Once you’ve climbed the scuffed stairs, you have to use your shoulder to budge the weighty steel door to Stephen Cavallo’s atelier covered in mirrors on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — then you catch your breath.
A shimmering 18th-century hall of mirrors seems to have suddenly replaced the gritty urban space you just occupied. Turn, and the far corner is like a luminously paneled stage set for a play requiring a 1930s Parisian pied-à-terre complete with jazzy mirrored fireplace styled after mid-century designer Serge Roche. “It’s deliberate,” Cavallo says of the tableau’s theatricality. “We like to see the look on people’s faces when they walk in.”
The third-generation owner of Stephen Cavallo/Mirror Fair, Cavallo wasn’t always sure that these gleaming panels, glass moldings, silvery columns and pilasters would be well received by a contemporary audience. Around six years ago, though, it dawned on him that he could cast shapes in glass (just as you could in plaster or metal), and he was struck with a vision of whole mirrored interiors replete with molded-glass architectural detail. “I didn’t know where it was going to lead,” Cavallo recalls. “Things got grander and grander. But remember, no one was standing in line to buy this from me.”
He was thoroughly aware that the furniture business is ever vulnerable to shifting trends and fickle taste — and a new idea could mean survival. The firm, founded in 1911 by his Italian grandfather, originally imported antique furniture from Italy. But as unsold stock piled up in the warehouse, Cavallo’s father, Stefan (who also happened to be a test pilot), realized that the way forward was to start reproducing the antiques that sold best.
In Cavallo’s atelier, a meeting area contains wooden shield-back chairs surrounding a custom Stephen Cavallo/ Mirror Fair antiqued-mirrored cocktail table. Several mirror frames from the SCMF collection lean against the wall.
Some of the techniques employed by SCMF are represented in this collection of mirrors, which includes an antiqued, silvered, etched panel; cast-glass reeded mirrored pilasters; and an églomisé, rubbed-palladium-leaf mosaic panel.
Left: A hand engraver creates a detail for the border panel of a Venetian gilt frame. The engraver uses a series of stone wheels to cut and shape the piece into the desired pattern. Center: This image shows the progression of the engraving process, from when the engraver traces a pattern onto the piece until it is finished with hand-poured silver, which creates an old-world mercury effect. Right: This section of a reproduction Venetian gilt frame displays how the frame maker, gilder and engraver worked together in creating it.
Meanwhile, the demand for ornately carved frames has dropped as requests for mid-century sleekness has risen. Today’s bold statements are made by installing mirrored surfaces as room features. Designers are using them as surrounds for fireplaces or, as in a London project by Haynes-Roberts, as the glittering surrounds of four doorways in a Kensington Gardens townhouse. Sandra Nunnerley, who recently worked with Cavallo on a custom mirrored vanity for a client, says of the technique: “It’s very glamorous!”
The drama of mirrored panels and custom gilded surfaces has suited the firm’s products especially to commercial design. Bergdorf Goodman is a loyal client. It commissioned cast-glass molded surrounds for three store windows on 57th Street and one year ordered a constellation of hand-beveled crystal stars for a Christmas window display.