A year ago this week, design lovers the world over pulled up their browsers to the Sotheby’s site and frantically refreshed as the collection of Mario Buatta, the so-called Prince of Chintz, was enthusiastically sold off to his admirers around the world. Next week, many of those same design lovers will tune into Hudson, New York-based Stair Galleries for the sale of another design icon: John Rosselli.
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The design world went into a collective mourning late last year when Rosselli announced the closing of his eponymous Upper East Side store—long a favorite source for top designers and in-the-know shoppers. But fans of the talented antique dealer were dealt some good news when Rosselli announced that he’d be auctioning off much of his inventory through Stair. Rosselli—much like Buatta—is a prolific and exuberant collector, a habit that has fueled his several shops, given character to his own homes (most of which he shares with his wife, the celebrated designer Bunny Williams, with whom he also ran the beloved store Treillage), and made him a go-to resource for many of history’s top designers.
“John is the most voracious shopper you could ever meet,” says his nephew, Jonathan Gargiulo, who has worked alongside Rosselli since the 1980s. On Tuesday, January 27, Stair will sell over 200 items that prove this: The lots range from faux bois furniture to grisaille wallpaper panels to artwork, porcelain, and—of course—plenty of offerings in the blue-and-white color palette that became a signature of Rosselli’s store, where an array of Chinese ginger jars was a stalwart display.
Rosselli began his illustrious career as a decorative painter for an Italian furniture importing company in New York. Quite simply, he says, “I could paint so I applied for a job and was hired.” A year later, he asked for a raise and was declined—a decision that would be the foundation of his career to come.
“I was told no, but was offered a raw piece of furniture every month in place of the raise,” Rosselli recalls. “So I began building inventory and within the year rented the smallest space on Second Avenue and 68th street.”
And so John Rosselli Antiques & Decoration was born. “On weekends I visited every thrift shop and flea market, buying smalls (boxes, lamps, mirrors, plates, and decorative objects)—all of this was the start to the business you see today,” recalls the dealer.
And what a business it has become: Since Rosselli opened shop in the ’50s, his customers have included the likes of Sister Parish, Dorothy Draper, Rose Cummings, Eleanor Brown, Billy Baldwin, Albert Hadley, Mark Hampton, Mario Buatta—and, of course, Williams—not to mention many more.
Long before Instagram scrolling became the de rigeur means of ingesting design inspiration and the term “experiential shopping” was a buzzword, Rosselli created an immersive experience within his shop, which was set up like something of a cabinet of curiosities.
“I think I was unique in that I did not focus on just furniture—or a single period of design,” he says. “I liked bits of everything.”
Of course, like any successful dealer, he was known for certain things—”Majolica and blue and white porcelain were two of my early interests, and I bought and displayed in depth.”—but part of the magic of Rosselli’s shop was that, while you might enter with a specific shopping list in hand, you were bound to be enthralled by something completely different, too: “Stuff was piled everywhere, so designers loved to come in, dig around, and make their own discoveries,” says the dealer.
When he decided to close up shop, Stair founder Colin Stair got to embark on a similar shopping journey on behalf of the auction house: “Once I had decided on Stair & Company, I opened my shop and warehouse to Colin to select what he knew would be of the greatest interest to his auction audience,” Rosselli recalls.
As for the items that made the cut, when asked if he has any favorites, Rosselli counts—appropriately—”all the blue and white” as well as “several items of Chinoiserie” among those closest to his heart.
But really, it’s the mix that makes the sale so special. As Stair proclaimed in its auction announcement: “His trademark has always been a deft blend of fanciful scale and serious furnishings, a patchwork panache that is original and amusing.”
In fact, Rosselli’s own collecting style might serve as the best advice to those looking to start their own collections: “I don’t take collections too seriously,” he says. “Perfect condition is not a requirement; what’s more important is does it bring back a memory of where or who you purchased it from? When you look at what you collect, do you smile?”
Those worried Rosselli’s kind of discovery is a thing of the past should take heart: The dealer plans to open an ecommerce version of his store in the near future. “The Internet has changed the antique world,” Rosselli tells House Beautiful. “You not only have your town or city as a source anymore—you have the world.”
See some picks from the auction below and register to bid here.
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