Friday, March 9, 2012

Christopher Gow

Christopher Gow, the British owner of Ruzzetti and Gow, a shop on Madison Avenue specializing in one-of-a-kind textiles and decorative accessories, lives with his partner Henrique Faria in a lower Park Avenue rental that is filled with a combination of Latin American art and unusual finds from his many shopping trips abroad. A tireless traveler, Gow has visited a total of 160 countries. At this moment he is also spending some of his time building Henrique’s art business, which deals mainly in Latin American artists (Henrique Faria  Fine Art, 35 East 67th Street) and is fast becoming a booming area of investment, especially for moneyed ex-patriot Venezualan nationals leaving the Chavez-led country.

Christopher had plenty to say and we covered everything from his career at Sotheby’s, the development of his decorative arts business to his Arabic studies and most surprisingly his survival as an MBA student: “I cried for the first month. Every night.”

I wonder why they named this building The Griffin. My high school mascot was a griffin.

[Laughs] I’m not sure.

I was trying to dig up stuff on you and was amused to find out that you were first person in the decorative arts to have a YouTube video.

I do?

You don’t know that? It’s a video of you practicing Arabic calligraphy …

Ohhh … that’s right. I remember someone asked to film me. [laughs] It was probably about two or three years ago and I’d just come back from Damascus and seeing all the mosques and the architectural calligraphy on the friezes was just so beautiful … oh that’s it! My handwriting is so bad—it’s illegible—so I wanted to use a calligraphy pen to write and I wanted to improve it so I contacted the Society of Scribes where they teach calligraphy. And there was a lady doing Islamic calligraphy, so I signed up for the class and I loved it. You go from right to left and instead of the nib pulling away you’re pushing into the paper, so it’s really quite a challenge. It was a whole new world.
A hardwood farming implement from the Philippines stands in the left corner of the front entry way. A 1950's collage on paper by Ralph Coburn hangs above a sculpture by Jose Gabriel Fernandez.
A birdcage from the 1930s is suspended from the kitchen ceiling. The blue milk glasses are from Sage Street Antiques in Sag Harbor. The guest bathroom.
A vintage suzani covers the sleep sofa in the den. Hanging above is a painting by Eduardo Costa titled "Pedazo de Cielo" ("Piece of Sky").
Looking across the sleep sofa towards bookcases constructed out of cardboard boxes stacked on wooden shelves.
Peeking into the living room from the den. A strand of Lucite beads is from Turkey.
And did that help improve your handwriting?

Not really, no. [laughs] But it opened up this world that was already there inside me. It led me to start to learn Arabic.

Do you actually use it?

Yes, I travel a lot over there but every time I try to start speaking, saying “hello” or “how are you?” they respond in English! This poor foreigner trying to speak Arabic … their English is so perfect. Also there are so many different dialects, if you will. There’s a dialect in Syria and Palestine, that’s one form and then there’s a North African form and so on. It’s not learning one language, it’s learning five languages.

So what kind of passport do you have?

I kept my UK passport and I took US citizenship when the elections were coming up four years ago because I wanted to make sure that George Bush didn’t get back in.
A pair of intervened photos showing the "Aula Magna," the auditorium at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas by Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck, a Venezuelan artist living in Berlin, hangs on either side of the fireplace mantel. Above the mantel is a painting by French-born California conceptual artist Guy de Cointet acquired from Cirrus Galley in Los Angeles.
A small stool from Lambertsville is covered in green and white Ikat silk velvet from Uzbekistan.
An Arredoluce  lamp in primary colors is cantilevered over the dining table.
A strand of Lucite beads hangs in front of the living room seating area. Christopher and Henrique finally found the ideal pair of 1950's sofas in Southampton after searching for the perfect ones for over six months.
A whimsical pair of 1950's Italian lamps illuminates the seating area.
Vintage Suzani pillows perk up the neutral 1950's sofas. Nipple football is by Argentine artist Nicola Costantino.
Ceramic ducks purchased in Buenos Aires stand below a rare painting by French-born California artist Guy de Cointet.
A glass bone from Esque Studio lays in front of the fireplace opening.
Do you purchase things in the Middle East for the store?

Yes. I go to places like Damascus and Aleppo in Syria … Syria is a treasure trove. A lot of traders went through there and it’s a great place to get suzanis. I really need to get back there right now to help the economy there – they have zero tourists at the moment. Yemen as well was a great resource because that’s not really on the tourist track either and they have a great tradition of metal work. The Jewish community there were very good in that aspect but when Israel was founded a lot of them went over there so the metal smith trades fell by the wayside, but there’s still a lot of old metal work there.

It used to be when I was in high school, as far as you would go was Paris or London but now everybody’s going to Africa and Burma … does it get harder and harder to find things that are unique?

Absolutely. I try to go to these off the beaten track places and eventually end up in some small place and find a great resource. I start engaging the owner in buying things and he says, “Oh no, no! This piece has already been sold … it’s for someone else in New York … ABC Carpet!” And when one does find them, it’s because they’re a little bit hidden away and the problem is they’re just not up to speed, as it were and there’s just something about it that’s not quite right. To tweak that is difficult.
An Ottoman brazier purchased in Istanbul stands on an aluminum horn base table acquired in Hudson.
A mid-century triangular dining room table and chairs is topped with a pair of 1960's Dorothy Thorpe Lucite candlesticks from Neo Studios in Sag Harbor.
Book sculpture installation by Colombian artist Miler Lagos and hanging African Kuba cloth.
Colombian artist Juan Manuel Echavarria's "Manto Rojo (Red Cloth)" photograph hangs on the wall above a suzani covered sofa.
A brass drum table from Sag Harbor holds a pair of candlesticks and other brass objects.
Looking across the living room towards the guest room. A painting by Venezuelan artist Juan Iribarren hangs on the right wall next to a French door covered in a checked silk sari from India.
I read that you were very handy, does that help? Do you tweak stuff yourself?

No, I used to. I try to give them an example of the ideal thing we'd like but sometimes that little tweaking is something that they're not familiar with. For them they cannot see the difference because it's out of context. Once when I was having coral chandeliers and furniture made in India, I had to go back five times in one year for quality control and in the end it just was an excuse to go back to my beloved India.

When I was traveling in Laos, everything looked amazing and so of course I overbought and when I brought it back to New York, I thought, "Why did I buy this piece of junk?" It's sort of hard to get a perspective when you're in a different country and everything seems fascinating.

You're absolutely right. And we all do that. One has to be so rigorous and so disciplined. For every five things you want just take three or two. It's like when you're packing, just go back and take out a third of things you've packed.
Original built-in bookcases are filled with travel books and various objects including a pyramid-shaped sculpture and column by Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz.
Sculptures on the windowsill are by Jose Gabriel Fernandez (Venezuelan) and Julian Altabe (Argentine). 
It takes a lot of will power. The editing process is a real skill that not many people have.

Obviously, one would think the creative process is the most difficult part but you're right the editing process. It's where to change it … how to make something that's bigger, smaller is the real challenge.

I guess you can shop by deciding where you want to travel for yourself, and then if you happen to find something, that's great.

At the moment, because business is so very slow, I'm having a ball because I'm not so crazy with the shop. Instead of rushing off to buy inventory, I'm going to places where I know I'm not going to find much. But I'm always looking. You go to the fanciest hotel first of all, to the gift store there to see what the possibility is, to see what the locals can do and the quality they can get to. Then you can see that they're never going to get it or you see "Hah, wow they've done this box so well!" And then you know there's the expertise to crank them out the way we want them. And you see the pricing as well.
On the far wall of the living room above the doorway is a work by Adriana Santiago. The black and white work hanging above the brazier is an early work by Yaacov Agam from the 1950s.
A sculpture made of wire by Alan Saret hangs near the opening to the master bedroom. The small paintings are by Adriana Santiago.
You started selling shells, didn’t you?

Yes, I go to Rome a lot and in Italy they have these real seashells coated in silver and every nice household had them as gifts, you would give them as wedding gifts and they were very well received but they never really moved out of Italy. I used to bring them over as wedding gifts for friends when I was working at Sotheby’s. Friends would ask me to bring them back and I was coming back with trunks of them and I realized that this was going to be a business. I spoke to my boss at Sotheby’s and said I might be doing this as a sideline. A lot of people at Sotheby’s, because the pay is so bad, have sidelines. It’s amazing how creative Sotheby’s employees are. You see it at the end of the year, at the Employee Art Fair. The salesroom is filled with stuff by all the employees who are artists. [Anyway] the seashells went straight into the Neiman Marcus catalog and by them accepting so quickly, I realized I could start a formal business.

So Sotheby’s became the sideline.

I was the sculpture expert there and I said, you know, I have to leave because I have to focus on my growing business and they were very unhappy because there are not many sculpture experts. Sculpture used to be sold in the decorative arts department but I was selling it in the fine arts departments, incorporating it into the painting sales where there are collectors with deep pockets. I used to sort of hold their hands, teaching them about sculptures. It was something they are frightened to death of because there are so many fakes.

So how can you tell if something is fake?

Well, if you’ve seen a hundred fakes then you can but it’s very difficult. To qualify it is very difficult—it’s a gut reaction. Your eye has become trained. There’s obvious things as well, such as if it’s been scratched underneath after fifty years of wear and tear and the way the bronze has been poured. There are some scientific techniques as well but we only use those in a court of law.
In the bedroom, a pair of works on paper by Ana Maria Maiolino hangs above a custom made Hästens bed.
A painting by Victor Vardenaga hangs above an armchair that is part of a set of American Aesthetic furniture purchased at a Parrish Museum auction in Southampton and recovered in faux fur.
But there are so many experts who are still tricked. They’re being fooled all the time, like in the Knoedler Gallery case.

In that case it is alarming because with a painting obviously there’s going to be the expertise—the artist is doing it and you can tell if it’s the in the right style or not but with a sculpture, it’s a two-part process. There’s the creation and then it goes to the foundry. You can have the original plaster or wax mould that was made by the artist … in France there is a law that you can only do twelve editions but if the man at the foundry is a little bit corrupt and does thirteen, well there it is and it’s exactly the same as the others without the number. It’s not as if the artist has to come to sign it because the signature is in the bronze.

It’s very tricky.

It really is. It’s so sad when you have a whole family come into the viewing room with a Remington sculpture that the grandfather has had and he says, “Well I’m going to pay for college for all my grandchildren with this sculpture.” They think it’s worth millions and within a second I can see it’s a fake. I go out of the room for a bit and then come back with a knotted brow, and then I have to tell them that I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an absolute fake.

The look on their faces must be awful.

Well, then there’s a whole cycle of emotions and it normally ends up in anger, that I’m accusing their grandfather of being a liar.
A wicker bedside table is filled with current reading and a decorative brass leaf inkwell.
The 1950's Lucite lamps were purchased from Neo Studio in Sag Harbor.
Standing atop an early 19th-century Louis Philippe display cabinet is the head of Ebie by Eric Svenson. The gold painting nearby is by Mexican artist, Mathias Goeritz.
A sculpture by Isabel Cisneros is displayed inside an early 19th-century display table. The green-and-orange cube sculpture by Mexican artist Emilio Chapela relates the size of the GNP of the small island nation of Kiribati to that of the United States.
A blue central Anatolian 'Tulu' rug covers a portion of the wood floors in the master bedroom seating area.
Has that happened a lot to you?

 A lot, yes. And the same little [fake] sculptures keep coming back. So what we do in those cases is with invisible ink we write underneath it a little code: NSV, which means No Sale Value and the date. And then we see that code with a blacklight. I’d love to create a collection of fake works because it would teach people about sculpture a lot.

That would be a very interesting show, to have the real one next to the fake one so that people could see the difference.

Yes, exactly. It has been done and it is fascinating. And it is also fascinating to see throughout the ages what things were faked more than others, what was in vogue at that time and was worth faking.
Looking across the master bedroom towards the Louis Philippe display cabinet. The clothes closet is covered in a silk velvet Ikat fabric from Uzbekistan.
Objects inside the cabinet include acquisitions from recent purchasing trips for the store to countries including Yemen, Ghana, Indonesia and Laos. The work hanging above the cabinet is by Argentine artist Horacio Zabala.
A silk velvet Ikat fabric from Uzbekistan covers the French doors of the master bedroom clothes closet.
So what is in vogue now that people are faking?

I think at the moment contemporary art—it is so easy to fake. It’s become a nightmare.

I haven’t known you for that long but the one thing that surprised me and that we both have in common is that we both have MBAs. I know why I got an MBA—because I was an art history major and I had no idea how I was going to make a living. Why did you get an MBA?

I was curating a private and corporate collection in Dallas at the time and it was for a huge company—they owned the most commercial real estate in the world—and there were lots of partners. I was meeting with these partners all the time and I was very impressed with their business acumen and they were impressed with my art knowledge. And I thought, well, I could get both! I got in to business school at SMU … and it was a nightmare. I’d never used a computer before. I cried for the first month. Every night. I was getting 60 and 70 percent and I thought I was doing quite well because in England above 70 percent is an “A”. But here it’s a C or a fail. The dean called me for a meeting and said, “You’re failing miserably.” But the marketing professor was very kind and he said to write a paper on the arts … write one on the Dallas Museum of Art, how they can earn more money, membership and so on. So I did and now it’s published. That scraped me through.
More views across the master bedroom.
A lion and sun that was the Persian symbol of the Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran (1925-1979) stands atop the bedroom windowsill.
The master bath vanity is decorated with silver coated sea shells from Ruzzetti and Gow.
The view of the master bedroom from the bath.
So what did you get out of it?

I think the thing that I got out of it the most was that anything and everything is possible—if I got through that … the sense of emancipation when I came out of it. The only other sense of joy that [compares] is when I come out of a migraine headache. Life is beautiful!

Well, people are impressed if you say you have an MBA.

They should be!

• Sian Ballen • Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch