Friday, November 16, 2018

Victoria & Son

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Anthony Victoria and his son, Freddy, represent the second and third generations of a family-owned bespoke furniture business long known for the elegance, quality and craftsmanship of the pieces they make. Established in 1933 by Anthony’s father, Frederick P. Victoria, the firm originally specialized in selling high-quality, unusual English and European antiques but soon transitioned into making custom furniture for clients such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly and Lauren Bacall as well as the designers of the moment such as Elsie de Wolfe and Dorothy Draper. Still a favorite among today’s designers, Freddy, Anthony’s son, is taking things into our technological age by venturing into some aspects of 3D printing and the re-imagining of older designs.


Frederick P. Victoria's first shop location on 57th street between Lexington and Park, ca. 1940.
I thought a good place to start would be asking you about this idea of new takes on old designs—how do you decide what’s going to remain and what’s going to be added?

Anthony: It’s something we do really quite frequently. My dad (Frederick Victoria, the founder of the company) created a library of full size drawings because he had a full time draftsman back in the day. We will frequently have people come to us and say I’d like it to be in this style but with this feeling and you can actually take little bits and pieces, little motifs and reassemble them—as long as you’ve been doing it for a while. It sort of comes second nature to us.

It is kind of interesting that you are creating furniture that has to look as graceful as an antique but it has to house, say, a TV—that is to say they have to function in a modern house.

Freddy: Right. When it comes to a custom piece, it’s driven by the product—in the case of a breakfront that has to accommodate a huge TV, we have to use normal hingeing and door hardware. The doors have to open up sideways and we have to collaborate with the designer. When we’re making pieces for ourselves, it really comes down to the way my father and I think it should look.

Anthony: Contemporary taste is very pared down—we did an installation just recently in a completely renovated townhouse and we installed an étagère and the entire place is, with a capital “S” sleek, and, just as a sidebar, when I got married my place was very modern but in three or four years it was so boring to me that I got rid of it all! There’s no visual payback from something that is completely sleek.

But people seem to find it soothing. Don’t you find that the growing need for something that’s not totally sleek is based on knowing what you’re looking at to begin with?

Anthony: You’re right. Sleek is not very challenging.
The second Frederick Victoria store on East 55th Street, ca. 1960.
Frederick and Anthony in one of the street level showrooms as it was originally configured at 55th Street.
The first of four showrooms on the street level display room at the 55th Street store, ca. 1981.
A display of Elsie de Wolfe's famous "Circus Room" created by Maison Jansen in the late 1930s, was situated on the 55th Street store's fifth floor. The tiled and skylight area were created by John Rawlings when he rented studio space from Frederick after WWII.
Advertising photo taken in one of the street level showrooms at 55th Street.
One thing that I have tried to ask in some interviews is why we seem to have moved away from adornment and embellishment and ornate surfaces—do you have any kind of answer for that?

Freddy: I don’t know that that’s entirely true. There’s a bit of a shift back. I think that you have people re-discovering things that maybe were forgotten in the sort of hotel-style that was so dominant in the late 1990s. There are parts of that aesthetic that I like but you do have a clientele that is becoming more and more educated about the craftsmanship. It’s sort of an extension of this local crafts movement in the last four or five years.

Anthony: It’s more personal.

But you haven’t turned away from technology. I notice that you’ve ventured into 3D printing—can you tell us a bit about that? It was the last thing I expected to find out about you.

Freddy: Honestly we should probably use it more. It’s quite useful if you need to make a custom brass shoe for a piece of furniture—that’s how it started, for small pieces, prototypes for brasses, prototypes for parts. You can now 3D print in cast-able wax, which means that it’s printed in wax but we can carve it. What is much more valuable to us is actually the 3D rendering program, which is just the drawing, and you can spin it around and pop it into a setting—it’s like an early version of augmented reality.
From left to right: Frederick Victoria, Claude Sere, J. Paul Getty's mistress, J. Paul Getty on the grounds of the Getty, Sutton Place Estate in England. ca. 1966.
Photo taken in Ireland ca. 1925 showing Frederick Victoria, far left, and Morton Downey, third man from left, at the time of Downey's transatlantic musical radio broadcast.
Frederick Victoria and Lauren Bacall in a space Frederick styled for her.
Christmas party photo showing Anthony, his son Freddy, and staff, ca. 1984.
It’s interesting that you have the archive of original drawings alongside this other way of representing your work.

Freddy: It’s part of our identity now. When we do a custom project or even a bespoke model, we almost always provide them with a drawing that we’ve generated from the 3D program. The old drawings are in our library—they’re full scale too. They take up an entire wall.

Could you envisage whole pieces of furniture being 3D printed?

Freddy: It’s possible. There are some very advanced companies in Europe who are printing chairs—from what I understand they re-purpose car assembly robots and recycled plastic. It’s pretty incredible.

But there’s something weird about a 3D printed chair that might be able to reproduce the patina you find on an antique.

Freddy: Well the finishing is the whole last mile. That’s why we limit it to brasses and drawings. I don’t think you should try to re-create that patina. You want that irregularity, the hand of the maker.
Carlos Barracaldo, hand-carving parts of a chair, ca. 1995.
Guyla Gyennis working on a Regency style coffee table frame, ca. 1995.
Carlos working on copying an 18th century chair frame shown at right.
A set of Louis XVI tub chairs sold at a Christie's sale. The chairs were formerly in the collection of Condé Nast and had been supplied to him by Elsie de Wolfe.
I get all this and I think it’s necessary but what do you miss about the old business?

Anthony: Well having really started as an antique dealer and now doing more design, I guess what I miss is the communication of the emotion that goes into being an antique dealer. Antique dealing requires the dealer to fall in love and then to get someone else to fall in love. I was in a suit every day and people would come in and we would talk. That enthusiasm that comes from the communication is missing because most of the time [now] our communication is through the Internet.

That is a real loss.

Anthony: It is a loss. I miss it. But you’ve got to keep on going.

What are your best sellers now compared to say, twenty years ago?

Anthony: Twenty years ago we were doing almost exclusively classical stuff. And then when I started to re-edit the Cole Porter [line], that Cole Porter design launched new designs.
In the foyer of Anthony's Brooklyn pre-war apartment a late 19th century study of butterflies hangs above an engraving entitled "Flambeau" signed Hounin '86.
A fanciful key holder made from the back plate of a French Regence period wall sconce was a gift from interior designer George Stacey.
A view across the dining area – and Anthony's rescue cat, Cal, trying to get at the cheese plate laid out on the Belgian art deco period dining table is by Alfred Chambon, ca. 1935. (A very similar version of the table was produced in France by Maurice Jallot.) The black cabinet is by Richard Riemerschmid, a major force in the southern German Jugendstil design school. Arranged on the top of the cabinet is an African mask from Nigeria, ca. 1920 and a pair of Belgian art nouveau ceramic vases from the Charleroi region, ca. 1890.
On display in the interior of the black cabinet are several favorite objects including an English mixed metal tea pot by Christopher Dresser, three English mixed metal candle holders by W.A.S. Benson, a French late Régence period pendule de voyage signed "Julien le Roy de la Societe des Arts", ca. 1730; a miniature Régence Bordeaux region commode ("modele de menuisier"), ca. 1740; a gilt bronze French Empire period furniture mount; French pink opaline ("gorge de pigeon") glass vase and a chinoiserie ring holder.
Anthony showing us a stunning modern lacquer letterbox made by Victoria & Son with a custom cast brass "snake" handle.
Why might someone choose a reproduction over an antique?

Anthony: First of all the antique might not exist. They want something that is going to fit in a specific place.

People can be very snobby about reproductions—at least in Britain, maybe less so than in the States.

Anthony: Perhaps, but if they want form, function and they want not to have to search for four years, then you make it. If you can get someone who can make it in a way that reflects all the integrity of the original design, then you’re not that far off.

At one point, of course, does a reproduction become an antique in its own right?

Freddy: Time!

Anthony: Right. Some of our stuff is close to a hundred years old.

Freddy: I said to my father we’ve got to stop calling them reproductions because it doesn’t do them a service. Now I feel like what we make is just custom furniture and we just appropriate a style.
Looking across the living and dining area: a 1940s low French armchair made by Victoria & Son is positioned near a "Cole Porter" model coffee table also made by Victoria & Son. It is based on a design made by Anthony's father for Billy Baldwin and Cole Porter, ca. 1954. On the far wall is a 19th century French convex mirror known as a "sorcière" (a witch's mirror because it allowed you to see around corners), ca. 1880.
Hanging above the living room sofa is an original French pastel by Jean Claude Courtat, ca. 2000. Flanking the sofa is a French, "Retour d'Egypte" period oil lamp in the form of an Egyptian figure, electrified, ca. 1800 and a Chinese porcelain vase with yellow-and-green dragon decoration.
A Viennese sunflower executed in gilded and silvered brass with applied enamel decorated insects, ca. 1920 is displayed atop the coffee table.
A closer view of the "Retour d'Egypte" period oil lamp base.
Positioned against the west wall of the living room is an Italian console table by Paolo Buffa, ca. 1960 and Directoire style commode made by Victoria & Son based on a Directoire original by Antoine Jacot, ca. 1790. Hanging above the console table is a pair (2 of 6) of Chinese trompe l'oeil paintings, ca. 1730. A late 18th century Sicilian relief carved wall plaque hangs above the commode.
A closer view of Sicilian relief carved wall plaque, ca. 1780, possibly part of the furnishings of the Palazina Chinese, Palermo, Sicily.
A closer view of a pair of Chinese trompe l'oeil paintings showing the western technique of perspective introduced to the Chinese by the Jesuit priest, Castiglione.
Two end tables in living area, one industrial and one art deco are home to colorful ranunculas.
Two Florentine style pietra dura panels by Villa Montici (founded outside of Florence after WWII by American, Richard Blow) hang in the bedroom hallway.
Can you spot a fake, just like that?

Freddy: He can.

Anthony: I can.

What do you look for?

Anthony: Well there are certain construction details. In 18th century French furniture and in English furniture, more in French furniture, there is the joinery and then the often-used word, patina. There’s a color that wood takes, even in painted furniture, there’s an atmosphere. Eventually it speaks to you as second nature.
Anthony's bedroom. The painting above the bed is a fragment of an early 19th century French wallpaper showing a Russian winter scene depicting a chinoiserie sled conveying a princess, her child and a servant pushed by three men on skates. In the foreground one can see the graceful back of a wonderful chair attributed to the German Jugendstil designer, Otto Wagner.
Hanging between the bedroom windows is a French Louis XVI period gilt bronze cartel clock the design of which is attributed to Jean-Charles Delafosse. The clock's dial and back plate are signed "Stollewerck à Paris". Michael Stollewerck was an 18th century master clock maker. Hanging below the clock is a pair of trompe l'oeil paintings on canvas by Fernand Renard, ca. 1960.
A trompe l'oeil oil painting on panel depicting sea shells by Fernand Renard, ca. 1960 hangs above a pair of 18th century French "dressed pictures" combining water color decorated silk and watercolor in chinoiserie scenes, ca. 1740.
An églomisé painting by Fernand Renard and pair of trompe l'oeil paintings in gouache by Rogers Turner, ca. 1975, hang above a Japanese cabinet in the bedroom.
A late 18th century English porcelain vase mounted as a lamp and more gorgeous orange ranunculas.
Tell us about the antiques market now.

Anthony: Remember in the '70s you would walk up Madison Avenue from 69th Street all the way up to 89th Street and do all the boutiques and you would be seeing wonderful things? People took time to do that. People don’t have the time to fall in love.

Freddy: When you think about what my father has described, having a shopping walk along Madison Avenue, it's funny how now everyone in retail is talking about “the consumer experience” — but that’s exactly what it was!

That’s what it was! How did you start out and educate yourselves in this business?

Anthony: Well I educated myself because I lived in the home of an antique dealer and I had all of this stuff around me. I think just by looking at it, you sort of get an idea of proportion.
Bathroom shelves display an early 18th century Chinese bronze figure of a boy playing a trumpet and Anthony's cologne collection.
In the kitchen an industrial center table is flanked by chairs designed and made by Victoria & Son. The chinoiserie poster, "Fil au Chinois", is an advertisement for silk sewing thread.
A French 19th century étagère is filled with a southern French pottery collection. The wall sculpture is actually an American barn shutter panel.
Fabulous views of the Manhattan skyline ...
... and across Grand Army Plaza from Anthony's apartment windows.
Where did you grow up?

Anthony: In the Dakota. My brother and sister and I were the first children to live there. We moved in in 1941. My sister was about five, my brother was born in ’41 and I came along in ’45.

That’s quite a claim to fame!

Anthony: I never really had an interest in the business.

Oh. What were you interested in instead?

Anthony: I don’t know what I was interested in. But I decided I would try it out and I quit after a year. It was difficult working with my father.

Freddy: [laughing] No comment!

Anthony: After about three years in the corporate world, I went back. Fortunately I’d gotten older and he’d gotten less difficult. It was a good time because through some friends of ours in France, I did stages in cabinet shops, bronze making and gilding so I learned a great deal about how things were done in the 18th century. I came back and then I was just my father’s shadow. When he died suddenly in 1980, it was out of the frying pan into the fire.
The Victoria family living room at their first apartment in The Dakota on Central Park West, ca. 1950.
Frederick Victoria in the living room at his second apartment at The Dakota.
Frederick Victoria's living room filled with collections of French furniture and objects.
A painting by an anonymous artist depicting the south side of 55th Street with Victoria & Son in black glazed bricks and left to right: The Blue Angel Night Club, Anthony's wife's restaurant and the brownstones that housed the decorating firms of Thedlow and McMillen. Painting by John Hulse showing the western end of the Victoria family's living room at their first apartment in the Dakota.
I notice you have a good French accent when you say French words. Do you speak French?

Anthony: I was a French major in college and I went to school in Dijon and then when I did those stages, I was able to keep it up.

How about you Freddy, do you speak French?

Freddy: No, I speak a little bit of Italian and Japanese. In high school I spent a year in Japan and in college I spent about seven or eight months in Italy.

Anthony: It’s very helpful to speak other languages in this business.
View of the Victoria & Son's booth at the International Art and Antiques Show, New York, ca. 1998, featuring a Viennese heating stove front and center.
The booth at the International Art and Antiques Show, ca. 1997. A French Empire chandelier hangs above stunning French Empire bench covered in an emerald silk damask.
How did you get your start, Freddy?

Freddy: In fact I worked for four or five years in finance doing macro economic research and sales. And then my father and I spoke and lo and behold I was on a plane to London to get a crash course in decorative arts at Christie’s. And I also grew up in the Dakota and there’s definitely a lot of learning by seeing. When I was a kid, I remember being in the shop [on East 55th Street]. We called it “the shop” but we had a whole floor dedicated to woodworking and a whole floor dedicated to upholstering. I remember being on the woodworking floor with these Italian guys and they would humor me and I just started picking things up. That’s where you start getting the traction—having these crazy little memories.