STEPHEN KELLY keeps a mental inventory of the places where he can and cannot rest a wine glass at home. The Amboyna wood table designed by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann in homage to 18th-century architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux for the French actress Gabrielle Lorcia? OK. It's glass-topped. The palm wood Eugene Printz desk? Hmm. Probably not.
Dr. Kelly is an ophthalmologist who lives and works in a six-story townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Since he began renovating it in 1982—with the help of the late Jay Spectre, a star decorator of that time, and Mr. Spectre's partner Geoffrey Bradfield, who continues to update it—Dr. Kelly has collected French Art Deco furnishings, designed from 1918 to 1939, to fill the house.
Photos: Deco-ed Out Townhouse
Now, 30 years later, the house is full. Dr. Kelly has turned three floors into a combined residence and gallery, which will open to the public on Dec. 11, to offer for sale what he owns so that he can collect more. Prices range from $145 (for a silver bookmark) to $2.5 million (for a monumental Sèvres porcelain and silvered bronze lamp by Ruhlmann, commissioned for the ocean liner Île de France). His timing is canny. On Dec. 12 and 13, the Steven A. Greenberg collection of French Art Deco, an important private collection, will come to auction at Christie's New York. Needless to say, Dr. Kelly has his eye on it, as does the rest of the collecting world—French Art Deco, going for record prices, is considered to be one of the leading "blue chips" in the modernist market.
A walk through Dr. Kelly's new residential gallery is a look at luxury at its most well-defined. Art Deco in France was the last great era of "luxe," sailing calmly into history like the fabled steamships it produced. The impossible-to-replicate dinanderie vases (hand-hammered metalwork with applied metal inlays), the enameled cigarette cases depicting streets in Paris, the spiked walking sticks that are petrified stingray tails and the cocktail goblets dancing on their zigzagging silver stems, won't be making appearances on store shelves. Artisans in Brooklyn won't be making them.
The clean lines, bold shapes, beautiful materials and exquisite craft of the big pieces are still surprisingly contemporary to see. With their bridge between old and new—like the Ruhlmann table's Deco interpretation of neoclassicism for actress Lorcia—they don't suffer the "period look" of the midcentury and beyond.
It is timeless, and exciting, stuff.
"It really is modernism," Dr. Kelly said. "That's what it was called at the time. 'Art Deco' became a term that was later applied to it. It wasn't really used in 1925."
Above his dining table, a 1976 Jasper Johns silk-screen in blues, yellows and reds jumps with syncopation. Like the minimalistic Jean E. Puiforcat tray and candelabra below it, from 1937, it's bursting with an energy that feels new. They could have been made the same year. But what year would that be?
In the library, a writing desk designed by Süe et Mare, in Macassar ebony (with its original matching chair), suggests the curves of a classic Louis XV bombe secretaire. Decorator Geoffrey Bradfield recently installed Macassar ebony shelving to match the desk.
Then and Now
Stephen Kelly's six-story townhouse was built in 1915 for Adele Kneeland, a New England textile heiress and 'a spinster who lived here alone with 10 servants,' he explained. An Art Deco collector, Dr. Kelly is now opening a gallery in his home, and putting his entire collection up for sale.
Art of Display
In the newly created gallery, a vase by Jean Dunand, atop a desk by Eugene Printz, flanked by lacquered tables also by Dunand, show both the individuality of the designers and the cohesiveness of the style of the Deco period.
From Dining to Desk
In the office, a marble-topped cerused oak dining table by René Joubert and Philippe Petit is deployed as a desk. The piece was shown at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, considered the defining moment for the Art Deco style.
Dr. Kelly stands next to one of his most substantial pieces: a Sévres lamp designed by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, ca. 1925, for the ocean liner Île de France
Style for Sale
1. Tortoiseshell and ivory embellish this silver wine caddy (four for $80,000) by Maison Cardeilhac, a producer of silverwork for Napoleon.
2. Group of geometric crystal vases by Jean Luce ($8,000- $50,000).
3. A 1928 cubistic clock by Jean Goulden ($800,000).
Names to Know in French Deco
Largely overlooked during the periods of postwar design, French Art Deco is coming back into fashion—and enjoying record prices at auction. Here are some of the major players.
Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933): The premier decorator and cabinetmaker in Paris in the 1920s, he produced the most expensive furniture, now highly prized. Ruhlmann favored simplicity of form executed in luxurious materials: rare woods, precious metals, ivory inlays.
Armand-Albert Rateau (1882-1938): A decorator and designer working for Paris's haute monde, Rateau's most famous work was for the house of couturier Jeanne Lanvin (several rooms of which are now on display at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris). Elegance, often with shadings of Far Eastern influence, was Rateau's keynote.
Jean Dunand (1877-1942): A sculptor known for his metal and lacquer work, Dunand's lacquer panels were featured in the interiors of three of the period's most famous products: the steamships Île de France, Atlantique and Normandie.
Jean Puiforcat (1897-1945): Deco's greatest silversmith, Puiforcat's trademark was purity: simple lines, stunningly executed in smooth sensual surfaces. If you had to set an of-the-moment table, with the glittering understatement that only money could buy, Puiforcat was the man to see.
Louis Süe et André Mare (1875-1968; 1885-1932): "Süe et Mare," designers whose company was active from 1919 to 1928, produced a wide range of lavish furnishings, from wallpapers to cabinetry, often stylizations of historical French motifs from the 18th and 19th centuries, which made them appealing to both modern and traditional-minded clients.
Jean Dupas (1882-1964): The period's leading decorative visual artist, Dupas worked with graphics in ceramics, fashion illustration, poster art and murals, translating the mannerisms of the art movements of the period, such as Cubism, into chic depictions of modern life. Grand murals by Dupas were must-haves for the new ocean liners, including Île de France and Normandie.
Eileen Gray (1878-1976): An Irish aristocrat living in Paris, Gray was an architect who designed furniture and worked as a lacquer artist. Gray's pieces developed from the exoticism of Art Deco into a more International Modern look, though still with the ethics of high craft, as in her louvered folding screen. In 2009, a Gray "Dragon" armchair in the Yves Saint Laurent collection sold for $28.3 million, setting an auction record for 20th-century decorative art.