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An Interview with Nick Mongiardo

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By Bee van Zuylen

Escaping from my garden and the blustering winds in Gloucestershire, I make my way to Great Barrington, which is tucked far away in the hill of Western Massachusetts.  Here in the Berkshires I am about to meet with Nick and Taj Mongiardo, a father and son team who run a Déco restoration business, and produce extraordinary French furniture from the 1914 – 1935 period.  For more than 30 years Mongiardo has been restoring, designing and hand crafting museum quality pieces for an elite list of clients, including Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein and Jann Wenner, just to mention a few.

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Q. So tell me about the inception of your furniture restoration business.  Is that the proper terminology?

N.M.: I started out in the automobile business and was trained in lacquer and metal straightening. I had my own business collecting antiques and importing furniture from Europe, and eventually found myself drawn to the clean lines and smooth surfaces of Déco.

Q. Taj, did you go straight into your fathers business after college?

T.M.: No, I took some time before deciding to follow into the family firm.

Q. Tell me about how you became involved with this particular very specific period of French furniture.  It’s an unusual choice, no?

N.M.: Originally I was trained at Porsche. I was really drawn to smooth sleek surfaces.  I didn’t want any decoration, intricacy, carving; I wanted a surface to which I could apply the Porsche finish.  So, I chose Déco, specifically American Déco, because it was all I knew.  What happened next was that the restoration process started to surpass the value of the furniture, so I had to find a way that the furniture could absorb the cost of the restoration.  At that time, in 1975, French furniture was probably about time five times the cost of American furniture. One thing led to another, and I became seduced by French furniture, it’s way better than American Furniture.

Q.  And what period are we talking about?

N.M.:  The 20th century.  Growing up in Brooklyn, I lived right near the Brooklyn Museum.  They had a collection of French furniture, and I studied it and eventually chose the period of 1914 to 1934 to focus on.  I selected the 12 masters of that period and studied them exclusively.

Q.  So who are the great Masters that inspired you?

N.M.:  Ruhlmann, Eileen Grey, Pierre Chareau, Edgar Brandt, Ratau, Dupré-Lafon, Jean Michel Frank is a giant, Jean Dunant is huge and instrumental in Normandy, but they’re all different mediums more or less. I had to learn the processes from hammered steel to lacquer to leaf to inlay, not in an ornate way but a minimal way.  It’s very diversified, and I realised that if they could learn, so could I.

Also, you have to realize that these great Masters made everything from hinges to locks by hand, and it was resulting imperfections that gave the piece it’s unique individual character.

Q.    Tell me about the exhibits and shows that propelled you to the forefront.

N.M.: I did the Radio City Déco show in 1974.  I had restored a bedroom suite for Alan Moss, a renowned figure in the design industry, and that pretty much established me as an expert restorer of Déco furniture.

A few years later, in 1977, I was in a show at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, and my eggshell inlayed pieces attracted lots of attention, and resulted in many new commissions.

Q.  Your clients have often described your pieces as being the perfect blend of elegance and sensuality.

Whether we are working on decorative screens, tables, mirrors, chairs, beds or lighting fixtures, each piece has a character and life of it’s own.   We build for eternity; I will not compromise on quality.

Q.  Are there not a lot of materials that they used which are not available today, such as ivory?

N.M.:  We don’t encourage using ivory.  If we do we use recycled ivory, like piano keys, or billiard balls, nut picks or queue balls from London for the inlay. There isn’t so much of a call for that anymore.  For lacquer we’re using modern materials, veneers are available.  Amboyna was difficult to find when I started, it’s the burl of a tree found on the borders of Tibet and China, it’s the bizarre bit growing on the tree.  In Paris in the 70’s I found a cache of seventy to eighty year old veneers, and I bought all of what they had, it was fantastic! I was one of the few people to restore Ruhlmann furniture.

Q.  And what about the skins that you use?

N.M.:  Jean-Michel Frank was huge with parchments.  Stingray is available; you can buy up to 10,000 to 20,000 skins, they farm it in the Philippines so it’s like buying chicken and cows!

Q.  Is it expensive?

N.M.:  It’s hard to say what’s expensive when a piece of furniture is worth $1,000,000.  So, $50,000 or $100,000 for materials is a very minor cost of the restoration compared to the labour.

Q.  You also went to Vietnam after the war and set up a business there.  What were you doing?

N.M.:  One of the great masters was Jean Dunant, a lacquerist.  We went to research and document how lacquer eggshell was made and we started an export company.  But, as time went on it got more and more difficult exporting, so we stopped.

Q.  How many people do you have working with you here in the Berkshires?

T.M.:  Not that many, ten to twelve.

N.M.:  We did a lot of commercial work in the fashion industry. We are doing flagship stores for Armani in Caliofornia now and  for Donna Karan, we furbished about thirty stores all in African furniture, during her African theme period.

Q.  How long does it take to make a piece of furniture on average, a table let’s say?

N.M.:  We made a nineteen foot table made of Eastern rosewood with a sunburst veneer pattern.  That took nine months.  A chair can take forty to sixty hours to make.  Brad Pitt’s bed took 9 months!  He sent us a model of it: he designed it.  He was very exacting; he knows what he wants! We had to produce a video of the bed rotating360 degrees. It was covered with diamond patterned stingray skins.  It was his baby!

Q. Do your pieces ever come up at auction?

N.M.:  No, actually never so far.  I made two pieces for Yoko Ono in 1977.  She often sells her things at auction, but she still has my two pieces!

Q.  Isn’t Michael Chow one of you clients?

N.M.:  He’s an incredible designer, client and person!  He has one of the keenest eyes.  He was the trend-setter jet setter with one of the foremost collections of 20th century art and decorative effects in New York.  He has the best finite eye!  I teamed up with him and created the Armani store in Las Vegas.  Now he has the greatest house I’ve ever seen in Bel Air, California. He has some of our pieces, some screens; he has originals that we restored for him that are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We have three original pieces currently in the museum that we restored.  The restorer knows much more about the furniture than the experts whom I am having to contradict. The restorer is the person who is inside the furniture and I’ve been sleeping with those designers for thirty years!

Q. Is this business of yours the best well kept secret?  You don’t do any advertising, do you?

N.M.:  Absolutely, we are known all over the world mainly through word of mouth.  Of course, our web site too, but we never show anyone the inside of what we are doing.  You will never walk into a friend’s house and see the identical same piece of furniture and say “Isn’t that a Mongiardo?  I have the same one in blue.”  That will never happen.  It’s very exclusive, very confidential.

Our main thing is making customised furniture using materials that the client wants depending on his style, whether it be pear wood or ebony or more simply oak.

Q.  Your work is also expensive too!

N.M.:  Anyone buying a house for a million dollars is not going to be placing orders with us.  An average piece costs $150,000.  It’s unique, it’s a work of art.  We’ve survived the recession.  We had to tighten our belts, but more commissions are coming in, new money, some new young clients.

T.M.: Were even building a child’s bed for a two year old!

Q.  How many others are there in your métier?

N.M.:  Only two or three.  I’d say that I’ve been singled for my sense of craftsmanship.  We make every piece by hand, it’s a labour of love.

T.M.:  Listen, I even have tattoos of some favourite designs on my arms! But, that’s a whole separate story in itself…

N.M.  What we are doing here, we’re creating heirlooms, the heirlooms of the future.

Q. And what do you think about Bio architecture?

N. M . ( thinks) Bioarchtecture? Sounds good to me better than dehydreating mother earth of it’s oil.[/two_third]

 

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