Diana and Mark Jacoby, co-owners of Philip Colleck Antiques, sell antique English furniture and objects. They work and live in a pre-Civil War landmark brick house on East 58th Street where they have seamlessly merged three floors of inventory with their personal belongings. The Jacobys have an endearing, almost old-fashioned way about them, making me feel almost nostalgic for a time when it was ‘de rigeur’ to get dressed for dinner, set a perfect table and make an effort to converse with the company. After all, as Diana remarked: “… there’s nothing nicer than sitting down to dinner in a beautiful English-paneled room with soft, mellow lighting, a beautiful mahogany table and you’re sitting in a Chippendale chair and you have a [glass of] wonderful, well … probably French Bordeaux. It’s sort of … all right with the world.”
I’m a huge fan of Downton Abbey and all things British … and these things in here are so beautiful. How could you not want to live in this world? What is it about the British furniture that can’t be replicated and the British style that people are so attracted to?
Diana: I think British luxury is based on beauty and comfort going together. And also, I guess, architecturally a lot of these pieces are very pleasing. They’re made to a certain mathematical formula with certain proportions. We respond to that whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Mark: It’s classic good lines … it’s the same as in their gardens: a controlled environment but comfortable and practical.
The architecture is so timeless and the buildings can be so solid. I just came back from Myanmar and the colonial buildings there look as if they’re going to outlast all the other buildings.
Mark: Well, it pretty much became the basis of the architecture for the United States, with colonial Williamsburg and the early capitals, Nathaniel Hall, Independence Hall and the College of William and Mary.
And yet it seems as if people are consciously trying to go in another direction.
Diana: I don’t understand because there’s nothing nicer than sitting down to dinner in a beautiful English paneled room with soft, mellow lighting, a beautiful mahogany table and you’re sitting in a Chippendale chair and you have a [glass of] wonderful, well … probably French Bordeaux. It’s sort of … all right with the world.
I guess it’s newness that they’re after … or just change.
Mark: I think it’s newness. I think probably the design world was ready for it because English furniture was the look for 25 years. I think 9/11 had a big impact, especially with the younger generation. They wanted a fresh start, something to look forward to.
We met this wonderful dealer in France and he said, “I don’t get it. This 50s furniture … my parents had it because we were poor!”
But it’s not inexpensive.
Mark: The wonderful thing about British furniture is that the British navy was the strongest navy at the time. The Empire extended everywhere and they had the use of the finest materials from, literally around the world. It’s all beautifully made, finely crafted. If you look at 18th century French furniture for example, it’s all about show. The outside of a commode for example, might be absolutely wonderful but often you pull the drawers out and they’re not really finished very well.
Diana: But another thing about the English is that they can be wonderfully whimsical.
Well, the English have great senses of humor and can be eccentric. But what I also find interesting is that people are very nostalgic, whether they like it or not. They love the Queen. They love Downton Abbey. There’s a really strange tug of war there.
Mark: Well we have an interior design friend and he says that people follow the crowd.
Diana: But you know English furniture and English style has been such a strong influence through the last century. In the old movies, if you wanted to have rich person’s house it was “English style”. And there even parts of Long Island [still] where people affect English accents and say, “I don’t even have a secretary.”
Yes, there still is a strong crowd of Anglophiles.
Mark: And they still are around … in the South, in the mid-West.
Are they less susceptible to trends than people in Manhattan?
Mark: Maybe so. I feel sorry for the kids. We have so many clients saying we’re really doing away with the dining room and we’re expanding the kitchen. So in their kitchen they have two sofas so the kids can flop down and work on their iPads or whatever it is they’re doing while they’re supposed to be having a meal together. And they order from four different restaurants for the four different people … which is alright but with computers, all personal handheld devices that are getting your attention at least 18 hours a day, isn’t it nice and almost necessary to sit down for 45 minutes or an hour without any of those distractions? The kids rule the roost.
People aren’t even learning how to converse with one another.
Diana: Exactly. A year ago Mark’s squash partner and his wife invited us to dinner. And we walked in, she looked beautiful in a lovely black lace dress. We had champagne in these Venetian flutes. We had this wonderful dinner for 12, and then, something I hadn’t heard of: she said for all the women to go in for a little coffee in her bedroom and the men went into the library. I didn’t know about that.
But that’s a very traditional thing to do—in fact some Park Avenue apartments were built with separate smoking rooms for the men. I mean it never happens anymore, although it probably does happen because the women end up talking to each other anyhow. But now everyone is tearing down walls and gutting these old apartments.
Diana: So why don’t they buy a new apartment?
Mark: Look what happened to the penthouse at One Sutton Place South. They tore out period paneling and period marble fireplaces. Why not move to a loft building?
I think we’re an aberration. The three of us sitting here are being very stuffy. So how do you deal with a completely different world now—this whole change in lifestyle and attitudes?
Diana: I’ve said: “Okay, this business as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore, so this is us and this is what we do.”
Mark: We use the Internet more and we have great website, which is updated every month.
So who is the English antique buyer?
Diana: We have a few buyers who are passionate about it the way one might be about designer clothes. I wish we could find a few more of those …
Mark: We’ve just finished doing the Winter Antique Show and I think we got seven new clients.
Diana: In Antiques magazine we always did, you know “Dealers in 18th century English furniture blah blah” and this year I thought, I’ll put: “Beautiful objects from around the world with an emphasis on chinoiserie and fine antique furniture situated in a freestanding brick house in New York.” Because I thought if you had no interest in antiques, you might pick that up and you might come in and say, “Oh my goodness I love that!”
Well you’re introducing a way of living.
Diana: In our apartment we had a Christmas party and we had friends who had just built a new house with all brand new things. And she kept grabbing me and saying: “Is that old?” because she couldn’t believe that old things could look so good.
What is it like living in your shop?
Diana: At first I thought, oh, I don’t know … but I absolutely love it. All this furniture is meant to be used.