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Grand Illusions : Rose Tarlow Rewrites the History of Furniture Design for Her Adapted 'Antiques'

February 05, 1989|Virginia Gray | Virginia Gray is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

THERE'S NOTHING AUTHENTIC about Rose Tarlow's furniture designs, and she's proud of that. What began five years ago as an experiment in producing reproduction-cum-adaptation fur nishings has developed into a successful business. "I don't reproduce furniture," says Tarlow, who once paled at the thought that she might become known for furniture reproductions. "I simply adapt designs until I find them pleasing."

A Los Angeles antique dealer since 1975, Tarlow frequented European antique auctions each year to buy furniture for her store. By the early '80s, she discovered that the most appealing pieces at these auctions were no longer authentic period works, but what she terms "decorative" pieces. At about the same time, the Los Angeles market for truly costly antiques hit bottom. Few collectors were willing to pay $50,000 to $100,000 for a piece of furniture that in the mid-1970s would have sold for $8,000 to $10,000. Tarlow recognized that fine antiques had become far too expensive and that decorative pieces, while having less intrinsic value, possessed visual appeal. She then began to capitalize on her insight, producing "new" decorative traditional furniture in custom sizes, styles, finishes, fabrics--providing interior designers with high quality at lower prices (from about $1,000 to $15,000) than those commanded by true decorative antiques.

Interior designer Jarret Hedborg, who recently decorated the home of Bette Midler, describes Tarlow's furniture as being "in the best tradition of the English eccentric. It's personal, stylish, often whimsical, and, unlike the competition, her chairs are comfortable. Although it's very high style furniture, I usually downplay it and use it in a country home sort of way."

One of Tarlow's trade secrets is that she can take any piece of her furniture and change its appearance simply by using a different base, arm or leg, then give it additional individuality by varying the finish--wood, gold or silver leaf, paint or veneer. It isn't unusual to find a Tarlow piece that contains a blend of traditional elements--Chippendale styling, neoclassical motifs, maybe some rococo influences, and a finish of an unexpected patina. "I take bits and pieces from basic period designs--an arm, a leg, a decorative motif, a certain type of hardware--and mix the components," Tarlow says. "These designs are my own fantasies of what antique furniture should have looked like when first made."

Take, for instance, a dark-finished game table with distinct flavors of 18th-Century French designs, Oriental overtones and graceful cabriole-style legs with wide knees that taper gradually to a claw foot. "This table looks old, but it isn't," she says. "What makes this one nice is that if you were looking for an antique, you could never find a game table as large as this one or in such good shape."

Indeed, many of the designs seem grand in scale compared to their antique predecessors. "California and Texas designers like to use furnishings with larger proportions. They often make design statements with size," Tarlow explains. "For the most part, I scale things differently for various parts of the country. Take New York, for example. It's just not practical to try to fit overscaled everything into a classic New York brownstone or other tight apartment-sized space."

The Rose Tarlow-Melrose House line is now sold in showrooms in 12 metropolitan areas, including Randolph & Hein at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles and Tarlow's Melrose Place showroom, Melrose House. Tarlow runs Melrose House much like a private boutique ("an atelier," she calls it). Here, she controls the exclusivity of the furniture and can sell only a limited number of a particular piece if she feels so inclined.

Next, Tarlow has decided to try her hand at designing contemporary furniture. "I've got some prototypes in the works," she says, "but nothing is completed yet. But soon."

It's unusual that such an inveterate classicist would be interested in contemporary furniture. Today's ubiquitous concrete, Formica and chrome aren't part of her new, modernist vernacular; her basic media will be stone, steel and wood. Will she rely on her background in classic design to produce her new pieces? "No," Tarlow insists. "My contemporary work will have no resemblance to anything living or dead."

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