Gerald Bland: Accidental Tastemaker

Dina Litovsky

This acquisitor never set out to be an authority on art and furniture—which may be precisely why insiders flock to his Upper East Side shop.

It’s no doubt because one expects antiques experts to be rarefied snobs that Gerald Bland, whose area of focus since he was first hired at Sotheby’s in 1974 as a 23-year-old college dropout has been 18th-century English furniture, comes as such a pleasant surprise. He carries his knowledge so lightly and with such a ready-at-hand ironic twinkle that it’s possible to overlook it altogether, or mistake it for a particularly well-informed brand of social poise. Indeed, talking with him about, say, the history of European furniture as exem­plified in the Sheraton (as opposed to the Hepplewhite or Chippendale) clothes press, one can imagine oneself conversant in period style in a matter of minutes.

There was nothing in Bland’s background to suggest he would end up as a grand acquisitor and impresario of all things tasteful. He grew up in Wilmington, on the North Carolina coast, the son of an engineer father and a housewife mother who, Bland says, “was not interested at all in interiors. Our house was a mixture of 1950s stuff and a few older pieces from my father’s family, which were rightfully uncelebrated­.” While attending the University of North Carolina, Bland worked summers on Nantucket as a waiter, and it was there, “at the type of restaurants where you went home with the guests,” that he made the connections that led to an interview at Sotheby’s. His meeting began less than auspiciously—when asked if he knew the difference between Queen Anne and Chippendale, he replied, “Who are they?”—but he was hired as a trainee on the strength of his Southern accent (thought to connote genteelness) and, one guesses, his abundant charm.

Bland worked in Sotheby’s offices on New Bond Street in London for the next two years to learn the business, with several stops along the way in Paris. The young trainee encountered star decorators, like Henri Samuel of the famed Maison Jansen (which renovated and redesigned Jackie Kennedy’s White House); memorized the reigns of all the kings and queens of England and France, which enabled him to identify the corresponding stylistic periods (Louis XV, for instance, Bland describes as “curved lines and Rococo,” while Louis XVI is “Neoclassical and straight lines”); and met “very fancy people,” like the Anglo-American heiress Lady Baillie, whom Bland was introduced to at a cocktail party at Lowndes House on his first night in London. (Baillie’s country home, Leeds Castle—which was used by, among other royals, Henry VIII—was decorated by Stéphane Boudin of Maison Jansen.)

After leaving Sotheby’s, Bland headed up Stair & Company, the old-line antiques store (since closed), in both New York and London. He lasted three years, finding it “too corporate and too difficult,” after which he began dealing privately. He was operating quite successfully out of the third floor of a Madison Avenue townhouse, convinced that he preferred selling antiques by appointment to selling them in a public space, when, 22 years ago, he changed his mind practically overnight. A client, an interior designer named Eric Cohler, mentioned a store that was available down the street; Bland looked at it on his way home and rented it two days later.

Which is how Bland came to be the proprietor of an eponymous shop on upper Madison Avenue that tempted passersby with its eclectic, eye-catching displays, in which there could be anything from a pair of minimal steel low tables of his own design to a gilt bronze-mounted Regency mahogany center table. In May, after his lease expired and his rent doubled, Bland relocated to a much bigger space (“It’s three times the size,” he says) in The Fine Arts Building in what is known as the Designer’s District (232 E. 59th St., 6th fl.; Thanks to skillful placement and a few subtle yet striking design touches, including a coat of deep gray paint in the entrance gallery, he’s succeeded in making the 3,000 square feet of furniture, fixtures and art feel as navigable and homey as his original shop.

One of the things Bland’s expanded space has allowed him to do is to carry a larger selection of contemporary art, which he first started stashing away seven or eight years ago when he realized that decorators were buying artworks for clients. “The market for art is much bigger than the market for furniture,” he says. “Cool and clean contemporary art can transform a piece of 18th-century furniture into something palatable for the younger market.” His inventory has included colorful­ works on paper by Athos Zacharias, Willem de Kooning’s first assistant; stark oils by Christopher Flach, a neighborhood psychologist, which have a slight Cy Twombly feel; as well as abstract acrylics by the painter John Rosis. “I didn’t feel qualified to be an art dealer,” Bland says in his modest manner. “What I do now is simply stand in front of something—it either does or doesn’t do something for me.” (It probably doesn’t hurt that Bland is used to living with art; his wife, Mita, is a watercolorist of considerable skill.)

The art is scattered among other pieces that have caught the dealer’s eye: a pair of painted 18th-century Gainsborough chairs that he upholstered in a nubby, gray-green wool-and-linen fabric and trimmed with small nailheads; custom-made ceramic lamps by Andrea Koeppel, a former designer for Takashimaya; and wildly seductive ceramic mirrors by Eve Kaplan, who is favored by clients like Tom Ford and the designer Michael Smith.

One of the more handsome items is a commode made of the mahogany­ base of a Sheraton clothes press to which Bland added a cement top, drawer pulls fashioned out of nuts and bolts, and legs of steel pipe. (It costs $14,000; prices start at $2,200 and go upwards of $50,000.) It is a tribute to both his ingenuity—“I like making furniture,” he declares—and his decision in the wake of 9/11 to branch out from selling strictly 18th-century furniture to dealing in later periods as well. “The world changed and people stopped buying,” he says. “I went into David and Evangeline Bruce’s basement and started pulling out things that had become antiques while I wasn’t looking.” These included items from the couple’s estate, which comprised pieces from 20th-century designers like Nancy Lancaster, Colefax and Fowler and Alessandro Albrizzi.

In a way, his unfussy and intuitive approach is what has made the soft-spoken and youthful 63-year-old Bland the go-to guy for so many people interested in making their residences artful yet welcoming. His is the sort of shop designers like Victoria Hagan, Miles Redd and Alex Papachristidis and discerning customers (and designers) like Charlotte Moss, Nina Griscom and Carolyne Roehm regularly stop by. He has become, less by design than by circumstance, an arbiter of a certain kind of informed sensibility, one that aims for warmth over rigor. “I find ‘cozy’ important,” Bland says. And although he is informed by a “sense of tradition,” he also likes mixing things up. “I would never hang an 18th-century painting over an 18th-century commode,” he says. “It makes them both look old.” Similarly, while he says he appreciates spaces that are “completely designed,” he wouldn’t feel comfortable in them. “I would need to drag something of my own into it.” (His apartment, for the record, is a genteel mélange of styles, with nothing too spiffy or new-looking on hand.)

Bland has so few edicts—“Furniture is utilitarian,” he says, bringing it all back home—that one can easily forget that he got his start in a world in which provenance and patina mattered and in which a “pure” 18th-century cabinet might go for $200,000 to $300,000. If pressed hard enough, he will emerge with a few prejudices: He finds the use of rare woods, like calamander or rosewood, “vulgar” and doesn’t much warm to libraries done in mahogany, either. He also isn’t a fan of Restoration Hardware. “They took a creative thing,” he says, “and mass-marketed it.” He believes, on the other hand, that Crate & Barrel “has good design” and that its pieces hold up to use with more pedigreed ones.

Two years ago his daughter, Georgiana, 31, joined the family business; she majored in art history at Wheaton and worked for four years in Rome, helping arrange private tours for English and American institutions. Since she’s come on, Bland has been meeting a new generation of clients. “They make cocktail parties look better,” he jokes. While it’s too early to tell whether Bland’s old neighborhood and drop-in customers, who made up a small but vital part of his clientele (75 percent of his business was to the design trade), will follow him to 59th Street, chances are good they will, since wherever Bland sets up shop, the gossip is lively, the sell is velvet-gloved and unshowy connoisseurship is something you can count on.