A Woodbury Victorial becomes a contemporary showhouse
A cherry-red Vespa is something you would expect to find buzzing around the Piazza Navona, not parked in a Litchfield living room. But this one is simpatico with the Ferrari-red armchair made out of crinkled steel and the jumbo-sized, 450-pound Italian marble coffee table. In fact, nothing—not even luminous rock lamps—seems out of place in this renovated Victorian in Woodbury that George Champion has repurposed into a showhouse for mid-century modern and contemporary design.
Upstairs, a sleek chaise-lounge designed by Osvaldo Borsani invites repose; ditto for the Gaetano Pesce number, a lime-green umbrella chair in the foyer. In the bathroom, a serene-faced, mercury-glass Buddha rests; in another room a red-hot “Marilyn” lip couch beckons.
The place exudes an ultra-cool, hip vibe, in contrast with the structure’s more traditional details—a cherry staircase with turned spindles, antique-tiled fireplaces, inlaid-wood flooring, and elegantly curved dining-room windows. But it all works, which is exactly what Champion intended when he renovated the house.
“It gives people confidence that modern furniture can work in their house,” says Champion, even if the house is traditional. To that end, he seamlessly blended new and old, restoring the best architectural features of the structure while integrating it with vibrantly modern design.
The “White House,” as Champion sometimes calls this grand Victorian, is more than a gallery. “I already have one next door,” he says, referring to the Modern Shop, the comparatively diminutive building he renovated for his business eight years ago.
Inside, it feels as inviting as Don Draper’s new Manhattan digs, straight out of “Mad Men.” In the swank living room, a portable mahogany bar designed by Henry Glass is stocked with a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon. A vintage Thorens turntable is pumping Grace Jones vinyl through a ’60s McIntosh stereo amplifier. One could easily imagine Draper’s sexy new wife, Megan, balancing a cocktail on her lap as she sinks into the sleek, beige sofa designed by Edward Wormley. But the fantasy only lasts so long. The sofa might be sold tomorrow, along with the folding bar and the smoked-glass-topped side table.
The house, on the other hand, is here for the long haul. Champion has spent the last two years restoring its architectural integrity as well as its historic status among the vintage homes lining Woodbury’s Main Street. For years, the Victorian was a town eyesore. “Every time I looked out my office window, I kept hoping someone would fix it up,” says Champion.
The 4,000-square-foot house was built in 1910 by Daniel Curtiss, a wealthy Woodbury manufacturer, and is one of three houses that he built in Woodbury for each of his three daughters. The grand homes became known as the “Three Sisters.” Over time, the house located on Woodbury’s antique row had fallen into disrepair. “Twenty years ago, the exterior had been sandblasted and never repainted, so the wood-clapboard siding had turned black with mold,” Champion recalls. Finally, just over two years ago, when the house went into foreclosure, he bought it.
The house was in deplorable shape, from chimney to floorboards. “The plaster walls were crumbling, floorboards were missing, the ceiling was falling down, and there was a hole in the north end of the house the size of a softball, where you could feel the cold blowing in,” recalls Champion. Overhauling it was such an ominous task that he toyed with the idea of tearing it down.
But the house had many architectural details that were worth saving, including a beautiful turret, original inlaid-wood oak flooring, tiled fireplaces with ornate mantels, and a cherry staircase. “I spent two months on my knees repairing the flooring. We needed four different kinds of wood, each with the proper thickness, that had to be handcut to match the shape of the piece that was missing.”
Using an old photograph as a reference point, Champion restored the exterior as close to its original façade as he could, using wood shakes, clapboard siding, and stucco; repairing the expansive porch and columns; and restoring original windows. Once the renovation was complete, the interior became an empty stage. Like Barbara D’Arcy White, an interior-design guru who in the 1960s and ’70s designed hundreds of model room settings for Bloomingdale’s, Champion designed rooms as if he were to live in them—which he could if he didn’t already have a home nearby.
In the kitchen, the original cabinetry was stripped and repainted and hardware replaced with extra-large wooden knobs, which are actually coat hangers from Italy. Tea cups designed by Bauhaus industrial designer Whilhelm Wagenfeld are set on a Lazy Susan dinette designed by George Nelson, one of the founders of American Modernism. Georg Jensen “Blue Shark” silver flatware designed by Svend Siune in 1965 and never used is displayed on the kitchen counter as if in a museum exhibit.
In fact, many pieces, such as the Jensen flatware, are also in collections at the Museum of Modern Art. While some items are exceedingly rare and pricey, like an Arredoluce “Triennale” lamp that runs more than $13,000, there is also a vintage ashtray that sells for $20.
And, while the mid-century theme is central, the pieces are ever-changing from a collection of American, Swedish, and Italian mid-century through contemporary.
Champion began collecting more than 30 years ago and developed an appreciation for post-World War II Italian designers, in particular, architect and furniture designer Osvaldo Borsani, whose iconic reclining chaise lounge and several other pieces occupy most of one room. “It’s sort of the Borsani room,” says Champion.
Champion’s interest in collecting developed, in part, while working with his father, an industrial appraiser and auctioneer. Champion, who now runs that company as well, learned how machinery works and gained respect for post–World War II Italian designers who often used whatever materials they had on hand to create new products that were highly functional and wonderfully designed. The Vespa, he notes, is a classic example. To create this cultural icon, the Italians used “pony” or starter engines originally designed for Piaggio bomber planes. The scooter was built for the post-war population, providing an inexpensive way to get around, particularly on narrow roads, Champion says.
While the venerable collector claims he is not attached to his collection, he admits he does “miss the look” of a room when he sells something and has to start over with a new piece. Fortunately, he has multiples of many things, including two vintage Vespas and two classic Ducatis. “But those,” he says of the latter, “are a little harder to get into the living room.”