It’s always a delight to realize that family businesses producing beautiful custom-designed work and employing highly-skilled artisans remain in New York City. Stephen Cavallo/Mirror Fair, the atelier run by third-generation owner Stephen Cavallo was established in 1911 by his grandfather and what was originally an upholstery-and-antiques business eventually became known among its designer-architect clients for custom mirrors, notably for its extraordinary mirrored interiors.
Craftsmen still employ centuries-old techniques of engraving, tinting and etching in the studio on East 95th Street for clients such as Bergdorf Goodman, Robert AM Stern and most of the top designers you can name.
I guess we should start right at the beginning really—where did your family actually come from?
My grandfather came from Ivrea, the northern part of Italy, right at the foothills of the Alps near Torino and he came here as an upholsterer—he started his business on 48th Street. The business was established in 1911, a little bit ahead of De Angelis—they knew one another. My grandfather started bringing in furniture from Italy—[at that time] it was easy to get antiques. My father, who was a test pilot, came and he joined him after the war.
So being a test pilot was your father’s full time job up until then?
Yes—it’s a strange dichotomy. I’m sure he wouldn’t have drifted into it if it hadn’t have been for my grandfather.
Do you have an alter ego—are you an acrobat or something?
[Laughs] No, I’m totally immersed.
How did you begin to specialize in mirrors?
Well my father didn’t relate to upholstery but he liked the antiques, so what happened was that after about three months, after you brought in this big shipment, all you had was this stuff that nobody wanted, so he said, “Well let’s reproduce the good things, the things that everybody wants!” He started a manufacturing facility and became big. When the furniture business started to shrink and we started to make mirror frames, there wasn’t any competition. Well there was—Friedman—but we could do better than him. We said, “Ah, he just does that classic Williamsburg thing.”
What was that “classic Williamsburg thing”?
It’s interesting to hear it called that. It has a different meaning now! At the time I guess the kind of mirrors that you were making were very European. Who was your market?
The designers—that’s our strength. We never, ever varied from that designer-architect [customer]. We never went retail.
But how did you compete with people who only wanted the real Venetian mirrors?
Well as you know designers are very creative people so they always added their own thing but the sizing was critical. We could customize the size and that’s what set us apart. But what happens now, and you can see it on 1stdibs, is that the reproduction can cost as much as the antique.
How has that come to pass?
Well I’m not sure about the pricing from the 1stdibs aspect but from our aspect, the reason why the pricing is where it is is because of the man hours involved. And how many Venetian mirrors are out there? There are so few. Now what’s happening is that the [non-antique] mirrors go under “vintage”—they’re maybe made in the 70s or the 80s. But you see I recognized that the internet had opened up the whole market… that changed the whole dynamic. Our market was diluted and we needed something else.
Oh, I see, that’s why you went into the interiors, the paneled walls—those are extraordinary.
Yeah, no one else was doing those. I had come from this furniture background—I mean we were top. We sacrificed everything. There were times when we did wooden paneling and I went to a metal foundry and while I was there I saw a glass piece that the foundry had made. So when I saw it, I thought wouldn’t it be great if we could do a room like this? That’s where it came from.
Was it going to be a showpiece?
No I wanted it to be a business. I wasn’t kidding around.
We’re talking about whole rooms? Had it been done before, I mean apart from, I don’t know… Versailles?
Yes, whole rooms. You have to remember I wasn’t coming from out here somewhere. I knew the people; I knew the designers. It was just, “could we do it?” It had never been done before. You know I saw a Deco room that Miles Redd had done, but that’s not this …
You know I was thinking that—that’s his bathroom. He took that from Chicago—he didn’t actually create that.
Yes—what we do is unique.
So where are these gorgeous rooms in New York?
The ones that we’ve done—they won’t let you photograph because I’ve asked. They’ve done fireplace surrounds and niches. They didn’t do the entire room but they’ve done large panels. The Mid-Century look is perfect [for these mirrored rooms].
Mirrors have such a history … does it fascinate you? You could almost call it a medium.
We’re going to put Aphrodite and Neptune outside, big cast glass heads on our door because we are creating a Venetian glass workshop right here in New York. I’m not sure they have them in Italy anymore but we’ve got one here.
I read that glass was so important to Venice’s economy at the time that the tradesmen were sworn to uphold their trade secrets on penalty of death and that if they traveled outside the city, their families were held hostage until they returned.
Right. Only a family business would have something like this. You’re not going to become a millionaire running a Venetian glass workshop in New York City. You do it because you love it.