Dec 4, 2013
12:03 PM
Style & Shopping

Style Provocateur at Textiles House to Presidents, Ritz Paris, Tells Scalamandré Story in New Book

The pantheon of quotable wisdom about interior design contains many truths, the accumulated remnants of applied talent. Some are short and sweetly succinct: Good design is forever (Zelina Brunschwig, Brunschwig & Fils); some prescriptive, This work has to do with people … (Alexa Hampton, designer); some philosophical, Lately I have been thinking how comfort is perhaps the ultimate luxury (Billy Baldwin, designer); some metaphorical, A room should start a conversation before people actually start exchanging words (Barry Dixon, designer), and some poetically elliptical, Style is the mind skating circles round itself as it moves forward (Robert Stone).

But none are quite like those of designer and “all-around style provocateur” Steven Stolman, president of the formidable textiles house and design tastemaker Scalamandré, who has just published a book, Scalamandré: Haute Décor, that celebrates the purveyor of decorative fabrics, wallcoverings, trims, furnishings and accessories “as seen through the eyes of the international design elite while paying homage to the people, places and events that contributed to the nearly cinematic Scalamandré story.”

“Designers don’t come to us for putty chenille, but they sure do like our pink and black tiger velvet,” says Stolman, who was born in Boston, raised in West Hartford and featured on the cover of Connecticut Magazine in May 1984, when he was a rising fashion designer with his own line that found favor in havens like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus and Bloomingdale's.

“There was so much neutrality in interior design for so long that color is now being celebrated,” he says, adding of Scalamandré, “We’ve always been about exuberant color. When we do make an edgy expression … it’s viewed as valid because we have the provenance to back it up.”

That provenance and Scalamandré’s long and regal 84-year history as decorative tastemaker is chronicled in the book—the founding of the company by Franco and Flora Scalamandré during the Jazz Age in New York, the early commission to reproduce a brocatelle for William Randolph Hearst’s estate, San Simeon, providing fabrics for the restoration of the JFK White House under the guidance of Jackie Kennedy, work for Monticello and Mount Vernon and the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, R.I., and the commission to provide fabrics for the renovation in progress of the legendary Ritz Hotel in Paris.

Now, Stolman is bringing his book and the Scalamandré ethos—including those “beloved, impressible, iconic zebras”—to Connecticut for a special event Dec. 12 at Cobble Court Interiors in New Canaan, the full service interior design venture of Robert Rizzo and Steven March that has done award-winning design projects in New York, the Caribbean, London and beyond.

The event, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Cobble Court’s 13 South Ave. location, will feature cocktails in honor of the publication of Scalamandré: Haute Décor and a “gift gathering” for Toys for Tots. The price of admission for the festivities is merely an unwrapped toy that will bring some holiday style to a young person from a family feeling the sting of need. Those planning to attend should RSVP by sending an email to admin@cobblecourt.com.

“The guys who own and operate Cobble Court Interiors are really terrific—and their business in New Canaan is much loved!” Stolman says of the go-to “source for elegant style in luxurious and inviting interiors,” where Rizzo (below) finds inspiration from his time spent in the United Kingdom, yielding a design philosophy that represents an “updated balance of traditional comfortable living with a clear modern sensibility resulting is amazing sophisticated and livable rooms.” March is the partner who makes the design train run well, on time and on budget.

Important as those considerations are, it’s safe to think the Dec. 12 event will be decorated less with logistical concerns than festooned with design camaraderie, talk of aesthetics and the future, and a loving look back at the history and heritage of the stars of the show, Scalamandré and Stolman.

The latter supernova of design wears his versatility well as employs his impeccable taste to guide Scalamandré into the future. ("I’m trying to make it relevant and accessible without sacrificing quality," Stolman says.)

And it’s design world kismet that it’s Stolman at the helm of a premier firm in an industry that has seen all the other storied giants toppled by a combination of bad economic cycles and the erosive effect of a design devolution experienced by a broad socio-demographic swath of the American public, a diminishment of taste and aspirational decor driven in part by the price points and rise of mass-scale retail.

His first brush with Scalamandré came when he was just a child—but not just any child, as he lived in a West Hartford home whose interior “was designed by a much-loved Hartford designer John LaFalce … sort of the Mark Hampton of Hartford.” And he lived here during a time when “people appreciated gracious living,” the kind purveyed by the iconic business of neighbor Beatrice Fox Auerbach (G. Fox & Co.) and by another neighbor, designer Jeanette Ward, “the Sister Parish of Hartford.”

In that West Hartford home was a touch of Scalamandré. “I loved that Scalamandré sofa,” Stolman says in press materials about the new book. “It was soft and cushy and smelled faintly of Norell perfume, lipstick and scotch.”

Later, as a fashion designer, Stolman would source fabrics from Scalamandré, and, in the serendipity that seals the kismet, he says, “I was shopping at Scalamandré when I learned the company had been bought by private investor and was going through a rebirth.”

 

It was 2009 when businessman Louis Renzo acquired Scalamandré from its third-generation owners and the flagship New York showroom was returned to its elegant townhouse at 942 Third Avenue, and it was 2011 when Stolman was asked to become Scalamandré’s president.

“The first thing I did as president was become familiar with the company’s extraordinary archives, which date back to the late 1920s,” Stolman says, containing examples of everything the company produced, along with historic documents, photos and letters—including a letter of praise from Stolman’s boyhood neighbor, Ward.

“This presented a story that need to be told,” says Stolman of the Scalamandré trove—but that’s getting ahead of his story.

Stolman attended Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern universities before graduating from the Parsons School of Design in New York.

“I worked for a couple of years on Seventh Avenue,” Stolman says, and then, “after a sort of spirited family conference around the dining room table, my parents said, ‘Well, let’s give it a try.’”

So he launched his own label as a clothing designer—hence Connecticut Magazine featuring Stolman in a “Connecticut Couture” section—and in classic startup fashion that literally meant packing boxes of clothing to ship on the ping  pong table in the family rec room.

“It wasn’t a huge business but it helped me get a position as a creative director at a large dress house on Seventh Avenue,” says Stolman, who became known for his lighthearted use of decorative fabrics in apparel design.

“Ultimately I had my own stores,” Stolman recalls of his branded shops in New York, Florida and California.

At a certain point he left the world of fashion to work in the nonprofit world, raising money for community health centers for the uninsured. (Above, Stolman on the May 1984 Connecticut Magazine cover with model Liz Lee, who was Geoffrey Beene's fitting model; photographed by Tommy Carraway.)

“During that sabbatical I was slowly lured back into fashion” in New York, Stolman recalls, and the rapprochement eventually resulted in his post at the helm of Scalamandré, whose mission is to produce the most exquisite designs with a seamless integration of styles and periods while inspiring designers and enriching their vision.

Stolman points out that while Scalamandré is viewed as a tastemaker “because of the provenance of the work we have done,” and much of that work has taken place at the grandest, most rarefied levels, the reinvigorated company, buoyed by its “style provocateur,” is also attracting “emerging talents” such as Westport designer Sam Allen, who used Scalamandré zebra wallpaper to such great effect that it scored him splashy editorial coverage. (Right, an example of the Scalamandré zebra design but not the color used by Allen.)

As Stolman scoured the Scalamandré archives after taking over, several things happened beyond his decision that a book on the history of the great house was needed.

“It reaffirmed my belief that Scalamandré’s provenance is unique,” Stolman says of encountering “expressions of every stylistic motif of the past 85 years,” including Art Deco, Art Moderne and Midcentury designs.

“This company is built on such incredible attention to historical accuracy, and sensitivity to quality of construction,” Stolman says, “The foundation is there to become whatever the company wants to be.”

As for the current status, the press materials on the launch of the book enlighten: “Tracing the company, its distinguished clients and gorgeous products up to the present under the direction of the energetic, entrepreneurial new owner, Louis Renzo, historic commissions continue, most recently with the completion of the George W. Bush Library. Enviable licensing programs have been launched, with fine china and tableware from Lenox, luxurious bedding from Eastern Accents, and a soon-to-be-released chic lighting and home décor collection, Scalamandré Maison by Port 68. In addition, dazzling collections of new designs and rescaled, recolored document patterns from Scalamandré’s storied archives have been introduced, along with the reappearance of those beloved, irrepressible, iconic zebras.”

“All new design is built on existing design,” Stolman says, explaining that the rescaling that’s taking place comes in response to how interior spaces and the volume of contemporary construction have changed, with people preferring larger and taller domains.

“Because of that the scale of furniture has evolved into bigger things,” says Stolman, and how design follows the forms and functions of that lifestyle evolution “really is all about scale and proportion.”

“Also our sense of color has evolved,” he says. “Who would have thought ochre would be the hot color for fall 2013.”

Scalamandré’s heritage can be credited not only for providing a foundation for contemporary adaptation but also for positioning the firm to be around long enough to show a more comfortable, post-recession client base that it remains “the destination for fine design and all things beautiful.”

“When new housing starts vaporized in 2008, so many of the grand fabric houses disappeared,” says Stolman. “We’re the last of the great textile houses that wasn’t absorbed by a larger company.”

All the more reason to record the legacy in the form of a book. Stolman, who has written for Elle Décor and is a contributing editor to Architectural Digest, approached Pamela Fiore, who had been the editor at Town & Country, and asked her if she would consider writing Scalamandré’s story.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you do it,’” Stolman reports. “I said, ‘Well, why not. I’ll give it a try, and the words just started to flow.” The book wrote itself, he says, because Scalamandré’s story is so “cinematic.”

“All you have to do is open the archives and the story jumps out at you,” Stolman says: Italian immigrants come to America with a dream, and with a lot of hard work and perseverance they create “a formidable textiles house and decorative tastemaker for more than 80 years in the world of high-end interior design.”

Published by Gibbs Smith of Salt Lake City, and debuting this past September, the book took Stolman a year’s worth of work. He went to Gibbs Smith because of its book Fortuny Interiors. “I was impressed by their ability to ‘get it’ in a very gentle and elegant way,” he says.

Guests at the Cobble Court cocktails event for the book (available for purchase) will “get” the story in a gentle, elegant way, salted liberally with a whole lot of style, courtesy of Stolman, who is married to software executive Rich Wilkie and divides his time among homes in Florida, New York and Wisconsin.

Don’t forget to RSVP at admin@cobblecourt.com, and remember to bring a toy to the Dec. 12 event—and in this case it may be a good thing it should be unwrapped. Who but the most confident tastemakers would want to risk employing wrapping paper that isn’t up to Scalamandré’s standards. Santa may be a jolly old elf, but is he really stylish enough to be the iconic visual refrain on fine “disposable fabric”? That red suit is so stubbornly retro, after all, so Harper’s Weekly from the 1890s.

Scalamandré sells its products through its flagship New York showroom and nine “To-The-Trade” showrooms in major metropolitan locations. It supplements its distribution in secondary and tertiary locations with independent sales representatives, agents and sub-agents who serve America, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia. To learn more, see the website.

Editor's note: The quotes at the beginning were sourced from a page on the website of Gracious Living Interior Design.

Style Provocateur at Textiles House to Presidents, Ritz Paris, Tells Scalamandré Story in New Book

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