In his Paris apartment on the Rue du Bac, antiques dealer Roger Prigent surrounds himself with American Empire furniture and folk art, a cultural cross-commentary that underscores his belief in fashionable extremes. "I may be French, but New York has been home for more than 50 years, and I don't like feeling homesick!" quips the soi-disant American in Paris. Meanwhile, beneath the rafters of his sprawling Manhattan townhouse -- which combines private living quarters upstairs with the renowned gallery Malmaison Antiques below -- the bespectacled and eminently Gallic proprietor holds court midst a backdrop of gilded chandeliers, Régence and Empire furniture, and French Art Deco paintings. A portrait of Helena Rubinstein by Christian Berard, marble busts of Napoleon, Venetian glass, silver, Lucite, and ormolu co-mingle in one great melting pot of chic.
Born on his father's coffee plantation in Hanoi, Prigent's exotic childhood was spent in Vietnam, Brittany, Syria and Martinique. He arrived in New York in 1950 and never left nor lost his accent. A first assignment for Vogue landed on the cover of the magazine and made him a famous fashion photographer almost overnight. With charm and visionary style, he became highly successful and opened his own photography studio more than four decades ago. His portraits of Carmen, Veruschka, Sonny & Cher, Jane Fonda, Johnny Carson, and Brooke Shields have graced the pages of Harpers Bazaar, McCalls, TV Guide and Vogue magazine. "When I don't work for Vogue I live like Vogue," he once told the famous art director Alexander Lieberman.
A front row fixture at every major furniture auction in New York City for the last 20 years, the savvy octogenarian has never been afraid to buy what others have shunned. Long before it was stylish to mix centuries of design under the same roof, Prigent was doing just that. Mad keen on Napoleon since childhood, the tastebroker adores tipping his favorite Emperor's hat to Hollywood these days, mixing neoclassical and Vogue Regency taste with aplomb. He is a modernist at heart with a contagious fascination for fine French furniture. Prophetic purchases early in his career have led to discoveries of obscure 20th century painters and craftsmen too. Over the last two decades, Prigent has helped pioneer the popularity of mid-century American designers like T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Samuel Marx, Frances Elkins, and Karl Springer. He sums up 20th century design with the declarative maxim, "Either its chic or its not chic."
The ambiance of the Malmaison emporium reflects the humorous style of a supremely confident and international dealer. Furniture jumbled chock-a-block creates a throwaway impression that unexpected treasure lies buried within. Shuffling down a ready-made aisle to uncover some neoclassical gem, Prigent appears to stumble upon things not seen in years. In one fell swoop, idle curiosities surface, anecdotal banter ensues, and purchases seem destined. The arbiter of taste always seems preoccupied, busily beating a path to the next auction catalogue, reference book, or fabulous find tucked away from sight.
The present sale includes almost 400 lots, a unique opportunity as it combines items from the antiques shop with a broad selection of things which have been in storage for decades. 18th and 19th century Russian, French, Swedish, Italian, and German furniture is on offer alongside ormolu, marble, and sculpture. Distinguished 20th century French designs by the likes of Jansen, Baguès, Groult, Arbus, Moreux, and Leleu are mixed with American pieces by Elsie de Wolfe, Samuel Marx, Karl Springer, and a famous 1930s commission by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings for the Casa Encantada designed by renowned architect J.E. Dolena in Bel Air, California for Hilda Boldt Weber. Such extraordinary pursuit promises to tempt even the most jaded eye.
After almost a quarter century in business, Malmaison has decided to scale back its operations. "The future will be my minimalist phase, only a few things -- mirrors, sconces, coffee tables -- for a few decorators, very café society," coos Prigent with a devilish grin.
Roger Prigent's Malmaison
Tuesday, November 26, 2002 at 10:00am