New York antique dealer lives in 1939 atmosphere

March 03, 1991|By New York Times News Service

Happy New Year. The year is 1939, by Michael Smith's count.

Mr. Smith has just finished decorating a new apartment in a 1938 building in Manhattan's Chelsea section.

The RCA television in his living room was one of the first in the United States, in 1939. (It works.) The matches in the ashtray in his bedroom say "The Stork Club." (They light.) His parakeet, Jazz, lives in a streamlined cage. (It tweets, or maybe it scats.)

This one-bedroom apartment reflects how a middle-class American might have lived in the '30s, if he had perfect taste and suffered neither scratches in the chrome, rips in the upholstery nor cracks in the glassware.

"I am a period person," said Mr. Smith, who is the owner of Depression Modern, an antiques store in the SoHo district.

"I am an obsessed person," he added. At one time, Mr. Smith had collected more than 300 pieces of memorabilia from the 1939 World's Fair, including paper, furniture and maps.

His new home is just another obsession. He moved into the 900-square-foot cooperative apartment in May, finishing it -- down to the last cocktail shaker -- in six months.

This passion for design began when he was a child in Springfield, Mass. He was born 31 years ago to a family of design aficionados. His mother had a fastidious Cape Cod home and American country furniture.

When he was a little boy his mother dragged him off to flea markets. Now, more than 20 years later, he finds himself at Renninger's, the flea market in Kutztown, Pa., where, he said, "I'm looking at showcases that haven't been moved since I was 10 years old."

While his mother was haunting flea markets and antiques shops, her father, Clyde Graeff, a manufacturer of hosiery, was tooling around Kutztown in a 1930 black Model A Ford, which he bought new and is still running after 60 years. Mr. Graeff, long retired, now works for his grandson restoring 1930s metalwork.

When most teen-agers were discovering rock 'n' roll, Michael Smith was discovering 1930s design. During high school, he spent his summers selling beat-up Hall china pitchers at flea markets in upstate New York.

In the late '70s he moved to New York City to study engineering at the Pratt Institute and soon opened Depression Modern on Sullivan Street, the first of a succession of three stores.

Mr. Smith found himself focusing on an increasingly short period in design: not art deco, a period that covers the '20s and '30s in Europe and America, but the moderne furniture and objects made in this country in the 30s. Art deco, he came to believe, "is about angularitiy, aggressiveness and overembellishment."

In 1978, he bought his first '30s object: a chrome-plated steel candlestick on a Bakelite base, designed by Donald Deskey, who is famous for his interior design of the Radio City Music Hall in New York.

On a cold December day 13 years later, Mr. Smith strokes the candlestick, which he displays in his apartment foyer. "Look at it," he said. "If you saw the candlestick in a store today, wouldn't you think it was modern?"

But to Mr. Smith, '30s design has more than just surface appeal. It is also a matter of engineering. "I spend hours restoring a single lamp," he said. "How could they have mass-manufactured them and made a living off them? They used what was then inexpensive and incorporated great design. Today, people use cheap materials and spend energy over-designing."

The famous and the unknown, they are all here.

Mr. Smith's foyer is decidedly for making an entrance. Railings of copper and brushed steel, which Mr. Graeff copied from a photograph his grandson took in a home in Scarsdale, N.Y., separate the foyer from the sunken living room.

To pay his bills, Mr. Smith sits down at a desk of brushed steel and East Indian laurel, designed by Gilbert Rohde in 1934. On the sideboard, also by Rohde, he keeps a cocktail set designed by Norman Bel Geddes in 1929.

The living room is all peach and green, popular colors in the 1930s. The designer of the curvy upholstered sofa and chair is unknown.

The green rug with geometric patterns is based on a rug designed by Eliel Saarinen. To echo the peach and green color scheme, a peach mirror was hung above the fireplace. "This is the same pink glass that was used for depression ware dishes," he said.

In the round chrome bird cage sits an acid-green parakeet, whose color was chosen to complement that of the rug. The bird is called Jazz after the George and Ira Gershwin song "Jazzbird."

The television was the first model made in the United States. The image is projected upward and viewed in a mirror.

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