Friday, July 15, 2011

Todd Merrill

Todd Merrill, owner of Todd Merrill Antiques, was one of the first to realize the importance, and subsequent popularity, of what is now loosely called mid-century modern. And we don’t like mid-century modern. It reminds us of our parents’ living rooms. But with that prescience of his and what seemed to us like a tremendously driven work ethic, he has deservedly made a name for himself. He is informed and passionate about the furniture and the designers of the that era, particularly designers like Paul Evans and James Mont and we did come away, if not converted, then definitely feeling as though we had learned something.
 
So I’m interested in the definition of the word ‘antiques’ as used in your company name. The definition seems to be ever-shifting – I thought objects had to be more than 100 years old to be classified as an antique.

Well first of all it’s been my family business for a few generations, so in carrying on that tradition I used the word “antiques” and when I first opened the business in 2000, I did carry a bunch of sort of classical pieces and some very early 20th century pieces. Once I had that name, I didn’t really want to change it.

We just interviewed the antiques dealer Jonathan Burden and we were talking about the demise of English 19th century furniture – “brown furniture”. Do you think it’s going to come back?

It’s sort of a generational thing. I think the people of today who are 40 years old and have the money don’t have the cultural relationship that their parents and grandparents did to those pieces. Their head is in a very different place and what resonates for them is the post-war period and then the '70s and '80s. The '80s, even now!
The living room of Lauren and Todd Merrill’s triplex. The steel staircase is painted bronze and the walls color is Farrow & Ball Lamp Room Gray.
A cinnabar console from 1958 by James Mont fills a living room niche. The sofa and chair are covered in a Nancy Corzine silk velvet.
A print by Andy Warhol hangs above a bold yellow-lacquer console by Tommi Parzinger.
A coffee table by James Mont stands atop zebra rugs that belonged to Geoffrey Beene.
A torchère by Serge Roche stands near a side table by John Dickinson.
The small photo collage of Jackie and Ari Onassis was a gift from photographer Peter Beard.
Oh no … it’s accelerating. What do you like about those periods?

I love the '40s and I love the '50s. I think it’s the freshness and the newness. It totally broke away from what everything had been before.

They’re more showy, these pieces.

This cinnabar-colored lacquer cabinet is a James Mont. He was the gangster decorator to the stars. When I saw that I said like, “That’s the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen. What is it exactly?”

Well you said ‘tacky’ and I said ‘showy’!

[Laughs] But you know once you understand what Mont was and who he was designing for, it kind of takes on a kind of … oh I don’t know.
The multi-hued, inlaid terrazzo floor is from the apartment’s original design by Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown of Tsao & McKown Architects. The coffee table and shell chairs are by James Mont.
Pedro Friedenberg’s 1960's Hand Foot Chair waves its welcome to visitors.
Karl Springer’s lucite version of an African stool stands in front of a mirrored screen by James Mont.
The upstairs guest room/office. The bed is by Tommi Parzinger.
Do you know the French phrase ‘belle-laide’ or ‘jolie-laide’, ‘beautiful-ugly’ – perhaps it’s that.

It’s borderline tacky.

What saves it then?

The overall effective glamour. It overwhelms you in a way.

I have to tell you it looks like it ought to be in a Chinese restaurant.

He did a lot of Chinese restaurants!

Do you think that people don’t even know what they like, they just know that this is what they’re supposed to like right now?

No. I think if you look at what is in the magazines right now, that they’re always pulling back towards this almost-traditional [look] and they are always trying to anchor it back. There’s never been a full-on, like ‘let’s just go towards 20th century’. They’re always much more conservative. And you never would put all of this stuff into one room in a normal environment. (Tommi) Parzinger’s [designs], for example, was meant to go with traditional furniture. Literally, the Rockefellers were buying Parzinger’s furniture. It was put with Sheraton and Hepplewhite.
Looking into the master bedroom from the living room. The gilt-silver and lacquer chair was designed by Geoffrey Beene for his Oyster Bay home.
A cherry wood four-poster bed designed by architects Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown was originally designed for the sister of Calvin Tsao.
Flanking the bedroom fireplace, a pair of lamps by James Mont stand atop cabinets by Tommi Parzinger.
The gold bed linens are from Calypso.
Looking across a custom bed by Calvin Tsao towards a shimmering Venetian plaster wall with a fireplace also designed by Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown.
Todd purchased the Italian Empire secretary early in his career as an antiques dealer.
Peeking though the canopy towards the bedroom hallway.
A collection of iron animal toys are arranged upon the Italian Empire secretary.
A console by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings now serves as Todd’s wife, Lauren’s vanity. The lamp and mirror are by Karl Springer.
A tiered bedside table is by James Mont.
A curvy French, 1940s shagreen chair adds softer lines to the straight edged architecture of the bedroom.
Do you have a favorite mid-century designer, either for their design or for their narrative?

I like Mont because of the insane life that he led and the clients that he had. He was completely mob-backed. His business went bankrupt five times. He spent five years in prison himself. He had mistresses and he did Hollywood and Park Avenue … [laughs]

Why does he appeal? Do you take risks in your own life?

No … although I’m going to [Art Basel] Basel right now with two 4000-pound sculptures …

Is that why you are stressed?

Yes. And I also have 16-foot by 9-foot high ceramic installation that takes four people a full day to put up.
A row of closets provides ample storage in the bedroom hall.
The master bath. The gold leaf wall covering is from Phillip Jeffries.
You were one of the first people to represent Paul Evans. When I first saw his stuff I thought it was appalling.

So did I! So there you go. It’s because it is art. Somebody who is a risk-taker, someone who is a visionary means that you don’t have anything to relate it to. He is the first American furniture maker to have a worldwide collecting audience. They all thought of our stuff as just derivative colonial furniture. They recognized Paul Evans as design-art and he is the grandfather of Ron Arad … Zaha Hadid and these sort of design-art designers. People were paying tons of money for his stuff in the 1970s. A custom console of his cost $8000 in 1965 – that was a two-bedroom house then! Then everything goes out of fashion, and then it starts bubbling to the surface.

When did you begin to recognize it?

I saw my first piece in 1997 or 1998 before I started to open the business. It was a piece of sculpted bronze, a console. I thought it looked like it came off of a Klingon warship. I literally thought it was the ugliest, brutalist thing I’d ever seen. Once I understood what he was, and you start understanding also this visual language that he created … it was like Picasso. The first time you look at a Picasso, you wonder what it is but then you start piecing it together and it becomes fascinating.

What was the trigger for you to start your business?

I had been running a dot.com company and we lost a large portion of our financing. As things were done then, I had a package that paid me out regardless of how the company closed and I just took the money and I decided I didn’t want to play a corporate game anymore. I grew up in a family that had small businesses, very successful ones, and I just knew how to run a business.
A large stain glass window looks out to the backyard garden. A small photo by Stephane Graf is displayed in a gilt-silver frame from the estate of Geoffrey Beene.
A contemporary photograph of a woman dressed in a 19th century costume by Barron Claiborne hangs in the ground floor hallway.
Where did you grow up?

Vermont.

Was running the business harder than you thought?

Well we opened the business and then 9/11 happened six months after I opened the doors. Things got very, very rough for a year there, or two, actually. We were downtown on the Lower East Side, on the corner of Stanton and Ludlow. It’s really funny though … what we were selling was so new and decorators would come down to that address and they would literally get out of a town car, step into the shop and then jump from the doorstep back into the town car. I could name a few of them but they’d be mad at me if I did! [Laughs]
A totem sculpture by California artist Elaine Katzer stands in a corner of the dining room.
The kitchen, simple yet functional.
In the downstairs dining room, striking Lucite chairs by Charles Hollis Jones surround a marble table by Karl Springer
The lush back garden. Todd had the 1950s garden set sprayed with a perky red paint color.
The rear façade of Lauren and Todd’s brownstone triplex.
How are you at weathering crises? I mean now there is this one … the recession.

This is bad. You worry if you can pay your bills and then somebody comes in and they buy something and you sort of revive again. The people who buy at the top of the market are the ones who are supporting everything right now.

Do you have any other interests, completely separate from furniture? Or do you live, breathe, eat and sleep furniture?

Actually, with my wife, I run a television production company. We opened it a year and a half ago. My wife has been a producer for 20 years. We immediately sold a pilot to A&E, about the lives of tennis players and coaches and their clients.

Are you a tennis player yourself?

No. My wife is though.
Can you take the boy out of Vermont but you can’t take Vermont out of the boy?

Oh I love it! I grew up in South Burlington … my dad also owns probably the largest state auctioneer business, so I’ve been to every small town and in every attic in Vermont. I grew up in auction houses.

Does that mean you never lose your head at an auction?

You can still lose your head!

• Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch