From salvaged architectural artifacts to charming French antiques, Manhattan's home goods stores offer a range of unique finds for those seeking to add character to their living spaces.
Stores like Martine’s Antiques are exactly the kind of businesses I look for on the side streets. Though small, every inch of the shop has some new treasure to discover. There are watches, jewelry, glassware, and various knick knacks decorating the room. Though she has been in New York since 1992, Martine Leventer's lilting French accent added music to her descriptions of each of the pieces that she has hand-selected for her shop.Martine began her career as a journalist in Paris, writing about business and the economy. She occasionally wrote about art, but usually only in terms of auctions and its financial role in society. She told me, however, that she had always had a great love for antiques, “ever since I can remember, in fact.” She recalled the very first antique she bought as a teenager – a bronze candle holder. Since then, she admits, “I’ve been buying way too much in my life.” She spent some time between the United States and France, collecting antiques from each location, but when she first went into business in New York, it was as a chocolatier. She had two chocolate shops: one on the Upper East Side, where she lives, and a small shop in Bloomingdale’s. Chocolate, however, was not where her true passion lay: “Having an antique store has been a dream of mine since I was very young,” she told me. She began selling little pieces at her Bloomingdale’s location, mostly costume jewelry. She then opened an antique store on 82nd Street in 1997, while continuing to operate her chocolate shops. The current location opened in 2012 and she closed her chocolate business a year later.Martine is proud of the fact that her store is a specially curated selection of antiques. “Everyone tells me I have a good eye,” she said humbly. She does not work in bulk or in estate sales: everything is something that caught her eye. Martine is especially drawn to costume jewelry, old watches - “Old watches have a heart that beats,” she said poetically - and vintage American glassware. She used to use colorful glass plates and bowls to show off her chocolates. “I look for something that is either beautiful or funny, something that makes my day. It is important to have things in your house that give you happy feelings.”Though she still has a couple customers who have been with her from the very beginning, many of her original clients have moved away. She has realized that that is a pattern in New York: things are constantly shifting and changing. Though some change may be good, for the most part it means higher rents. “So many small businesses have disappeared. It’s so heartbreaking.” She elaborated, “Being from France, I don’t like seeing little old buildings being demolished.” In Martine's view, the city is starting to become too angular, as harsh modern architecture starts to take over from the old world.When she first came to the United States, she was surprised by the variety of antiques. In France, most of the antiques are French, with perhaps a few English or German pieces if you look hard. The United States, on the other hand, is a source of antiques from around the world. Martine had never come in contact with American Vintage before, and immediately took a liking to it. Additionally, costume jewelry was cheaper and more accessible in the U.S. She discovered, however, that New Yorkers were often more interested in European pieces. She explained her frustration to me: In terms of antiques, architecture, and art, Americans will travel hundreds of miles to view masterpieces but will not show any respect towards the beautiful works of art on their own shores. “I hope people wake up soon,” she said, “and learn to not throw away the beauty of their own heritage.”
Evan Blum, owner of Demolition Depot, has been in the business of salvaging and renovating architectural art for forty-two years. He grew up “entrenched in the arts,” as he put it, since his father was an architect, his uncle was a well-known illustrator, and his grandfather was a craftsman, to name a few of the multiple examples he cited of artistic genes in the family. Evan had always had an interest in architectural artifacts, and upon seeing the beautiful and historic buildings around the city being torn down, he was motivated to save as much of them as he could by collecting worthwhile pieces, repairing them, and then selling them to new owners.“What we do is create art out of the construction waste stream,” he explained. Sixty percent of what is in landfills comes from demolition, and by saving and re-selling the valuable parts of these buildings, he said he is able to minimize the amount that would otherwise be laid to waste, as well as keep the objects’ history alive. It is his attempt to “‘un-tragedy’ the tragedy of demolition,” and to find interesting things buried within the mundane. Evan tries to repurpose as many things as he can, hence the eclectic and wide-ranging nature of his merchandise.While walking through the space on 125th Street, we were amazed by the sheer volume of fascinating and beautifully preserved items that we came across - and Evan pointed out that this is only one of his many facilities, so it is difficult to fathom the real scope of his collection. Each of the four floors of the shop housed a labyrinthine assortment of doors, stained glass windows, crucifixes, plumbing fixtures, mirrors, candlesticks, and more.When asked, Evan told us that there is not necessarily a single architectural style or period preferred by his clients. He shared the story of the rise in popularity of Gothic pieces after Cher started her Gothic furniture catalog in the 1990s. It used to be that no one wanted to buy anything salvaged from churches, he remarked, but after the catalog was released, the demand for the previously unpopular Gothic artifacts he had collected over the years surged. This is part of why he stores and saves everything he has found - as it is likely that at some point what was unwanted will become trendy and appealing again.When asked how he selects his pieces, Evan told us that his combined background in architecture, sculpting, manufacturing, and craftsmanship helps him envision which antiques would work well as focal pieces in modern spaces. In fact, a unique and integral aspect of his service is that he acts as “a designer’s designer and architect’s architect,” giving clients his input on how to improve their projects and best utilize their spaces. While many of his clients are hotels and restaurants looking for distinctive additions to their décor, he also does work with set designers in search of elements for their latest film and TV projects, or celebrities who want to incorporate antiques into their homes. He has also outfitted some pieces in well-known museums, including the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.While discussing his plans for the future, Evan mentioned that he will be starting an auction business, Harlem Country Auctions, behind the shop toward the end of the summer of 2017. Doing so will allow him to preserve even more artifacts, since he will be auctioning any art (e.g. paintings, sculptures, lamps, decorations) that are not "architectural," and therefore do not fall under the purview of Demolition Depot. In the more distant future, he hopes to create his own museum where he will be able to display his salvaged art for the appreciation of the general public.
Claude-Noelle Toly came to the United States in 1982 after having received her master's degree in political science. Her original goal was to improve her English, but she could not help but fall in love with Manhattan. "Much to my mother's disappointment, I became a waitress in a tiny restaurant in the Village,” Claude-Noelle confided. It was there, one day, that she met William Nuckel. They became fast friends and together shared a dream of traveling to the South of France on a regular basis to purchase items for a French shop. Shortly afterwards, a tiny little corner space in the West Village became available... that was also affordable. In 1987, they agreed that it was the perfect location and decided to give it a try.Built in the 1800s with three levels, the building is a perfect fit for the charming French boutique that houses antiques and collectibles. From traditional pottery and earthenware to folk art and colorful crystal chandeliers, everything about the shop is enchanting - and this includes the delightful partners.Over the years, during their trips abroad, the two have discovered many talented artisans who constantly remind Claude-Noelle of French farmers. She explained that "they are in their own little world working and producing special pieces, having very little communication with the outside world." But, she continued, "They absolutely appreciate the fact that there is a shop in Manhattan that is selling their work." I then learned that there is nowhere else in the States that carries their pottery. For that matter, the only other place in the world that does so is in France.In addition to the new pottery for which Le Fanion is known, the store also has a limited collection of both pottery and furniture that date back to the early and mid-1700s, alongside a larger number of items from the nineteenth century.When I revisited Claude-Noelle in 2016, she was still gushing about her longevity in the West Village and how she continues to love every minute of being on her special, quiet corner. She disclosed that there are two wonderful aspects of owning Le Fanion - traveling to the south of France several times a year, where she and William are able to interact with so many fascinating people "who have unexploited lifestyles," and returning with new inventory to share with their customers.Claude-Noelle added that she finds it "kind of funny to think that we are a genuine organic store - we only sell wood and clay." Who knew that they were so ahead of their time in the 1980s? "Today, everyone either tries or pretends to be organic... but we were doing it before many others," Claude Noelle commented. After a pause, she said, "Wow, thirty years later, and we are still here - How can that be?" Claude-Noelle answered her own question: "What we sell attracts people who appreciate the quality and the stories behind the pieces. And, it continues to always be a nice moment."
“We are pushing the boundaries of decorative arts,” Jen Lau, the Sales and Marketing Manager, told me as we rode the elevator to the Alpha Workshops’ studios and showrooms. Jen was referring to the way the decorative arts are taught at the Alpha Workshops and viewed in the world: it is a sector of the art world that is often inaccessible to the average person, a reputation that Alpha hopes to blow open. She was also referring, however, to the purpose the decorative arts have in society. “We heal through art,” she declared.The Alpha Workshops was founded in 1995 by Kenneth Wampler as a place where HIV-positive individuals could receive training and employment in the decorative arts. Kenneth, who came from a background working at the AIDS Resource Center, called his project “The Alpha Workshops,” which referenced the Omega Workshops, an English design enterprise from the early twentieth century. As Jen quipped, “They were the last word in decorative arts and we are the first word in new beginnings.” Many people get in touch with Alpha through caseworkers, flyers in pharmacies, or doctor’s offices. Today, the non-profit organization is expanding its community to include populations with other challenges, such as those living with autism, at-risk youth, and seniors, but the vision remains the same. Artists and students at Alpha Workshops are given a craft and helped to develop a plan for the future. While telling me about the series of classes that make up the Alpha Workshops school program, Jen emphasized that students are also taught how to represent themselves as artists, an important skill in a world where marketing can mean the difference between failure or success.The mission of the Alpha Workshops alone would make it an extraordinary institution, but the creations that come out of the studios offer proof of the extreme talent and creativity of the artists. “We have our own style,” Jen said, showing us the signature Negoro Nuri pattern that they use in much of their work and that dates back to seventeenth century Japan. As Jen guided us through a vast array of decorative finishes, wallpapers, and demo furnishings, displaying faux bois finishes, verre églomisé (gilded glass), faux marble (Alpha designed the faux marble in Gracie Mansion), and countless other textured patterns, I was continuously impressed with each new technique that the artists had created.Everything in the workshop is art, from the wallpaper in the hallways, to the cube seating, to the uniquely crafted lamps. Jen pointed out a gold lamp in a pattern that mimicked rock candy. She told me the story of how the executive director came into the workshop with a stick of rock candy and said to Obadiah, an artisan at Alpha in the 1990s, “Obi, can you make this into a lamp?” and so he did. The Eden Rock lamp is Obadiah's legacy, which lives on, though he is gone. Occasionally the studios will refurbish pieces, but mostly they are, in Jen’s words, “working with people who have ideas that they want to turn into reality.”Though they are mainly known for wallpapers, venetian plaster, and fine finishes, their expertise covers the whole discipline of decorative arts. I had heard from Harry Heissmann about how Alpha Workshops helped turn his friend’s illustration of a minimalist Easter Bunny into a 3D rendering, but Jen shared more stories, some of which involved adapting existing creations. For instance, the artists once made a sixteen-foot ceiling sculpture using grapevine branches: The sculpture was so popular that it then inspired another client to create a chandelier from the same material. As for how clients find the Alpha Workshops Studios, they have pieces in many showrooms around the city and have garnered a reputation for being a hub of creative, highly skilled artists. It does not hurt that the organization is also helping society on a grander scale. “More established designers know about us because of our mission,” Jen shared with a smile.Jen encourages any potential clients to come and visit the workshops, where they can see just how much the artists can do. Unlike many design centers around the city, Jen pointed out that clients “can visit the studios and classrooms right here and watch how it’s made.” The Manhattan Sideways team was excited to explore, even without having a commission in the works. We saw artists working on everything from ornate toilet lids to hand-stamped wallpapers. Steel and blush, we learned, were the colors of the season, and so we saw yards of wallpaper patterns in the soothing metallic gray and light pink. The head of the wallpaper department pointed out the more traditional patterns as well as the new ones, describing his job as “so Zen.” He explained that the mathematics of one geometric variation had been figured out on a computer before being completed by hand. “Artisanship meets technology,” he said with a smile. “This is tactilely satisfying work.”Our last stop with Jen was at street level where there is a showroom that doubles as an extra studio when there are no pop-up exhibitions. I have discovered many fascinating places as I have walked the side streets of Manhattan, but nothing that pulled at my heart strings the way that Alpha Workshops did. One person had a dream - a vision - and he was able to make it into a reality that some twenty years later continues to thrive. What was most important to me, however, is the number of lives that Kenneth Wampler has turned around, and in some cases, saved. I encourage anyone with an interest in art to discover this hidden gem, as the public is welcome to tour the facility.
These four New York City home goods shops offer a glimpse into the world of decorative arts and design.
Demolition Depot, owned by Evan Blum, is a unique treasure trove of architectural artifacts that he salvages and renovates, turning construction waste into art. If you prefer French styles, Le Fanion is known for its modern pottery sourced directly from talented artisans in the South of France, as well as French antiques and collectibles. For any antiques enthusiast, Martine’s Antiques, owned by Martine Leventer, is a must-see. This hidden gem reflects Martine’s passion for preserving beautiful and unusual objects for future generations. If you're looking for wallpapers or furnishings, The Alpha Workshops has an impressive selection of offerings. This shop is also a non-profit organization dedicated to training and employing individuals living with HIV and other challenges in the decorative arts.