Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Visiting Fortuny


Task: Go to the Fortuny showroom on Giudecca with Richard
Objective: To see if they can recover his Karl Springer table

Richard bought the table from Karl Springer in 1962, before the Duchess of Windsor bought the same table and splashed Springer's name everywhere. The table is tiny and covered in snakeskin, but years ago a drunken guest spilled wine on it, and that, plus age, have ravaged the finish of the snakeskin. Richard knew that Fortuny had dealt with Springer's furniture, and thought they might be a good place to go to see about reupholstering the table.

His association with Fortuny goes back to the mid-60s when he would visit Venice once or twice a year on buying trips in his capacity as interior designer, or, alternatively, as a design editor when he would arrange photo shoots. Those were his expense-account Gritti Palace/Danieli/Harry's Bar days.

On the vaporetto to Giudecca he says, "she had more wonderful parties there! You know who I mean..."

"Countess Gozzi?"

He nods. He has told me the story many times, but it is an interestingly Venetian story. (This is all of course, per Richard, whose short term memory is in tatters but whose long-term memory is dense with detail.)

Countess Gozzi was born Elsie McNeill, an American. Her father was the chief of Coca-Cola for Europe. His offices were at the San Marco/Vallaresso vaporetto stop. He suffered mightily from the inability to get a good Martini in Venice; none of the bartenders understood that subtle art, until he met a bartender named Arrigo, who, under his tutelage, became an ace Martini maker. McNeill proposed to Arrigo that they open a bar; McNeill would provide the location and Arrigo would provide the martinis. That, according to Richard, is how Harry's Bar was born.

Elsie McNeill married Arthur Lee and they opened a fabric showroom on Madison Avenue. They were the exclusive distributors of Fortuny fabrics, which were all the rage in the world of the rich and beautiful since Fortuny created his first pleated print dress.

When Lee died, Elsie married a Venetian count, Alvise Gozzi, and took over the Fortuny Company. Her "palazzina," a lovely brick house, was in the courtyard behind the showrooms. Although I couldn't see it, Richard says there is a private swmming pool behind it; the only one in town.


Giudecca toward Molino Stucky Hilton, the green tower

The Fortuny complex was built at the west end of Guidecca, on land bought from the Stuckys, whose Mulino Stucky, a towering, monstrous 19th century flour mill, has recently been transformed into a singularly lackluster Hilton and Convention Center.

"I came here yesterday, because I didn't know it was a holiday," Richard says. "I hope they are open today."

He has the table in a canvas shopping bag. Fortuny is, indeed open. The middle-aged saleswoman lets us know she speaks no English, and goes to get someone who does.

The fabrics in the showroom are dazzling; Fortuny left behind magical formulas for colors, and the embossing is done on the finest Egyptian cotton. The finished fabric has an extraordinarily silk sheen, often gleaming with gold and metallics, but the cotton is more durable and versatile than silk. A sign inside the door says that the fabrics are 360 Euros a meter. Looking at the people in the showroom you would not know you were in the midst of a global financial collapse.

The salesman speaks perfect English. Richard takes the table out of the bag and sets it on the counter.

"It's a Karl Springer table," he says. That doesn't seem to register with Giuseppe, the saleman. "I knew Countess Gozzi," Richard says with a twinkle. That registers. "She gave marvelous parties in the little house back there."

We explain that Richard would like to have the table reupholstered in fabric.

"We have the fabric," Giuseppe says, "but you will need someone to do the work."

"Do you know of anyone?"

Giuseppe thinks. It is not a standard upholstery job. The table is small and intricate and will require the fitting of the fabric over complex surfaces. There is a man, he says, a framer with a shop not far who covers albums and picture frames for them. He is a true artisan, Giuseppe says. Perhaps he can do this? Richard asks if he speaks English, which he does not, so Giuseppe calls ahead to explain everything in advance.

Richard looks at various fabrics and makes a provisional choice. Although the piece he chooses is a discounted "remnant," it measures about a meter and is roughly 300 euros. I ask if Richard can buy less than a meter from a roll, and Giuseppe nods affirmatively. He doesn't need a meter; a third might do, which brings the price down significantly. He selects a roll from the wall which resembles the remnant we had been looking at.


The fabric is gorgeous; Richard still has a crackerjack eye for these things. It is small geometric pattern. But I suggest to him that before he buys, we check with the framer to see what it will cost to reupholster the table with the fabric. So we head back down Giudecca toward Redentore, to the framer's shop.

The framer takes one long look at the table and says no, he cannot do it. It would be too complex, the edges of the table are as intricate as elaborate picture frames. He could do it with paper, he says. But not fabric.

So we stop at Bar Palanca for a snack and heading back toward the vaporetto we run into Giuseppe and explain that the framer cannot do it. He apologizes for sending us on a wild goose chase, and suggests that Richard look for an upholsterer. But Richard has already given up on the idea and moved on. So we head back across the Giudecca Canal to the Zattere, where, overnight, the wisteria have gone bananas, blooming like mad, and the air is growing heady with their fragrance.

The mission was not accomplished, but the morning wasn't wasted.

You can see the story in pictures: [ VISITING FORTUNY]

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