About four years ago I visited the Breakers, the Vanderbilt “cottage” in Newport, RI. It was explained that in restoring the building several elaborate fabrics and wallpapers had to be recreated from original 100+year-old damaged remnants. Scalamandre, a name I was vaguely familiar with, had undertaken analysis of fiber content, color and patterning and then reproduced these fine specimens of Gilded Age excess. With a little research I discovered that company excelled at small-run bespoke fabrics and high-end hand-screened wallcoverings of up to sixteen colors. Most importantly, the 75-year-old concern that had created custom silks for the White House, fringe for Big Bird, and tassels for the Old Merchant’s House museum was also responsible for the brilliantly zany zebra wallpaper* in the Red Sauce Italian landmark, Gino’s of Lexington Avenue. And at the time (this was late 2003) they were taking shipments of sticky, raw silk to finished dyed and woven fabric all under one roof—in a mill in Long Island City. I was astounded. Someone still did this? In New York City, no less?
I then made a determined effort to get a look inside the place… Long Island City**, a former industrial center, home to stapler factories, printing plants and shellac distributors, is now in the process of being radically transformed. At the time of my visit, the Scalamandre mill was probably among the last light industrial holdouts.
I found it on a non-descript and fairly bleak street: a relatively small 19th-century brick building with strangely beautiful skylit spaces and worn plank floors.
It was an idiosyncratic manufactory mixing pedal-powered wooden looms, Eisenhower-era machinery, handwork, and modern computer-run technology. I was fortunate to get a quick tour of the mill that day, learning a little about warps, swifts and loom cards in the process. Very shortly thereafter Scalamandre announced they were moving out-of-state, and selling the building.
I later read they were having a kind of fire sale—a dream flea market of antiquated bits and pieces, fabrics and trimmings, emptying the place of its arcane and –to the outsider—inscrutable devices. I was so emotional about that building (true)—I couldn’t even bring myself to go.
An important part of Scalamandre’s work is historical research and reproduction. In an on site studio in that mill they analyzed samples soiled by coal and wood smoke, faded by sunlight, or brittle with age. Probing hidden seams for color and poring over contemporary publications for design documentation they resuscitated vibrant color schemes and completely reconstituted complex repeating patterns. I loved the notion of forensic design technology, a sort of CSI: Decorative Arts Unit.
*The paper shows up, charmingly, in The Royal Tenenbaums, and, rather less interestingly, in Kate Spade’s bathroom.
**The 7 train’s elevated path through LIC into Queens, with its magniﬁcent sight lines to Midtown Manhattan, is rather exciting and should probably be landmarked.
Images from top: the view from the 7 train; "the Old Mill"; hand-screening wallpaper, with the zebras in the background; swatches, and spools set up for weaving stripes; looms; some of the afore-mentioned Eisenhower-era machinery: a dying vat; quality inspection; patriotic passementerie; antique spinner, and spool boxes; classic zebra wallpaper at Gino's from the New York Times