Monday, November 8, 2010

San Francisco in the Fall

Every October I happily say that I’m going to the “Glittering and Glamorous San Francisco Fall Antiques Show”, and come rain or shine, come feast or famine, it always is exactly that.

Since the first year of the show I’ve played a game based on Baron Philippe and Baroness Pauline de Rothschild’s affectionate competition as to who could spot the penultimate item first.  The rules of the game are that you can have any one item from the show that you want--cost being no object:  but the catch is that you have to decide the moment you see “it”, and not go through the entire show first before making up your mind.

Of course it’s an absurd conceit, but over the course of 28 years I’ve amassed an incredible collection of fantasy buys, always of course playing by the rules.  The very first year of the show the “prize” went to the great New York dealer Garrick Stephenson and his pair of gilt and patinated English Regency perfume burners, standing the height of a man, their gilt bronze flames billowing in an imaginary breeze.  They were quite superb, and I have never seen their equal anywhere.  Stephenson carried off the honors the second year as well, with a set of four gilt-wood Russian Empire chairs, their arms carved as eagle’s wings.  These came from a set of eight formerly inhabiting the dining room of Sir Phillip Sassoon’s grand country house, Port Lympne in Kent, and were sat on by such notable behinds as Winston Churchill’s and Lady Diana Manners'. 

Lucky Mrs. R. to have owned them for 27 years!

Other Octobers the prize has gone to one of the remarkable shops San Francisco has long been known for.  I will never forget a 12-fold Coromandel lacquer screen depicting Portuguese traders at the court of K’ang Hsi exhibited by Lola Bauer, who had a wonderful shop on Union Street--now, like Atlantis, lost beneath the waves.  One sometimes sees Japanese screens with European traders as their subject, but a Coromandel lacquer screen with this subject is quite above rubies.  “Le gout de Madame” if you’ll pardon my French.

"What are we--Rothschilds?"
Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel
One year there was the Cecil Beaton gouache on brown paper of Wallace Windsor (no, not THAT Cecil Beaton gouache on brown paper--but close) offered by jolly old Glen Smith.  (Oh, how we miss HIS Fillmore Street shop, with its axis of Palm Beach/New York/London taste.)  And last year, tho my pick was the circa 1928 lacquer and silvered bronze writing desk and chair from Paul Frankl’s Skyscraper line (they even retained the original embossed brass “SkyScraper”  labels!)  the close second was the dazzling little window seat “in the manner of Thomas Hope” offered by Kentshire Galleries in New York.  This I could have even fit in the back seat of my car, following that nicety of Victorian manners which stipulated that gifts should always be taken home and not sent.

Of course some years the call of a single specific object is less insistent.  This year I admit to being very smitten by a bureau plat in the manner of Jules Lelu offered by Carlton Hobbes, and also very drawn to a pair of remarkable 1930s chrome plated arm chairs designed by R.C. Coquery, and manufactured by Thonet...

Noël and the Lunts
“Design for Living”
(If that chrome arm chair is not Coquery, then it’s Gilbert Rhode)
(and if that coffee table isn't Paul Frankl I'll eat my hat)

...but there was no sudden flash of recognition like the black and red lacquer “Skyscraper” bookcase by my über-hero, the great Modernist designer Paul Frankl, which I first saw reflected in a mirror at the 2004 show and recognized as a piece I had coveted for over 20 years.  Glimpsed in the first five minutes of the show, I instantly knew that this was indeed “it”, and even the subsequent viewing of a scagliola table top from a design by Marion Dorn--the expatriate American who is so renowned for the carpets she designed for Syrie Maugham--or the canteen of Puiforcat silver comprising a service for 12 in the height of French 1930’s style could have dissuaded me from my original choice.

on the precept that one’s furniture should reflect
what one sees from one’s windows
Paul Frankl/c. 1928
(Marina Schiano c. 1983)

One of many great Bay Area treasures is the Berkeley shop run by Bonnie Grossman, featuring such oddities as “outsider” and “tramp” art.  This year her Ames Gallery was exhibiting three small architectural renderings done by the great architectural fantasist A.G. Rizzoli, whose work, stored in the rafters of an old garage, she literally rescued from oblivion.  Rizzoli worked for a San Francisco architectural firm, and in his spare time developed an incredible fantasy world where he depicted his friends and neighbors as buildings and monuments, all rendered in meticulous detail. His great works really belong in museums where his astonishingly inventive fantasies and beautiful draftsmanship can be appreciated by a wider audience.  However, the little renderings--a single unit and a block of proposed flats in the Marina, a hospital complex in Marin County--were things he did for his employer in the early Thirties, and have all the charm of a minor drawing by a Robert Adam or a Kem Weber rendering.  And they didn’t even require a Rothschild pocket-book, tho unfortunately I had already spent my budget for architectural drawings for the year...

I do vividly remember that Tony Hail always said that with antiques the time to buy something is when you see it, because you might never see it again.  In this--as in so many other things--he was quite correct.  Hail was to the decorating world what Ed Hardy, Therien & Company, Norman Sheppard, and Evelyn Conquret were to the Antiques world--all great irreplaceable treasures who leave permanent gaps in the landscape.

Of course, as we know, nothing is forever.  When I first started my career, most of the great shops were located in Jackson Square, and the design showrooms were all cozily housed in the old Ice House complex north of Broadway and the financial district.  Over time, in response to increasing property values and the need for more space, the showroom district shifted to the (then) undeveloped south of Market Street area, and eventually many of the great antiques shops followed suit.

Then there are always the inevitable changes in fortune (like economic downturns) and surprise developments like the Internet.  I mean, who would have thought 20 years ago that the solution to virtually every problem would be to look it up on something called Google?  Not that it always works, mind you--I mean, try finding information about the General Electric House of Tomorrow built in the Berkeley Hills in the 1930s...  But that’s why some of still have libraries.

the tomorrow that never was...

On the subject of change, an interesting recent phenomena has been the opening of two huge, retail showrooms in the very heart (as opposed to on the mere periphery) of what has traditionally been the wholesale design district.  One is a flagship store of the enormously successful Restoration Hardware.  This is housed in a fabulous Tuscan-style edifice, built by, and formerly housing the shop of Ed Hardy, the aformented grand, Internationally known S.F. antiques dealer.  Ed closed his business about two years ago citing how the internet has changed the world of dealing and collecting, observing that people now shop price first, with quality--always his stock in trade--running a distant second.  

At Restoration, everything is over over-scale and enormously heavy, based on antique models but all brand spanking new.  12 foot linen upholstered sofas and glittering nickel-plated klieg lights, vast antique maps and retro bath fixtures (think more glittering nickel) on marble slab consoles, and massive wooden cabinets with iron hinges.  Ed's beautiful beige interior with the antique pine moldings, and his faded Venetian pink exterior have been relentlessly painted the color of wet cement, with not even a touch of gilding to enliven things, and the look is more than a bit somber.  Indeed, I found it quite oppressive.  I also find it somewhat puzzling as regards which customer base has the enormous spaces required to house all this over-scale.
The other shop is called COUP (as in coup d'etat) and features a mix of repurposed industrial cast-offs, quirky antiques, and just plain bizarre stuff.  Their offerings are housed in a space done in raw cement blocks, with salvaged pine plank floors, the interior again painted a very dark gray and lit by dim, turn-of-the-century style, exposed filament bulbs.  Both shops are very stylish, but intensely brooding, again more than almost to the point of being oppressive.  Even younger eyes than mine must have trouble reading the tags in the gloom, tho when you do manage to read them they are kind of staggering.  

the Industrial Salvage equivalent of
the Adam knife urn
(you definitely have to float a loan for these...)
I'm not quite sure who is paying $6000. for a bank of old military lockers, tho they are admittedly the best damn looking beat up old lockers you have ever seen.  It's definitely a look for the young, living in vast industrial lofts (purpose built as the majority of them now are) and possessed of both deep pockets and strong backs.  (All that industrial chic weighs a TON.)  I must say I found Coup fascinating and singularly attractive, but I walked out into the fall sunshine with a genuine sense of relief.  I did covet the pair of benches with hocked legs ending in hooves (so ‘Bill Blass in the country’), and I would love to build a patio around one of those big, cast iron baskets, repurposed as a fire pit--so the mise-en-scene at Coup did stir my imagination.  

However, afterwards I had to go to Cowtan & Tout and look at the Colefax and Fowler silks, in pale ashes of lilac and aqua green, embroidered with flowers in glowing colours, to shake off the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world feeling that all that atmospheric gloom had engendered.

Mind you, I LIKE dark colors, particularly grays and black, but from long experience I know that they absolutely have to be enlivened in some way, either with  color or flashes of gilt or something.  I also know from experience that Battleship gray is an extremely difficult colour to live with.

My own living and dining room have been gray for over 20 years, but it is a pale French gray with lots of violet in it which gives it enormous life.  The color was inspired by reading John Fowler’s comments on the differences between 18th and 19th century grays, and the color was matched to the French gray faille (bought from the much lamented showroom of Judith Kindler) I used to upholster the sofa.  The gray walls and sofa give a sense of unity to what is a relatively small room, but there are also gilt-framed mirrors, and lots of art (most of it unfashionably figurative); and the heart of the room is my Mother’s favorite Art Deco Chinese rug, depicting a lilly pond rendered in the most vivid Ballet Russe colorings.  The floor is close-carpeted in a tightly woven Wilton (gray) and the rug absolutely sings against the pale, neutral back-ground.  The room is also very understated, a quality that always strikes me as being enormously attractive, and what’s more, eminently livable.

my Mother's antidote to gloom

Anyway, I’m thinking of welding myself a Christmas tree out of rebar, which I will decorate with vintage light sockets bearing exposed filament bulbs, and old copper toilet floats covered in verdigris, and I will probably hang the Puiforcat silver flatware on it for extra sparkle.  It will of course stand in front of the Coromandel lacquer screen flanked by Regency perfume burners, and under it will be a pair of Retour d’Egypt candlesticks from Eve Stone, a fabulous gilt wall bracket and some rolls of hand-painted 18th century Chinese wall-paper from Ed Hardy, and of course an A.G. Rizzoli water-color.

However, I draw the line at painting my walls the color of wet cement.  Period.

French gray--and no rebar
Thanks to Paul Ellerbeck of Henry Calvin Fabrics and Kaci Smith of Sloane/Miyasato for encouraging me to go exploring in the design district; and thanks to my old friend Collier Gwin of Foster/Gwin Antiques for the reminiscences of a vanished Jackson Square and recollections of many editions of the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show.