neo-Classical, or Rococo — or country — be it Italy, France, or America. Inspired craftsmen, designers, and artists can be found in every century and culture. That’s why our current inventory features pieces that range from the 1400s to the 2000s, and originated in Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. If they look just right together its because they reflect a point of view, which is, let’s face it, what probably drew you to this window in the first place.
This window arrangement could almost pass as a room if you tucked a fireplace beneath the mirror, and slipped a pair of banquettes behind the cigarette tables on either side. If that’s too many ifs for you, just take the display as an abstract arrangement of verticals and horizontals, colors in the brown-to-red spectrum, and textures that include the sheen of lacquer, the sparkle of crystal, the tarnish of old mirror, and the grain of raw wood. The items themselves are 18th century — or 20th century inspired by the 18th century — or just plain 20th century.
You can read about the 18th-century mirror in our ‘Recent Acquisitions’ post. In ‘Lighting’ you’ll find the 18th-century-style candlesticks, which actually date to the 1930s, along with the matching lamp. The legendary decorator Frances Elkins liked the model so much she bought this set for her daughter, and another set for herself. Then you could go back to ‘Recent Acquisitions’ and read about the set of six 1970s cigarette tables, and in ‘Case Furniture’ you’ll find the pair of cinnabar cigarette tables by Jean-Pierre Hagnauer, which once graced Jayne Wrightsman’s London flat.
At the court of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, and for that matter in all of England during the Victorian age, rank and majesty didn’t cancel out sentiment and feeling. In Franz Zavier Winterhalter’s painting of the royal family, silk-moiré sashes, velvet swags, a diamond tiara, and giltwood thrones share canvas with cavorting children, a toddler unsure on her feet, and a boy (the future King Edward VII) clinging to his mother’s skirt. This balance of formality and intimacy is also found in the portrait by J. E. Jones of Victoria’s whippet Fanny [see NEW ACQUISITIONS]. Shown in dignified profile like a Roman senator on a coin, and grandly framed in gilt wood shot with black lacquer, Fanny’s sensitive, nervous disposition isn’t swept under the carpet.
Winterhalter also painted the family of Emperor Napoleon III who ruled France during the Second Empire (his more famous uncle Napoleon called the shots during the first). If they reflect the comme il faut formality of the French, when it came to the decorative arts, England and France were very much on the same lavish page. This can be seen in the interiors of the houses that belonged to the English and French branches of the Rothschild family, for example, Baron Mayer’s Mentmore outside London, and Baron James’s Ferrières near Paris. Both were designed by Joseph Paxton, the English architect who had been commissioned by Prince Albert to design the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, where J. E. Jones exhibited a group of drawings of children and animals. The interiors of Ferrières, orchestrated by the artist Eugène Lamy and restored in the 1960s by the Paris decorator Henri Samuel, mirrored the status and wealth of the owner and his dynasty. As can be seen in this photo of the Blue Salon, there was no stinting on gold leaf and red plush.
This is also the case with the French folding chair that was gilded and upholstered in crimson cut-silk velvet. It is very much in “le style Rothschild,” the term that defines the sumptuous interiors and furnishings of that day, which also applies to this gilded and hand-painted opaline glass vase that has been turned into a lamp.
While Queen Victoria and Baron James lived out their days in the splendor these images and objects evoke, Napoleon III, sadly, did not. When France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 he went into exile with his consort Eugénie to, of all places, the English countryside. There they lived in a handsome Georgian manor called Camden Place which, while comfortable enough, was nothing like the Louvre, their former Paris residence, or for that matter, Baron James de Rothschild’s spectacular chateau at Ferrières.
Every window display here is about something — a designer, a country, a century, a technique, a material. This one is about our new website, where you’ll find everything in our inventory with prices. That’s why we furnished the window like an office, with a desk, a lamp, a glass paperweight, and a computer terminal that will give you access to what’s in the shop itself.
So far the most popular post on the site is ‘New Acquisitions’ where you can read the back stories of recently acquired pieces – who designed, made, and owned them, and where they stand against history’s backdrop. If you check it regularly you’ll see things as they come in.
Next up is a portrait of Queen Victoria’s whippet, Fanny, and then an 18th-century neo-classical French trumeau mirror with a panel sculpted in bas-relief of musical instruments. And shortly after that a lavish 19th-century Neo-Gothic cheval mirror that’s eminently suited to a man’s dressing room.
And since we’re on the subject of mirrors, we just acquired a 20th-century one by Venini with six built-in glass sconces. Anna Venini published an archival photograph of it in the book she published on her family firm’s work where she dates it to 1928, and notes that its whereabouts is unknown. Come October, you’ll see it here.