Design as Destiny
Jean Servais Somian turned to art in times of hardship — and now he’s thriving.
If John Singer Sargent were alive today he would paint the portrait of John Rosselli—less for his aristocratic demeanor than for the similarity between the two gentlemen's artistic sensibilities. What Sargent achieved on canvas, Rosselli accomplishes in the realm of fine furniture. Like Sargent, Rosselli has a relentlessly elegant eye.
Among interior designers and fellow antiques dealers, Rosselli is considered an antiquaire for the cognoscenti. As Dan Carithers, an éminence grise of the design industry, says, "John simply has the most knowing eye in his selections—nothing ever looks pompous. He has lovely, wonderful taste."
In business for close to half a century, Rosselli presides over an extraordinary empire. He buys and sells an eclectic rang of important antiques (through JR Antiques), and represent a group of fine manufacturers of furniture, lighting, and fabrics (at John Rosselli & Associates). If you need antiques for the garden, his shop Treillage, which he owns with Bunny Williams, is full of urns, teak benches, and statuary in appealing state of decay. But for all his breadth, what Rosselli is perhaps mos admired for is his exceptional reproduction work (available through John Rosselli International and John Rosselli & Associates). He also reproduces furniture for Parrish Hadley from the private collection of the late Sister Parrish.
Rosselli's old-world training was spurred on by a mix of both talent and good fortune. The son of Italian immigrants and the youngest of 14 children, he went to art school in New Jersey, and would have continued his studies at Pratt Institute had he not been offered a job painting unfinished Italian furniture.
As it happens, the studio was downstairs from the workshop of the famous faux painter Isabel O'Neil. But while admiring of O'Neil's highly precise technique—as many as 19 steps to a process—Rosselli began to develop his own style. Because his technique was looser, freer, and more Italian in feel and execution, it allowed greater creativity. After apprenticeships with masters like Dino Lev and Harry Matlock, known for fine artisanal work, Rosselli went off on hi own. "I was very fortunate to work with Dino and Harry," he says, "and through them met wonderful designers lik Billy Baldwin, Albert Hadley, Sister Parrish, and Rose Cumming, who became my clients."
Today, it is Rosselli's creative vision that sets him apart. While many people manufacture reproductions of familiar antique furniture and period styles, Rosselli reproduces the lesser known, recherché, and hard-to-find. If, for example, you find an unusual antique table that requires a mate, a tôle wall sconce that wants three more, a slipper chair that needs another by its side, Rosselli will have those pieces made impeccably in one of his dozen or so workshops. Spread among New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, these hush-hush ateliers have second- and even third-generation craftsmen executing Rosselli's exacting designs. "It's a lot like the crafts guilds of Europe," says Rosselli, "but it's an American cottage industry."
Rosselli insists on high quality materials, and is especially drawn to those with a history of their own. Antique pilasters, for instance, become parts of bookcases and mirrors. Or a table may be made with century-old French oak parquets. This rare combination of period materials and superb craftsmanship makes many of his pieces almost indistinguishable from the originals, fooling even connoisseurs. In fact, although all Rosselli pieces are signed with indelible pens, that hasn't prevented them from being resold as the real thing. Recently, a pair of Rosselli's hand-carved chinoiserie figures sold at Sotheby's for $45,000—double the original price.
Some of Rosselli's reproductions have an inspired new twist. This Jacobean-style chair (below left), for example, would be beautiful for its pure lines alone, but it came to life after Rosselli's workmen hand-painted the linen canvas to suggest an antique tapestry. Other pieces are faithful to the original. The antique French screen that inspired the reproduction above was found in shreds, but Rosselli's replica saved it from extinction. Indeed, you could say his work is not only a preservation of artisanal techniques—but also of the essence of th antiques themselves.
255 East 72nd Street, New York, NY 10021
ANTIQUES AND REPRODUCTION WORK:
John Rosselli International
523 East 73rd Street, New York, NY 10021
FINE FURNITURE, LIGHTING, AND ACCESSORIES:
John Rosselli & Associates
979 Third Avenue (D&D Building), Suite 701, New York, NY 10022
ANTIQUES FOR THE GARDEN:
418 East 75th Street, New York, NY 10021
Establishment sells to the trade only. Available through your architect or designer.