A Seattle psychiatrist's passion for antique textiles led to a second career as an author.
Its fabrics decorate the White House and California’s San Simeon Castle. They hang in the grand opera houses of New York and San Francisco. They’re housed in the permanent collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and they played a crucial role in reviving Historic Williamsburg, Va.
Yet no one had written a book about Scalamandré, one of America’s premiere textile manufacturers (which had a near rags-to-riches tale to tell), until Brian D. Coleman came along.
Make that Seattle psychiatrist Brian D. Coleman.
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A psychiatrist with a not-so-secret second career, Coleman simultaneously has aided some of Seattle’s chronically mentally ill the folks you might see on the streets while becoming a noted authority on antique textiles. It’s in that latter role that he’s written five books, including the newly published “Scalamandré Luxurious Home Interiors” (Gibbs Smith, Publisher; $60).
“There’s a lot I love about psychiatry,” says Coleman, back home in Seattle between stops on a nationwide book-promotion tour. “But it can be very demanding. A lot of people burn out. This recharges me.”
A rich history
Coleman’s interest in textiles, particularly antique ones, is nowhere better expressed than in his own Victorian home on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill. Fairly overflowing with richly hued Victorian-era fabrics, fringes and tassels (“My design philosophy is, ‘more is better,’ ” Coleman says), his house is the subject of one of his books, “Vintage Victorian Textiles.”
That book led to the volume on Scalamandré, says Mark Failor, Scalamandré’s Northwest restoration specialist, who works out of the Seattle Design Center, a furnishings resource center for interior designers and their clients.
“We’re a big name but a small company,” Failor says, so he picked up the phone and called one of Scalamandré’s owners in New York, where the company’s headquarters has been for eight decades.
When that owner, Bob Bitter, saw Coleman’s home, he realized he’d found someone as enamored of and knowledgeable about beautiful textiles as he was, and the deal was born.
Two years later the book is out. It features lush photos of 26 homes throughout the U.S. that have made extensive use of Scalamandré fabrics and wall coverings. Three of them are Northwest residences: a home overlooking Lake Washington done by interior designer Joan Kruse Rogers; a Queen Anne neighborhood bungalow done by interior designer Melinda Gray; and a Yelm residence decorated by its owner, spiritual guru JZ Knight.
It also presents the tale of how Franco Scalamandré, an engineer, fled his native Italy for America in 1923 to escape the rise of fascism. Speaking little English, he worked a series of menial jobs. Along the way Scalamandré realized the U.S. lacked what his region of Italy was noted for: high-end silk manufacturing. An idea was born.
By the 1930s, while the rest of the nation suffered through the Depression, Scalamandré had a thriving clientele for the luxury yard goods he manufactured in an old red-brick mill near New York City. Soon he and his wife, Flora, an artist he met and married in America, were reproducing antique and historic textile designs.
Today, the Scalamandré name is associated with high-end fabrics (while some sell for as little as $75 a yard, the rich silks, wools, linens and cottons used in residential interiors can easily run from several hundred to several thousand dollars a yard). The family’s third generation runs the mills now plural and is committed, says Coleman, to keeping production in the U.S. This makes it a rarity; every other American luxury textile manufacturer is now milling its product overseas, he says.
Scalamandré’s typical client, says Failor, “is usually somebody who is a lover of textiles. They’re not just interested in having great architecture. They want a beautiful home inside. They want fabrics to be art.”
That’s eventually how Coleman came to see it.
While a student at Stanford University, Coleman interned for famed animal behaviorist Dr. Jane Goodall, helping her study chimpanzees in remote Tanzania. That foray into behavioral science led to his interest in psychiatry, a medical degree from the University of Chicago and a return here to specialize in psychiatry for geriatric patients and the chronically mentally ill.
All along, Coleman had an interest in interior décor. Buying a 1906 home on Queen Anne Hill, which he did 20 years ago, brought that interest to the fore.
And adding a turret to it led to a second career when he decided to write about that experience. Besides authoring five books, Coleman also is an editor for Old-House Interiors magazine.
Because his home is Victorian in age and character, Coleman gravitated toward the ornate and richly decorative furnishings of that gilded age. Textiles were a big part of the ambience back then, and certainly for him now, although that’s not usually the case for others, he says.
Ripe for collecting
“Most people stop at textiles when they do a restoration,” he’s observed, “because people are afraid of textiles. They’re more fragile. But when you do textiles, it makes such a difference. They absorb sound and make a room warmer, more welcoming. They give a room a finished look.”
Victoriana is a particularly rich vein to mine because the Victorians loved textiles and used them everywhere. Besides the ubiquitous pillows, there were rich, jewel-toned mantel covers, bell pulls, table covers, throws and shelf liners all trimmed out in luxurious silk passementerie. (That’s a French term for such trims as fringes, tassels and tiebacks.)
Because textiles often are overlooked, Coleman says they’re ripe for collecting. Antique and vintage textiles basically anything made of older fabric can range from a 1950s tablecloth to a swath of 18th-century linenlike toile.
The popularity of various eras “goes in phases,” he notes. “There’s a 1950s-’60s resurgence, so some of those fabrics are very expensive. Victorian is not as popular, which is good for me. And you can get wonderful Arts and Crafts textiles, from the late 19th and early 20th century, for not much at all.”
An original Arts and Crafts table runner, for example, can be had for about $50 “what you’d spend for a new one,” Coleman points out.
He advises beginning collectors to do research; there are numerous books on period decorating available. After focusing in on what they like, an easy way to get started is by buying a cushion or pillow.
“These days eBay is a very good source,” he says. And antique textiles often are available at antique clothing fairs.
But Coleman warns that there’s a danger to collecting old textiles. It can make one want to start collecting other things. Like vintage ceramics. Those, and British Arts and Crafts, are the topics of two of his upcoming books.
First, however, there’s the matter of the White House, which houses a veritable treasure trove of Scalamandré fabrics. Coleman has been invited there next spring to present a copy of his newest book.
“Who’d think somebody from Seattle would write a book about Scalamandré and get it in the White House? That’s kind of cool,” he muses.
Elizabeth Rhodes: firstname.lastname@example.org