By Antoinette Rahn
Macklowe Gallery has been a decorative art and antiquities institution in New York for nearly 50 years. The company acquires many antique and estate jewelry, Art Nouveau and Art Deco objects for resale. In addition, Macklowe Gallery handled the entire artistic oeuvre of Louis Comfort Tiffany. That’s a storied NY legacy, to say the least.
New Neighborhood, New Chapter
Second generation owner Benjamin Macklowe is at the helm. He is expanding on what his parents, Lloyd and Barbara, have built. Macklowe Gallery relocated to a new, larger location this month (November). Its new location is at the corner of 57th Street and Park Avenue, in the heart of New York City. The Macklowe team is bringing its expertise to a neighborhood becoming what some are calling a hub of art, antiques, and antiquities. Its new neighbors include Heritage Auctions.
Macklowe Gallery is moving forward on this new path of its legacy. The strides they are taking, as you’ll learn from Benjamin Macklowe, is about learning something every day. In addition to observing the actions and attitudes of existing and new customers, and embracing opportunities to explore various aspects of appreciating, acquiring, and incorporating objects into the character of living and work spaces.
Antique Trader caught up with Benjamin Macklowe amidst the hustle of opening the firm’s new gallery location. He discusses the company’s and his own journey en route to this space and time.
Expansion of Space and Service
Antique Trader: Tell us a bit about the expansion plans for Macklowe Gallery, and what people can expect at the new location. Also what do you believe this evolution of your family business represents?
Benjamin Macklowe: After spending the last 46 years on Madison Avenue, we developed a pretty good sense of what works for our kind of specialized retail. The fatal flaw of our gallery location for the last 30 years was that it had a tiny window onto the street. It masks the reality of an unrivaled collection of Tiffany lamps and Art Nouveau that easily filled the 3,500 square foot downstairs showroom. In fact, thousands of clients over the years insisted to me that they thought we were only a dealer of antique and estate jewelry because that was what they saw from the street. So, chief among my goals is a much larger ground floor space, with ample windows to tell our full story to the street.
I spent seven years walking around the Upper East Side until I found the perfect location, on the southeast corner of 57th Street and Park Avenue. We now have 125 feet of windows that wrap the corner, and 3,500 square feet on the ground floor, where we can visually integrate both sides of our story. From a design standpoint, we have built the store to be much more open, to showcase these objects as the artwork they truly are, which is a big change from the crammed vitrines of traditional antique dealers.
Celebrating the Influence of Art and Antiquities
As for evolution, I will answer by way of example. I’ve recently returned from the Met Breuer, where I was inspired by the Ettore Sottsass exhibition. The museum did a brilliant job of displaying not only Sottsass’ groundbreaking work, but also his influences, which ranged from Ancient Roman glass to Indian prayer stupas. They also showed the artists influenced by Sottsass, up to the present day. I plan to do the same thing with Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Both were brilliant artistic movements, with meaningful influences to non-Western cultures and to various eras throughout history. Similarly, both have had strong effects on the artists and designers who followed them to this day. It’s always better to show than tell. So I will seek out the objects and artwork that help to make these unusual connections to the very best of 1880-1930 design.
AΤ: What path have you taken to be where you are now, taking over the reins of a business your parents started nearly five decades ago?
Grateful For Life-Long Learning
BM: I always planned to play first base for the Yankees, so I’m not sure how I ended up like this! In all seriousness, although I have never taken an art history class and had no idea I’d be interested in my family business, from the first day I showed up in the gallery in 1994, I knew this was my calling. I've tried to learn something new every day since. I am curious by nature and gregarious, so I ask questions of everybody I meet, especially our clients. I love sharing knowledge and I have made arts education part of my business model. This includes lecturing around the country, hosting symposia at the Gallery, and publishing two books about understudied areas of fin-de-siècle design.
I’ve always said that I was fortunate to be born after my parents, and they have really been my greatest teachers. First, it’s their love of the object and its place in design history. Second, and most especially, for their business acumen and affection for our clients and wonderfully crazy collectors.
AΤ: What kind of opportunities do you see in today’s marketplace for younger generations to infuse antiques and art into their lives?
Antiques Offer Unique Opportunity
BM: When my parents fell in love and got married, they were too poor to afford new furniture and naturally gravitated toward antiques, which were mostly called “used furniture” back then! Their generation became the greatest collecting generation in American history, both by diversity of interest and passion for quantity. The younger generations haven’t necessarily seen it this way. I don’t need to tell you how many areas of fine art and antiques are out of favor and trading at a huge discount to their prices of 15 years ago.
This doesn’t apply to the higher end pieces we sell, but for the bottom 75% of antiques, their prices are now below what it would cost to shop at Crate & Barrel or Restoration Hardware. This presents an incredible opportunity for today’s young people to discover antiques as a way of showing their intrepid aesthetics, ecological awareness and frugality, much the same way my parents got started 50 years ago
AΤ: How do you and the Macklowe Gallery team go about acquiring the varied selection you offer? How many people form the team?
BM: We are a small but dedicated team of 12. Although I make the final decision of what to buy, several staffers comb the internet looking for treasures. We have a great gemologist on staff. And invaluable industry knowledge and memory provided by my parents Lloyd and Barbara, and Larry Matlick. He's been our partner since we opened the first store .
AΤ: What does it mean to you to be a second-generation owner of an antiques and decorative arts business?
Enhancing a Tradition of Success
BM: Most family businesses fail in the second generation, so I am always guided to some extent by not wanting to mess up what my parents worked so hard to create. Now that I’m 23 years in, I mostly feel gratitude towards them. Plus, I feel some measure of pride to be positioning us for success going forward. I am incredibly grateful that this was their career path. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a second generation owner of a funeral parlor, or of a matrimonial law practice! Our business is all about joy and beauty, and that’s what keeps me excited every day.
AΤ: Tell us what strikes you as most impressive about Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles?
BM: Fearlessness. Both movements, particularly Art Nouveau, were radical departures from accepted notions of good taste. Social scientists have proven that the most primal human fear, besides being murdered, is being publicly shamed or humiliated. These artists risked public humiliation in everything they did. I mean, Emile Gallé created a table using dragonflies as legs, how crazy is that? At the time, the critics were split between loving the innovation and despising it. I think that is very exciting.
Enjoy a video of Mr. Macklowe speaking on the subject of Art Nouveau...
For more information, visit the new store location: 445 Park Avenue New York, NY; online at www.macklowegallery.com; email@MackloweGallery.com; or call 212-644-6400.
Benjamin Macklowe’s 5 ‘Best Practices’ For Business and Life
• Complete honesty. I know it sounds cliché but in our industry there are so many ways to cheat the consumer. To elide the truth or airbrush away deficiencies, and I won’t allow that in my company. When I was little my mom caught me in a lie. She gave me a great piece of advice: “Don’t lie, because you’re terrible at it. And you’ll always need to remember what you’ve said. If you tell the truth, you never have to remember anything, because it’s the truth.”
-- Hug my customers. Most businesses view their offerings as their most important asset. I know it’s my customers and try to treat them that way in all phases of our interactions.
• Hug my people. We are a small staff, but we operate with mutual respect in a non-hierarchical manner. Whoever has the good idea rules the day, and I love learning how to do things better from my co-workers.
NY Legacy Of Relevance
-- Learn every day. As I said before, I’m an autodidact in this world of art and antiques. So, I cannot afford to rest on my laurels. In addition, the world of business is changing so rapidly, if I don’t stay up on changes I will miss opportunities to grow my business.
• Buy the very best I can find. In the past, there were ample clients for items that would rate a 7 out of 10. As long as it is reflective in the price. Now we only want to buy 9s and 10s.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive items. For example, if we have a Tiffany ‘Dragonfly lamp (like the one pictured below), easily the most popular artistic lamp made at the Tiffany Studios (and therefore not the rarest), it better have extraordinary color and a base with unusual design, so that any uninitiated shopper will be immediately drawn to its beauty and the seasoned collector will salivate to have it at home.