Manhattan collectors Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Scanu are a rarity. Neither of them had a background in period furniture, yet within six years, they have amassed pivotal pieces by such Art Deco designers as André Groult, Jean Michel Frank and Pierre Charreau.
“We began from scratch,” says Ms Olnick. She and her husband, Giorgio Spanu, had just completed an extensive neo-classical renovation of an Upper East Side apartment. “Our previous apartment matched our contemporary art collection—modern with many built-ins—so, essentially we had no furniture for our new home.”
A decorator sent over a truck load of English and continental chests and chairs, which the couple sent back. Ms Olnick travelled to Paris with her husband who is a marketing specialist with a number of European clients. “When we began, we did not consider building a collection, rather our intention was furnishing a home for three children,” says Ms Olnick; “Then I didn’t know if it would be Charreau or Ruhlmann.” Like art historians studying a new period, the couple turned to monographs, period photographs and photographs of actual pieces while interviewing dealers. “Rather than to Ruhlmann and Rateau, I found myself drawn to architectonic lines”. Of paramount importance to the couple was a clear sense of the materials utilised.
In both visual and art-historical terms, Ms Olnick and her husband are highly sophisticated. They have followed the contemporary craft movement for a number of years. Ms Olnick is a board member of the American Craft Museum and she and her husband have amassed a significant collection of Carlo Scarpa glass. In September, the museum will feature their collection in an exhibition, “Venetian glass: twentieth-century glass from the Olnick Spanu Collection”, with both the exhibition installation and catalogue designed by Massimo Vignelli. In addition, the couple has a considerable paintings collection which runs from Modern masters to Pop.
While some collectors attempt to marry furniture choices with a specific painting, this couple have not limited themselves to such exacting matches.
Among the dealers they visited on their research trip were Christian Boutonnet of Galerie L’Arc en Seine, Sophie de Val, and Robert Vallois.
By the end of the trip, they shipped home six cartons of books, and they had focused their vision. They demanded rich materials yet a simplicity of line.
Together, the couple purchased a straw marquetry screen by Jean Michel Frank and an André Groult piano stool in caramel lacquer. Both pieces would set the tone of further collecting on their part.
The attraction of those furnishings was in part the proportions: “The scale was perfect for our home and we liked the integrity of the materials,” she adds.
Since then, the couple have returned to Paris as well as at auction in New York. In all, over the years, they have called on fifteen dealers on both sides of the Atlantic. What Ms Olnick finds appealing about their Art Deco pieces is that some have a deeper life than ordinary furniture. The couple’s Jean Michel Frank leather director’s chair began its life in the home of the owner of Hermès in Paris. An identical suite to their Pierre Charreau sofa and chairs of coralwood was used on the film set of “Le Vertige” by the director Marcel l’Herbier in 1925.
Although their journey as collectors was a thorough one, it was not without anxiety. “Buying in this field is not like contemporary furniture where you know exactly what it is,” says Ms Olnick. Again and again, the couple sought out second opinions on pieces. A constant source of reliable information for them was Christian Boutonnet, Galerie L’Arc en Seine director, who also has a gallery in New York. “I have rarely seen such concentration and research on the part of new collectors,” says Mr Boutonnet. He believes the New York couple’s endeavours have paid off well. “They have chosen truly important work like the Jean Michel Frank cubic armchair from 1930.” Today, the couple occasionally consult auction house catalogues to keep abreast of the market “ I keep my eye out but we’re are no longer actively looking,” says Ms Olnick. Nor are they seeking to trade up. “Now the prices for this period have soared four to six times,” points out Ms Olnick, who believes she could not duplicate their collection at this point in time. “It’s not simply a matter of price; it is also a question of rarity.”
When it comes to furniture, the Parisian collector Madame M., like the Olnick-Scanus, is most interested in material. Her furniture, designed by Jean-Michel Frank, Marcel Coard, Pierre Chareau, Clément Mère and Paul Iribe, is mostly in parchment or shagreen, such as the rare Jean-Michel Frank shagreen chairs bought in Paris: “At an exhibition at the Hotel Sens in Paris I was stopped in my tracks by a pair of shagreen armchairs belonging to Felix Marcilhac. I told him that I had to have them. He replied that they weren’t for sale. I then went on a fruitless search around the Parisian antique dealers, armed with a photograph of the chairs. Five years later, Cheska Vallois called me on my mobile phone while I was at her son, George-Philippe Vallois’ stand at Art Basel. She had found my Frank chairs. They are now in my bedroom. They are real sculptures that I enjoy looking at when I wake up.” Madame M. mixes these pieces in her apartment with contemporary African works of art. When she began collecting Art Deco in the early Eighties, it was much less expensive than eighteenth-century furniture. “I don’t much like Ruhlmann, except for the rarest pieces with ivory inlays. It’s not contemporary enough for me. I love materials most of all, furniture in lacquer, shagreen or parchment.” She has little interest in Forties designs or Dupré-Lafon, which she sees as too decorative. Madame M. usually buys from Parisian dealers such as Cheska Vallois, Anne-Sophie Duval and Félix Marcilhac. “In the past, when I’ve wanted to buy at auction, I’ve often clashed with dealers who were upping the bids. Sometimes I have come to an agreement with them whereby I let them know that a particular object interests me and ask them not to outbid me.” What does she think of the current state of the market? “If I were a true businesswoman, I would sell my furniture now.”