House + Home Q+A

Made in America: New book celebrates the history of Scalamandre textiles

Updated: 2013-12-08T03:05:34Z

By ALICE THORSON

The Kansas City Star

Scalamandre: Haute Decor,” a new book by Steven Stolman, president of Scalamandre, tells the story of the renowned textile house from its founding in 1929 to its current status as the “go-to resource” for high-end designers looking for exquisite textiles. It’s a lavish volume, profusely illustrated with color photographs of Scalamandre-styled interiors from the White House to the set of Katie Couric’s show.

“Authoring a book was one of those things near the top of my bucket list,” said Stolman, who will be in Kansas City on Tuesday for a booksigning with interior design professionals and their clients at Designers Only, a comprehensive, to-the-trade showroom run by Joye Adamson in Prairie Village. As the event is not open to the public, we asked Stolman to talk to The Star about his book and the company it celebrates.

What is Scalamandre known for?

We’re the Rolls Royce of decorative fabrics, wall coverings and trim. We’re probably best known for very elegant, exquisite silk damasks and brocades, beautiful lush prints, and elaborate braids, cords and tassels that make the difference between off the rack and custom. Starting in the late 1920s, Scalamandre was one of the very few American textile manufacturers that had their own mill and could domestically produce what traditionally could only be found in Europe. Over the years Scalamandre has stood for the best of the best.

How did the company start?

It’s a great American success story. It was founded by two Italian immigrants, Franco and Flora Scalamandre, who came to this country in the 1920s and had an appreciation and an ability to express their artistry in textiles. Franco was educated as an engineer and draftsman, and found himself a job teaching drafting at an interior design school in mid 1920s. There, he became interested in textiles and started developing continental textiles in the U.S. with small artisanal weavers and a little mill in New Jersey. He eventually bought his own mill in Long Island City, New York.

How did Scalamandre evolve?

It was all about timing.

In the 1920s, everything had to be about the new, the machine age, deco and moderne. There wasn’t much appreciation for anything that had provenance. In the 1930s, deco began to be perceived as common. Everything had gone streamlined and people became bored with the lack of decoration.

Suddenly, in the early 1930s, people became very interested in restoring great houses and museums, and there was an appreciation for antiques. Things started to get a little more ornate and a little more decorative, and there was an appreciation for historical references.

But by the late 1930s, Europe was getting into war. European goods were in short supply at the same time that the desire for fine European textiles was coming into fashion. This is why Scalamandre thrived. It was a perfect storm.

Around the same time, we were discovered by all sorts of American taste-makers, including serious interior designers working for department store home furnishings departments. Wanamaker’s in New York had a very respected antiques gallery, Au Quatrieme, run by Nancy McClelland. She was restoring antique furniture and trying to resell it, and needed to reupholster these pieces with lavish textiles. She couldn’t find them, and then she heard that this guy in Long Island City was able to make them. So she started feeding Franco the motifs she wanted, and that’s how Scalamandre grew.

The firm has been involved in some high-profile projects.

We hit our stride with the Kennedy White House, and we really have worked for every administration since. When the Kennedys came to the White House, it was in disrepair and in need of major restoration. Jacqueline Kennedy created the White House fine arts committee, comprised of experts, socialites and taste-makers. Politically, they were encouraged to buy only American. When they needed to find a U.S. company that could produce these glorious textiles, Scalamandre became the go-to resource. To this day the textiles in the Red Room and the Blue Room and the diplomatic reception room are all Scalamandre.

What’s the attraction of Scalamandre?

People like the gravitas. We’re looked at as experts and authorities on fine decorative textiles. There’s a certain prestige, backed up by eight decades of experience making these beautiful things. Decorators have come to rely on us. We made the fabric for the grand curtain of the Metropolitan Opera House, and we also do private residences.

Where can people find Scalamandre textiles?

We have always been strictly to the trade. To have Scalamandre in your home, you have to go through a decorator, upholsterer or retailer. We’ve never sold directly to the public, but people can buy our licensed collections. Our Scalamandre Maison bedding and decorative accessories are available at Trapp and Company and neimanmarcus.com, and our iconically patterned Scalmandre by Lenox china is carried at Halls and bloomingdales.com.

Tell me about some of your iconic designs.

Zebra, which is reproduced on the front of the book, is our most iconic pattern. It was designed by Flora in 1945 for an Italian restaurant called Gino’s, which attracted customers including Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen. We continue to make that wallpaper, and it’s one of the most popular items in our collection.

Do you respond to contemporary tastes?

We have to get with the times, and we take many of our iconic patterns and recolor them for today’s tastes. You can see examples in the book. For the set of the Katie Couric show, we created blue and white ikat accent pillows. I can’t think of a more popular motif right now than ikat. I think people like it because it’s a little global, a little bohemian; it’s got an artisanal touch to it.

This won’t be your first trip to Kansas City.

Two years ago, I came to Kansas City for the first time to present a new collection at Designers Only. I fell in love with the people in the area, and it probably has the most gorgeous housing stock I’ve seen in my life. The grace and the scale of the Kansas City suburbs are unparalleled.

I came back a year later to attend DIFFA Dining by Design, and we sponsored Katy Sullivan’s table. I was so impressed by the passion and appreciation for design that Kansas Citians have. I’d been aware of it from working as a fashion designer. Bill Blass, Pauline Trigere and Oscar de la Renta had amazing clients in Kansas City. There’s something in the water. People get it. They understand beauty, elegance and style.

More information

“Scalamandre: Haute Decor” is available in Kansas City at Trapp and Co., 4110 Main St., or can be ordered at Scalamandre.com.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

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