The Timeless Allure of Designer and Collector Richard Shapiro

“Antiques have a story,” proclaims Richard Shapiro, the renowned designer, antiques dealer and founder of L.A.-based Studiolo furnishings. “This is as true for a 14th-century table as it is for a pair of 1950s Italian sconces. Great design is great design.”

Shapiro should know. He has been a passionate collector and purveyor of great design for over three decades. A student of art history and artist himself, he has made a career out of fusing the best elements from centuries, past and present — the result of which culminates in interiors layered with character and charm, seemingly cultivated over many generations. He brings an antiquarian’s eye to all of his projects, which have included the 1984 landmark design of The Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills and his own residences in Holmby Hills and Malibu (both of which have been covered by the likes of Architectural Digest and ELLE DÉCOR). His new monograph published this month by Rizzoli, “Past Perfect,” further celebrates his talent for conjuring Old World savoir faire.

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Shapiro recently shared his thoughts on cultivating story at home through antiques.

What has been your philosophy when it comes to collecting items for your homes?
Richard Shapiro I’m an inveterate collector, whether for my home or for a particular collection I’m engaged in, e.g., post-war art, drawings, 20th-century furnishings and accessories. I always go for the best I can afford. Most importantly, the object has to be singular and one of a kind. It has to emit something special and spiritual, and dialogue interestingly with its neighbors.

What drives your passion for antiques?
Richard Shapiro It’s their history … the fact that they were witness to and existed in another time and place. They all have a story. This is as true for a 14th-century table as it is for an important pair of 1950s Italian sconces. Great design is great design. Interestingly, when put together, they are beautiful in concert.

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What was one of the most important lessons you’ve learned from all the years you’ve spent collecting?
Richard Shapiro To study and learn intensively before leaping. Whenever I haven’t taken the proper effort to understand such things as provenance, condition, style, rarity, originality, value and quality, or spent time with true connoisseurs in the field, I have made mistakes. Most often, a piece bought for the “right price” is just a very expensive mistake.

You understand production processes and finishing techniques very well. What are some of the qualities or features you would look for when seeking out new furnishings with Old World touches?
Richard Shapiro This can only come from much study and looking at finishes. Let the piece speak to you. Visit museums and carefully imbibe the surfaces of iconic pieces. They must emanate a special quality and exude spirituality.

What’s the one mistake that every new collector eventually makes?
Richard Shapiro There’s a few! Jumping in too fast — or going for the flashy — and not buying the best you can afford. Simplicity is often best. Another mistake is listening to uninformed acquaintances or succumbing to the social pressures of friends, which is particularly true with contemporary art and its attendant cocktail parties. It’s a mistake to think with your wallet instead of your heart.

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Looking to the outdoors, what were some of the creative ways you brought the Old World into your own gardens at home?
Richard Shapiro “Borrowed” landscape is a wonderful ploy. Here, you camouflage and blur the boundaries of your own property to the point where they are indistinguishable from the surroundings beyond. In this way, you have visually appropriated trees, hills and sky well beyond your property and, in the process, screened out unsightly neighbors, service poles, distant buildings, etc. You have expanded your world but kept it entirely yours.

Would there ever be a scenario in which you would purchase a newly constructed home?
Richard Shapiro I would never do this, unless the surrounding area was exceptional and it worked a great pull on me. I would then have to employ all the measures mentioned above. For it to be a success, the home cannot have visible traces of what lies beyond the premises, and everything inside must say “authentic.”

What’s your secret to mixing contemporary pieces with antiques?
Richard Shapiro  A natural aptitude for this helps, but it can also be an acquired skill. Again, constant study and looking at good things with great design. Time spent with those who, by consensus, are masters. Quality is king. Not so much because of cost or preciousness, but because of uniqueness, quirkiness, spirituality, surprise (sometimes with odd scale) and clever juxtaposition with the other objects present.

What does your next dream home look like?
Richard Shapiro Perhaps a very voluminous architectural but minimal Moroccan modern, with very few but wonderful and powerful objects, all looking out to an endless view … but this could instantly change!

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