NYSD House

Stephen Kelly

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Stephen Kelly
is either a dealer in Art Deco who is interested in ophthalmology or an ophthalmologist who is interested in dealing in Art Deco. Either way he has combined his medical practice, his gallery and his home in one building—presumably a unique living arrangement and one that must suit him very well. Attracted to the elegance of Art Deco and the ways in which it complements contemporary art, he started collecting some thirty years ago until his collection was so large that dealing seemed the obvious next step. “I didn’t want to become a hoarder,” he says, “so that’s why I started selling things.” The gallery floors display sleek furniture, unusual ceramics and sculpture from the period as well as smaller pieces like walking sticks with handles made from stingray tails and geometric jewelry—all things that bring to mind an era of women in backless satin dresses being offered cigarettes from an enameled cigarette case by men with pencil mustaches ... another world entirely.
Looking across the library toward the light-filled solarium. The carved walnut bergère is by André Groult, the shagreen, ivory, and palm wood side table is by Clement Rousseau.
A McGuire table and chairs is the perfect place for casual dining. They were selected by Geoffrey Bradfield and the late Jay Spectre, the interior designers of Stephen's townhouse.
What’s it like to live in a gallery? It’s quite a special sort of home to have.

It’s kind of a combination because the sixth floor is really residential. The fifth floor is part residential and part gallery and the fourth floor is all gallery. There’s kind of a separation of spaces.

You have prices on things everywhere – I wonder what it is like to live in a space where there are price tags on the furniture and objects!

But we had to do that to make it function as a gallery. A lot of galleries don’t put prices on their things and in fact make it hard for you to find out. I don’t think that’s a good idea and it’s not legal. Legally you’re supposed to.

Is that true? Do you think galleries think it’s more exclusive if they say “price by request”?

I don’t think so. I don’t really know. I mean it’s the first thing people want to know.
In the library macassar ebony paneling displays art and auction books as well as a group of prized objects.
A stunning macassar ebony and amazonite desk and chair by Charles Bernel, ca. 1929 was purchased at a Sotheby's auction from the Wendell Cherry Estate.
A handsome bar filled with crystal decanters and glasses is recessed into a wall of the macassar ebony paneled library.
So you’re not coy about prices. I hate bargaining. How good are you at bargaining—on both sides of a deal?

Well … [laughs] a lot of people don’t like to negotiate. We deal with a lot of interior designers who have a certain percent [discount] that they expect to receive. I don’t really like to haggle and most people don’t. If someone wants a discount, we give it to them. In some ways I didn’t really want to do business like that but everybody says you have to do it.

Do you think it’s true that the wealthier you are, the more you want to negotiate?

Yup.

You’re a doctor as well—it seems a lot of horse trading goes on with payments there, at least to insurance companies. All that seems negotiable as well!

[Laughs] Very!
A leather, galuchat, silver and mahogany desk set by Bancelin, ca. 1925 is displayed atop the Bernel macassar ebony marquetry desk top.
Reflections of the solarium from the mirrored wall of the library bar.
A bronze and onyx clock by Albert Cheuret, ca. 1925 stands front and center on the library desk. The clock was previously owned by Barbra Streisand.
Looking into the living room from the library.
A painting by Christian Bérard, "Personage en Rouge et Vert,"ca. 1930, from the estate of Geoffrey Beene hangs above the library couch covered in "Dragon Empress" fabric from Clarence House.
The alabaster and bronze cactus wall sconces by Albert Cheuret, ca. 1925.
So was this a cart-before-the-horse situation—were just a collector and then you thought …

Yes. Thirty years ago, I never in a million years thought that I would ever be opening a gallery. I just enjoyed collecting and I ended up with a large collection. I wanted to phase out of medicine too, and this became something for me.

Why did you want to phase out of medicine?

Well, you know I had been practicing for a long time and it gets to a point where you want to do something else and because of the increased longevity we have now—because of medicine—people can have a second career.

But you still practice?

I still practice but I am in the process of trying to bring somebody else in.
A collection of African masks hangs above a macassar ebony paneled beam dividing the solarium from the library.
More views of the solarium: built-in banquettes covered in an Art Deco patterned velvet from Clarence House were selected by designers Geoffrey Bradfield and the late Jay Spectre.
Looking into the library from the solarium.
A stainless steel sculpture by Ernest Trova, "Falling Man/Flapman" 1970 is displayed on a custom coffee table by Jay Spectre and Geoffrey Bradfield.
A bronze sculpture by Gustave Miklos, "L'homme et son Destin" 1929 is displayed upon a solarium console. It was purchased from the auction of the Felix Marcilhac collection in Paris.
What’s stressful about being a doctor compared to being a dealer?

Well, you know dealing with these insurance companies, having to go through all this stuff with prior approval and all the different plans—the patients I enjoy dealing with. The paperwork is really overwhelming and it’s harder to practice the kind of medicine I, and a lot of other people, like to practice. It’s turning to this practice of running through large volumes of people with technicians doing most of the work. Patients want to see somebody they know and can talk to.

Why did you decide upon collecting Art Deco?

I liked the modernist thing. It was so elegant. And I didn’t think 18th and 19th century things wouldn’t go in this space. In the 1920s and 1930s there are so many marvelous materials like shagreen, ivory, tortoiseshell, lacquer and the wonderful woods. A lot of the fine art from the period also appealed to me, the cubistic things.
A print by Sonia Delaunay-Terk, "Plougastel", ca. 1970 hangs on a far wall of the bedroom hallway.
A shagreen bed designed by André Groult and made by Chanaux & Co., 1927 makes a statement in a corner of the master bedroom. The tortoiseshell table at the foot of the bed is by Frans Franck and the brown shagreen drum tables are Chinese, 1930s.
A macassar ebony, ebonized wood and ivory cabinet by Jules Leleu, ca. 1924 dominates a wall of the master bedroom. Displayed atop the cabinet are two glass and gilt bronze Venini frames and a frosted and etched vase by Boris Jean Lacroix, 1927.
One of a pair of alabaster and silvered bronze stork sconces by Albert Cheuret, ca. 1925 hangs near a wall of bedroom closets.
A wall in the guest room is filled with pochoirs from a 1926 Paris portfolio, "Revolving Doors" by Man Ray. They were based on collages made in New York in 1916-17.
What’s your position on ivory now?

Well, it’s a problem—a big problem. Anybody who is a collector or a dealer thinks it’s very unfair what has happened [A new state law prohibits, with very narrow exceptions, import and export of objects containing any ivory whatsoever, including antique ivory. Inter state sales are also prohibited.] I don’t want to see the elephants shot but these poachers are still going to be shooting elephants—most of the ivory gets sold to China. [With this law] a musician can’t even go out of the country with an instrument that has a little bit of ivory on it. It doesn’t make sense. There may be some back tracking at some point.

It’s interesting that Art Deco was out of favor for a period—it’s so hot now.

Yes, after the [Second World] war everything really changed. A lot of the pieces were owned by the French, which was the best Art Deco. In Paris they sent those pieces to the south of France, to their summer houses, because it had sort of fallen out of favor. It kind of started coming back in the early 1970s. A lot of taste makers like Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent started collecting it and it’s been a very strong market since then.
A view into Stephen's grand living room. "Burning Trees" by Ross Bleckner, 1986, hangs on the right wall.
"Behind the Table", 1980 by artist Jedd Garet dominates a wall of the front entryway.
A large black lap stone cubistic sculpture of a male nude by Léon Leyritz, ca. 1928 welcomes guests into the living room.
Custom leather sofas and a coffee table by the late Jay Spectre stand atop a rug from Edward Fields. The walls are covered in parchment panels.
In a corner of the living room "Green", 1986, an etching, aquatint and drypoint by e Diebenkorn hangs above a silvered bronze and marble console, ca. 1925, by Albert Cheuret.
We’re always waiting for Mid-century Modern to die a death but it just won’t die!

I don’t care that much about Mid-century Modern. [Laughs] I grew up with it!

Yes, exactly. If you had an avocado refrigerator and an orange shag run in your house, you don’t want to look at it anymore. What about so-called brown furniture?

[Laughs] Brown furniture doesn’t really go well with contemporary art and those things that people are looking for now, so I don’t think it’s going to come back in a big way. Pre-1900 decorative art has reached its peak and it’s never going to come back like [those pieces] once were.
Looking across the main seating area towards "Blue",1984 a color woodcut by Richard Diebenkorn.
A pair of ivory and shagreen obelisks by Hermès, ca. 1925 flanks a silvered bronze and colored champlevé enamel clock by Jean Goulden, 1928. The bronze head standing atop the coffee table is by Constant Ambroise Roux.
Three pochoirs from "Revolving Doors" by Man Ray, Paris, 1926 hang on a wall between the living room windows.
A six-panel 1920s lacquered and incised screen by Eileen Gray stands between a pair of club chairs covered in a geometric patterned Fortuny fabric.
"La Trinité", a bronze sculpture by Jan and Joel Martel was purchased from estate auction of Geoffrey Beene.
A monumental porcelain and silvered bronze lamp by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, 1927 for the first class salon of the ocean liner Ile de France dominates the front foyer. It carries a $2,000,000 sale price.
It’s amazing that even something like Chippendale doesn’t have that value any longer. Art Deco is terribly glamorous … so sophisticated. It speaks of an era when people carried cigarettes around in enameled cigarette cases and had petrified stingray tails as the handle on their walking sticks. I mean the very thought of cigarette cases and expensive walking sticks is so alien to us now!

Yes. It has that patina of age but without an antique look. It goes so well with a lot of contemporary art too.

I always think of luxury liners when I see Art Deco pieces—it was that era of glamorous travel wasn’t it?

Sure, yes. [The 1920s] was a very prosperous time because it was between the wars. In Paris there was a burst of creativity … and then it was Hitler and the Second World War.
In the main foyer, a burl walnut table is flanked by a pair of Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann side chairs.
A screenprint by Jasper Johns, "Corpse and Mirror," 1976 hangs above a burl walnut Art Deco table. The 1920s silver centerpiece bowl is by Georg Jensen and the silver and vermeil candelabra are by Jean Puiforcat, 1937.
A view of the main floor kitchen.
A lithograph by Fernand Léger, "Le Vase" ca. 1927 hangs in the main entryway of the gallery space.
Looking across the front room of the Kelly Gallery. The Lorcia table, a unique piece in amboyna, by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, ca. 1930 stands front and center.
One of a pair of wrought iron and marble consoles by Richard Desvallières for Sue et Mare, 1925 dominates a corner of the front gallery room. The large gilt and lacquer mirror hanging above the fireplace mantel is also by Sue et Mare, 1925.
Two silkscreens by Ilya Bolotowsky flank a rosewood and carved ebony cabinet by Marcel Coard.
An unusual large green covered jar with coiled bronze handles is by Sèvres and Raymond Subes. It was made in 1943, during the German occupation of France.
The cabinets of the Kelly Gallery are filled with tempting Art Deco decorative objects.
Are you nervous about people putting their wine glasses down on say the Charles Bernel desk over there?

[Laughs … nervously] Oh yes … yes

What do you wear when you’re not in your doctor clothes?

Jeans—jeans go with Art Deco too.