Friday, July 26, 2013

Steven Stolman

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Formerly known as the “Prince of Preppy” in his previous incarnation as a fashion designer, Steven Stolman is now the president of Scalamandre, the wonderful fabric house that has now extended its brand into dinnerware, home furnishings, bedding and, soon to come lighting. It was, in its way, a daring rescue by its new owner Louis Renzo who bought the original family business in 2009 and has now brought it back to vigorous, red zebra-patterned life. Steven says he got the job two years ago by being in the right place at the right time and describes himself as “a professional busybody.”


I was thinking while looking you up that this company has such a fabulous-sounding name: Scalamandre—it somehow sounds lavish and old-European. It comes from its founder doesn’t it?

The company was started by Franco and Flores Scalamandre back in 1929. They were Italian immigrants who came to New York. Franco went to work as an engineer and moonlighted as a drafting instructor at an interior design school. That’s how he became aware of the whole artistry of decorative fabrics. The woman who owned the school had a keen interest in historically accurate textile reproductions. Franco helped her realize these, first with the help of a small loom and then it just grew and grew until they had their own building in Long Island City. And Flora was a great artist. She painted, embroidered and designed. They were really an incredible team.
In the front entryway an engraving of an old hotel in New Rochelle hangs above a photograph of The Hill School, both purchased at The Arthritis Foundation Thrift shop. The faux shagreen is by R&Y Augousti and a model of the Eiffel Tower in Balsa wood is from the Bellport Methodist Thrift Shop.
An oil painting cityscape by New York artist Camillo Garcia was a wedding present from friends.
So these were the grandparents …

Yes. They had a daughter, Adriana, who married and she and her husband took over the business after Franco retired and [they] passed it on to their children. And then as is the case with most third generation businesses, things kind of unravel. Sadly the company unraveled to the point of near-extinction.

Why do you think it unraveled?

It’s a classic third generation scenario. The first generation started the company, the second generation grows the company and the third generation spends it all. It’s textbook. They didn’t hear the music stopping … the economic crisis. It wasn’t just Scalamandre that almost went away … Brunschwig, Clarence House … all the great, great houses.
A stack of favorite books is arranged next to an African mask, a gift from a friend.
Slim Aarons's original A Wonderful Time was given to Steven by designer Todd Romano, who purchased it at a yard sale in the Hamptons. The photograph was later inscribed by the author during a visit to Aaron's home in Bedford. The book lived in several of Steven's stores and was frequently signed by subjects who shopped in Steven's Palm Beach and Southampton stores.
Are we ever going to go back to era of big, swagged curtains on windows and lots of fabric in rooms?

I think that you can’t help it given the nature of the volume of new construction. We’re seeing bigger, taller rooms.

But we’re seeing glass and other hard materials.

You can artfully use fabric … look, we made the curtain for the Metropolitan Opera house—we know how to make big curtains—I’ve seen several show houses, beautiful two-storey curtains on the great room windows that are possible. They just require artistry. They’re not in the least bit tacky.

So what about all these glass buildings?

Just because you have floor-to-ceiling glass doesn’t mean you have to have unadorned rooms. People want softness and it doesn’t mean swags and jabots. It could mean just a beautiful pour of unlined, anthracite silk taffeta.
Steven and partner Rich Wilkie's dressing room.
In what direction will you take Scalamandre then?

We’re learning how to do lovely contemporary open weaves—linen and raffia. We’re learning how to work in Trevira CS, which is impervious to sunlight and mildew. It’s the gold standard in synthetic home furnishings fabric. It’s what you must use if you are working on a hotel [to satisfy] code and flammability requirements.

What does it look like?

It can look like silk; it can look like wool; it can look like cotton. It’s polyester. Every fine fabric house must learn to work in this fiber. It’s interesting because we just re-created the George W. Bush Oval Office, which we originally made in silk. We had to re-create it in Trevira CS for the presidential library that just opened because it’s a public space.
An Arco lamp hangs over an expresso-colored, cotton velvet sectional sofa from The Housing Works Thrift shop. The pillow on the far left is out of Scalamandre's Agios linen Damask.
The pillow in the corner is the iconic prancing zebra, also by Scalamandre. It is based on the wallpaper the firm created for Gino Restaurant in 1945.
Hanging on the wall above the sectional sofa is a colorful mono print purchased from Housing Works.
The tripod floor lamp by is Target and the coffee table by Fontana Arte is from Van Den Akker Antiques.
How would you describe your responsibilities as President of Scalamandre?

My responsibilities as President of Scalamandre are multi-pronged. It’s primarily to re-energize the brand. When you have an august, legacy brand that goes through a tumultuous time, there’s a lot of catch-up work that needs to be done to reassure people that you’re still in business.

And how are you going about that?

By brand extension through licensing. Louis Renzo, who owns the company, felt that the red zebra wallpaper spoke volumes about the company. He’s the one that said, I want this to be our icon. It was created in 1945 by Flores Scalamandre as a design for the original wallpaper of Gino’s. It suggested sophistication and worldliness and swank. And my job was to figure out how to make this pattern our Tiffany blue box, our Cartier panther. The very first way we used it was dinnerware.
A piece of advertising art, possibly a window display piece for Norell Perfume, was purchased from The MSKCC Thrift Shop.
A pair of contemporary tweed club chairs from Housing Works stands atop a bound sea grass rug from Pottery Barn.
A small ceramic tray from Scalamandre by Lenox and a faceted Lucite ice box that doubles as a vase are arranged atop the Fontana Arte coffee table. The little ceramic bear inkpot on the silver tray belonged to Babe Paley.
So you went backwards in order to go forwards. How are using your archives to extend the brand?

We visit the archive often for inspiration. We have extraordinary archives, dating back to the late twenties with an example of pretty much every item we’ve ever made. They’re all in a warehouse in Happauge, Long Island. It’s organized like the Library of Congress.

 When you’ve been in business for eighty years, there really isn’t a motif or a pattern that doesn’t exist in those archives. We went through Art Deco, to Art Moderne, to forties glamour, to fifties swank, to sixties mod … even to eighties Baroque “Nouvel Society”. Tens of thousands of fabrics … we have three thousand active SKUs at any given time. And that’s considered a boutique collection.

Have you developed a “textile memory”?

I can recall names and patterns but there are people at Scalamandre who actually know the style numbers. They can recall it as if it was someone’s name.

It’s an endless subject, textiles and it’s as old as we are, virtually …

Well, sure—the Shroud of Turin!
In an alcove a chrome and glass dining table from CB2 is surrounded by chairs covered in a Scalamandre zebra printed linen. The red faux lizard pendant fixture is by Port 68.
A signed print of Kim McCarty's The Red Suit. The original hangs in Michael's Restaurant. In the foreground is Scalamandre by Lenox china and William Yeoward crystal.
The dining table is set with Scalamandre by Lenox's china pattern of the iconic prancing zebra. The centerpiece is complete with fresh flowers, surrounded by rock crystal votives from Tiffany, arranged atop an Alessi silver tray from Gracious Home.
Looking across the dining and living area.
Family photos are everywhere including Steven's much-loved Westies.
Slim's Aarons's signed photograph of The Four Kings of Hollywood hangs over a Dutch Deco credenza from Van Den Akker Antiques. The entire apartment is painted in Benjamin Moore 1000. "'It's the perfect warm neutral," says Steven. "It makes everything pop and at night especially the walls recede and the apartment looks twice its size.'"
Have you got that?! Anyway, let’s go back to when you were in fashion design. How does your experience doing that play into this job?

I remember when I was a fashion designer, I found myself drawn to decorative textiles from the get go. That brought me into the toiles and the chinoiseries and the damasks. I made dresses, simple skirts and cocktail trousers that women wore with cashmere twinsets and velvet slippers. It was very much a look.

It’s a real look—and you were known as the Prince of Preppy. What is about the preppy look that people find so appealing?

I think that it’s comforting. If you grew up in a nice New England town, like I did, it was just the way we lived. I mean we wore topsiders to school and our parents drove Volvo wagons and we had dogs … maybe the same way the kids that grow up in New York city wear very advanced clothes and smoke early on and drink and go to clubs—well we lived that very suburban New England lifestyle and preppy was part of that. It was indigenous to the area—it’s Connecticut for godsakes! It wasn’t Wyoming. If it were Wyoming we would have been cowboys. If it’s California, we would have been surfers! But when it’s Connecticut, that’s just the way it is!
A temple rubbing of horses hangs above a bed with an Indian silk and cashmere throw. The lumbar pillow is in a Scalamandre 'Le Tigre' silk velvet. A square flokati-style pillow is from Target. The pinned striped shams by Thomas O'Brien are arranged in front of Scalamandre Maison bedding by Eastern Accents.
Fresh roses in a silver julep cup stand alongside Steven's lifelong fragrance, Czech & Speake's No. 88.
Are you more of businessman than a designer these days?

That’s a very difficult question. I’m not designing so much these days … I’m a professional busybody. I love connecting people and connecting brands and connecting product. That’s how you make the magic.

Would you ever do a Target line?

Sure. If it’s good enough for the Missonis, it’s good enough for me.