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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Wanna Be Green? Buy Antique

The other day Chicago designer Brion Judge stopped into the shop, and since Tuesday mornings are typically pretty quiet, we had a chance to sit around and talk. That's one of the nice parts about this job: sofas and pillows and--if I haven't drunk all the Pepsi, myself--being able to offer a cold drink on a hot day. Anyway, after we got to talking, we discovered that we have a lot in common. Like me, Brion A) is a Chicago transplant,  B) has a traditional approach to design (which viewpoint was considered heretical at C) the design school we both attended, the entity formerly known as the Harrington Institute of Interior Design,) and D) he's been wearing horn-rim glasses for years, too. Of course, a lot of designers have horn-rims these days but I've been wearing them--in style & out, although mostly out--for almost forty years now, ever since the summer of the Watergate hearings. I was the only art major in history whose sartorial role model was John Dean. 

Anyway, so when they make the movie of my life, Brion is now shortlisted to play me. I used to have either Matt Damon or Dean Cain in mind--at least for the flashback scenes
--but now I'm starting to think that leaving the casting up to the producers is just asking for trouble, so maybe it's best to go for local talent.

Besides having nearly-identical glasses, Brion & I also found out we have similar thoughts about the "Green" movement: not that, deep down, it's not a good thing, but that so much of what's out there is nothing but empty marketing hype. The truth is, no matter how natural or environmentally-friendly or how recyclable (or recycled) a new product is, the greenest choice of all is often leaving well enough alone. Don't get me wrong: I happen to love linoleum--real linoleum, that is. It's made from all-natural ingredients and given
enough time, it's totally biodegradable. So that's good. And a while back, I saw a brand-new solid-surface material made out of recycled newsprint. It doesn't sound all that exciting but it was pretty good-looking, even if, given the troubles at a lot of newspapers these days, newsprint seems like an endangered resource. But here's the thing: both of those products still have to be manufactured--their raw materials harvested or collected, then transported to the factory, then fabricated, then shipped to the job site to replace the perfectly serviceable (but ugly) mauve laminate or hunter green marble countertops being torn out & broken up &  hauled--expensively--away. Not quite as green as it first appears, you know?  Specious environmental claims are everywhere nowadays but the way that we furnish our homes generally reveals just how green we truly are. A letter-to-the-editor that I cut out of the Chicago Tribune a few years ago makes an excellent point for those conscious of their own environmental impact.

Until sitting on bamboo mats becomes mainstream, we all need furniture, but it's still possible to furnish & decorate our homes with stuff with zero impact on our physical world. That's the great thing about antiques: whatever environmental toll accrued from cutting the walnut tree that went into my 1840s bed, or grazing the sheep whose wool became my 1890s Persian rug, or feeding the silkworms that supplied my 1920 curtains was already paid a long, long time ago. And that's not all. Buying old stuff is often a hell of a lot cheaper than buying new. For the same price as a glued-up-sawdust-&-plastic dresser from Walmart, I went to Goodwill & got a hand-carved 1920s Louis XVI-style dresser with a figured marble top & gilt-bronze hardware. Guess which piece will end up in a landfill first. Wanna be green? Buy old. 

Words to live by, and I'd say that even if I hadn't written those words myself, back in the giddy, booming summer of 2007, the year before the economy fell off a cliff & four years before I switched from buying antiques to selling them. My timing could have been better.

Besides the environmental & economic benefits, there's also a solid, practical advantage to buying antiques, and especially if you have children. If a piece has already survived a couple of hundred years, it will probably survive a couple of rowdy kids. The top of a chunky Portuguese table from the 18th Century will laugh at the kind of dents & gouges that would destroy the micro-thin veneers & synthetic finish of a new table from the mall. Another coat of wax--real wax, rubbed in & buffed, not that spray stuff in the yellow can--and an old piece like this is ready for another go-round. I had a bored-looking kid in here with his mom over the weekend and when I told him how old this table was, he just started at me for a minute and then asked "Do you think...pirates...ate at this table?"  Every night, kid. Every night.

Which brings me to the self-serving reason for encouraging people to buy & use antiques: if kids aren't exposed to old things on a daily basis when they're young, if all they've ever known are paper plates & plastic chairs, they're not going to suddenly start buying bone-handled flatware and Royal Doutlton and Portuguese pirate tables once they're out on their own. That's why I always tell people to bring their children the next time they come in: those kids are tomorrow's customers. It's never too early--nor too late--to get 'em started. Ahoy! Dinner's served, matey! 

Who says antiques are only for tea parties?
 Meanwhile, back in civilization with the grown-ups...

* When They Make the Movie of My Life, performed by the wonderful Susan Werner

Photo of Susan

And if you're already as big a fan of Susan's as I am, don't miss her show September 24
Photo by Michelle Conceison
at the most gorgeous--and biggest!--cabaret in town, the stage of the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Buy your tickets here.  You can guarantee that I'll be there, so come on over to my table and say hi-- I'll be the guy in horn rims drinking a sidecar.

Friday, May 11, 2012

What would MacGyver do?

(A chin-strap free post)

I had it all figured out. Or, at least, I thought I did. In late March, the shop was looking really good, but then, all of a sudden, right about tax time, we sold a ton of stuff in a short time frame--big pieces, things with lots of presence--and within the space of a few days, the place went from being ready for its closeup to looking sort of sad & picked-over, with awkward blank spots on the walls and holes on the floor.

Selling things is great but looking picked-over isn't, especially not with a group of antique collectors & dealers & decorators from all over the place coming to Chicago at the end of April for the big Antiques Show at the Merchandise Mart. Those people spend a day or two at the Mart, then they fan out to hit all the locals, and if you ever want to see a hyper-critical group, one that knows exactly what it's looking at--or what it's not looking at, despite what a tag may claim--feast your eyes on these folks. 

So while a big sale is always good, when things start moving faster than I can replace them, I get nervous, especially with these guys around. The last thing I need is a photo of a suddenly-empty shelf or a denuded tabletop that's posted on somebody's blog to visually define us online. I can hear it now. "Well, that place doesn't have much of anything." So as soon as the sold pieces went out the front door--and this was less than a week before the Mart show--I was on the phone to Debra: SEND MORE STUFF.

She must have caught the desperation in my voice because two days later she came through with a handsome pair of pale club chairs with nailhead trim, a French gray Empire-style sideboard with a Greek-key frieze & a cool vintage roulette wheel (or, at least, something close) turned into a mirror. Unfortunately, handsome as the pieces were individually, once I put them together in their intended spot in the back of the shop, they looked like absolutely nothing, bland & colorless. Now what? Time was short.

Worse, thanks to the creepy premature spring this year, Debra had already been working full-tilt with her long-term garden clients for weeks, and therefore had no time to make another trip into town, meaning there was no hope of getting different pieces. Not before the Mart's show, anyway. So I had to come up with a solution for the boring corner that didn't involve heavy lifting, but still, something that would make a big impact. And, of course, something both fast & cheap. And, preferably, easy. I racked my brain trying to think of a clever, quick fix for that corner. I asked myself: what would MacGyver do?

Of course, I had no five-gallon water bottles just sitting around, the way MacGyver did, although I'm not sure what good they would have been, anyway, even if I had some. But I kept thinking, and eventually, I came up with a plan to Save the Back Corner. 

I would paint the sideboard black to give some value contrast, paint the back wall the same red as the lines on the mirror to provide some color, move the pair of cast-iron urns from the front of the shop to the back wall, and trade the rug for a shaggier (and, more importantly, paler) one to balance the darker, heavier tones of the wall, floor & sideboard. I couldn't do any actual painting yet, but I mixed up a sample of the red I wanted out of some sample jars of paint I found under under the sink, figuring that I could stop on my way into the shop in the morning to get my sample matched at the Benjamin Moore dealer near my place. With three days to go, it would be easy.

Wrong. The very next morning, before I could even get the wall painted--mostly because I had been running late and hadn't had time to stop at the paint store--a designer came in and bought the chairs. Great. I asked her if we could keep them until Monday--that is, until the end of the show--but noooo, the client needed them ASAP. Fine. So I not only didn't make any progress on finishing the area, I was now actually going backwards. First I had no paint, now I had no chairs, and by this time, I was down to only two days until all the out-of towners-show up at the door to critique that corner.  

I made another panicked call to Debra and explained that the chairs she had just sent me were already gone, and the bad news from her end was that there were no more chairs to be had--none, at least, that would work with what I had in mind--but there was a sofa in Geneva: a match, in fact, for the cocoa brown sofa that I already had in the shop. So now I'd have a pair of them. That wasn't really what I had had in mind for the corner, but there was no time to waste, so I told her I'd take it and she promised to send Steve down with it in the truck. But not until the next day. That meant I'd only have one day to get it all together.

When it arrived, I realized that three big, dark pieces in such a small area was no better than three big, pale pieces, so that painting the cabinet dark was now out of the question--even if I'd had the paint, which I didn't. But that was OK because I was running out of time, anyway. And I still had the wall to paint. But what color? OK, so red was now out, but how about Hollandaise Yellow, or Lettuce Green? You can't go wrong with food colors, right?  I figured I'd still have time in the morning to make a final decision on the color. 

On the bus ride home, I was looking at my calendar when suddenly, the pieces all fell into place. How could I have missed the obvious answer to the color question when it had been staring me in the face all along?

On Saturday afternoon, I was supposed to go to the Mart to hear my friend Emily Evans Eerdmans talk about the subject of her latest book, the French decorator Madeleine Castaing. So why in the world was I worrying about what MacGyver would do? The real question, when faced with that mediocre corner, was What would Madeleine Castaing do? 

interestingly, the answers to both questions involve tape. And, in Madame Castaings's case, pins, lots of pins. Straight pins. Madame Castaing never bothered sewing the fringes on her beautiful Directoire-style curtains, so for decades, they were merely pinned in place. MC's & MacGyver's approach to things had more in common than most people realize.

Personally, I've found that a stapler works better--it's faster, not to mention that it means fewer stuck fingers in years to come--but, thanks to EEE's inspiration, this corner now would be an homage to MC--not to me--so straight pins it is. Meaning the fringe on the big fabric panel of Joseph Hoffman's lustrous & colorful "Design 9297" of 1913--currently back in production as part of Maharam's "Textiles of the 20th Century" line--is attached with a welter of straight pins that are clearly visible. I angled them just so, to catch the light so that people would realize they're supposed to be that way. And the whole panel is just pinned up on the wall with gigantic push pins.

Debra wasn't entirely convinced that that anybody would get my little joke, but I figured that if any crowd would get it, it would be the one coming to town the next day. But just to make sure, I displayed Emily's book on a brass easel on a sofa right next to the grouping. And as it, turned out, a lot of people got the reference before they even noticed the book. What can I say? We have a pretty smart customer base. And for those who had never heard of MC before, well, it was like a little Decorating History lesson.

Anyway, Madame Castaing had superb taste but she wasn't a slave to petty middle-class notions of "perfection", so one of her rooms might also include furniture with ebonized finishes that were, let's just say, less-than-pristine, plus unstylish Nineteenth Century engravings in gilt frames,  water-streaked walls in the elusive blue-green that's now known as Castaing Blue, plus opaline glass lamps with coolie shades,

and masses of blatantly artificial greenery. MC didn't like real plants and flowers indoors because they had a tendency to die on her, a phenomenon that I, myself, am all too familiar with. Debra shows up with beautiful plants in interesting pots and I do my best to sell them before I kill them. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't. Oh, well. As I told Debra, if she wanted a plant guy to run the shop, she should have hired one: she hired an antiques guy.

At any rate, the "plant" I cobbled together for the Castaing Corner is nothing but a bunch of shiny plastic industrial strapping tape that was lying on the ground by the dumpster out back. Waste not, want not, and I have no doubt at all that MC would thoroughly approve the casual, makeshift nature of it all.


True, the leaves' lurid green & slick surface may not resemble anything found in nature, but then neither did MC's wig*, and the leaves at least have the advantage of a very realistic heft & a graceful arch. Beauty is wherever you find it.

Oh, and that vibrant paper border in the blue bowl above, the one that that looks--if you don't examine it too closely--like "Bordure Pompei/Lola Montez", which MC used to trim the walls of the salon of her house at Leves?  Well, that's actually a Greek design out of
Photo by Rene Stoeltie
Owen Jones' classic 1856 reference book "The Grammar of Ornament", which design I scanned, turned into a repeating design, recolored a la Castaing and printed on my computer, which promptly ran out of blue ink. That's why the border only runs partway across the tops of the painted panels here in the shop. You know what I say to that?

Oh, well. The Venus de Milo stands in a grand gallery in the Louvre without any arms and the Nike of Samothrace is missing her head, but they're no less beautiful for any of that.  Let's face it, we all have issues, but why make ourselves crazy pining for what we don't have, or wishing things were otherwise than they are? 

Speaking of which: the dark line around the sides of the walls' panels?  It's nothing but regular painters' tape that I painted gray before I stuck it up there, and after only ten days, it's already coming loose at the top. But that's OK, too, because in a week or so, I'm getting a big fountain for the middle of the shop, at which time everything else has to move around again, anyway.

In other words, the Castaing Corner's days are already numbered, but it was fun while it lasted, and I'm glad I could share it before it vanishes. Who says antiques have to be serious all the time?
* I said this would be a chin-strap-free post, not a wig-free post. There's a difference.

And if you noticed that one of the pale chairs seems to have come back, you're right. After I had already come up with--and installed--Plan B because somebody needed both chairs, the client decided she only needed one after all.  It's always something.  Have a good weekend.