George Champion. Godzilla is not for sale; he’s the shop mascot.
George Champion’s shop on Main Street South in Woodbury, Connecticut. He said, “People are convinced it’s an old schoolhouse, but it’s a total fabrication.” It was a cheese shop for years, and the previous owner, a metal sculptor, gave it this look.
The restored house next door to Champion’s shop adds some 4000 square feet of display space.
An interior view of Champion’s show house.
The three-piece coffee set on the left is blue and white. It won a gold medal at the 1957 Triennale design exposition in Milan. The set is $175. The larger, but otherwise identical, pot on the right is orange. When we visited Champion, he had just bought it and hadn’t set a price yet. The postmodern ceramic coffee container in the middle was designed by architect Stanley Tigerman (b. 1930) for the SwidPowell firm. It’s $150.
An early version of the famous Arredoluce Triennale lamp. According to Champion, it uses all the earliest parts associated with this design such as adjusters with the company’s name on them. “Lots of people are doing copies, but this is the real deal,” he said. It’s brass with enameled aluminum shades and reflectors. It is priced at $13,500. Next to the lamp (and hard to make out in this photo) is a rare and extremely delicate blue Pylon table designed by Tom Dixon in 1991. Champion said, “I have the prototype in the same blue that’s even more delicate. If I didn’t have the prototype, I wouldn’t sell this. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen.” It’s $12,000. It should be noted that some of Champion’s rarest pieces, like these, are on the second floor of his show house. He said, “Upstairs is not an afterthought with me. Many people stick not-so-great stuff upstairs. I try to do the opposite.”
George Nakashima walnut sideboard, circa 1962, just under 56" wide, $16,000.
Vintage Danish teak ice buckets. Ice buckets were a big deal in the 1950’s and ’60’s when real men drank scotch on the rocks. These are in the $150 to $350 range.
An iconic Eames lounge chair and ottoman. Charles and Ray Eames designed the first one for film director Billy Wilder. Herman Miller began making them in 1956. This one is $4850 for the two pieces. “I sold six or seven of them last year out of here,” Champion said.
In the Trade
Woodbury may—with some justification—consider itself the antiques capital of Connecticut, but it’s not likely to be the first place that comes to mind if you’re looking for mid-century modern stuff. This, after all, is a town where even the local auto parts store is housed in a fake Federal-style building.
But George Champion seems to be prospering. For the better part of two decades Champion has been selling modern in Woodbury. At first he sold out of his garage and barn. For the last nine years, he’s worked out of a charming little former cheese shop (it was more cheesy than charming during that incarnation) at 442 Main Street South. Recently, he has painstakingly restored the circa 1900 house next door to his shop, adding some 4000 square feet of retail space to his operation.
Although he admits that “Woodbury is not a destination for modern,” Champion has developed a substantial following among buyers who appreciate his rigorously edited—and very personal—design standards. “There is nothing here I don’t like. I refuse most of what I’m offered,” he said. There’s a cleanness of line and attention to condition that you won’t necessarily find in every mid-century modern shop.
But he’s hardly a design snob. “I never want to draw the line at things that are too rarified,” he said. While some pieces are priced well into five figures, he also stocks items that sell for as little as $25. “I sell high and low,” he said. “It’s not necessarily what MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art in New York City] calls ‘Good Design.’ It has to be cool in some way.”
But there are always important pieces—some are rare prototypes—on hand. He also includes pieces that he considers contemporary classics—new pieces by designers working today. Consequently, in his shop you will find material that dates from about 1950 right up to the present.
What you’re not likely to find is present-day knockoffs or reproductions of mid-century classics such as those that proliferate in the pages of chic architectural and decorating magazines. “I sell to serious people. They want stuff from the period when it was designed,” Champion said.
His approach seems to be working. “I’ve been very busy of late,” he said.
Despite the fact that he stocks some very rare items, Champion said he does not sell much to collectors. “Collectors are going to auctions,” he explained. “It’s become an international business. I have things for collectors, but they don’t always find me.”
Most of his buyers are simply furnishing their homes (of which they often have more than one). They tend to live in New York City and have country places in the tony Litchfield hills nearby.
That’s why he’s predictably open only on weekends. “A lot of my clients are New Yorkers who are only here on weekends,” he said. And many of them are regulars. He said, “I make it a point that there will be something different here every week. People stop just about every weekend on their way back and forth to the city.”
There’s also another reason why Champion is open primarily on weekends. He has an entirely unrelated second business. He’s an industrial auctioneer and appraiser. He runs that business out of his shop as well.
Champion grew up in the nearby industrial city of Waterbury where his father dealt in used metalworking machinery. “He became an auctioneer and appraiser of machine tools,” Champion said. “He died in 1992. We were partners.”
Most of this industrial business is centered on Connecticut and nearby areas of New England, but Champion has recently hooked up with an investment group whose business has taken him to Georgia, Arizona, and Oklahoma.
Best of all, Champion said, his industrial work “pays the bills and lets me find my own way in this [the antiques] business.” And because of the traveling, he noted, “I get to shop in places where I might not otherwise go.”
Champion credits his father with developing his eye for design: “My father was a great teacher. He’d show me when something was well designed. He hated anything shoddy. He wouldn’t let me wear shoes unless they had leather soles.”
Since Champion’s antiques business is essentially subsidized by his industrial enterprise, he enjoys a freedom that most working dealers don’t ever have the luxury of experiencing. That lack of pressure, he said, confers a business advantage: “A lot of my customers are confident they can come here and won’t really go wrong.”
Modern design was not Champion’s first collecting passion. Shaker was. When you think about it, it’s not particularly surprising. After all, the two fields share a similar aesthetic, eschewing extraneous decoration, concentrating on cleanness of line, and emphasizing basic utility.
“I was still living with my parents when I started collecting Shaker,” he said. “When I was nineteen or twenty years old my girlfriend and I would go around New England visiting Shaker sites.”
But he was collecting Shaker back in the 1980’s when the Shaker bubble put much material out of reach for a young collector. So he began looking at modern material. He said, “I started to look at modern when I realized I couldn’t furnish a house with Shaker. I bought myself a Tizio lamp [the adjustable counterweighted Modernist classic designed by Richard Sapper in 1972] and an Eames chair. I sold half my Shaker collection to make the down payment on my house.”
And it was at his house, which is about a mile from his present-day shop, that Champion first started dealing in modern stuff. He said, “I became a dealer to fuel my own collection. You’re always trading up.”
He would accumulate material, and every six months—in the spring and fall—he would mount invitation-only shows in his barn and garage. “I’d do themes,” he said. “A black-and-white theme. Another theme was ‘furniture as art/art as furniture.’ Another was color.” He did this for about ten years. “I used to sell out routinely,” he said.
Then he bought the former cheese shop, which had also seen service as an art metalwork gallery. “I had my eye on this building for my office,” he said. There was enough room for himself and a secretary with a little room left over for display.
Three years ago, Champion bought the house next door when it went into foreclosure. Its restoration has proved to be a massive undertaking. Curved windows had to be rebuilt, hundreds of pieces of wood had to be cut to fit those missing from parquet floors, all kinds of roofing, shingling, and clapboarding had to be fixed or replaced, porch columns—with unique bamboo turnings—had to be custom made.
And all this money was being poured into a building that is not the type of place that generally attracts a lot of notice in Woodbury, being neither Colonial, Federal, Greek Revival, nor cute Victorian. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century in what today doesn’t look like any particular style at all. You might call it a sensible high-end version of the American plain style that was popular around 1900. Champion said, “My records show 1911, but it feels a little earlier.”
Some details recall the Queen Anne- and Shingle-style architecture of the late 19th century. There are touches that make you think of the Aesthetic Movement or Arts and Crafts. And although the house was obviously expensive and finely crafted when built, it’s not the sort of place that calls attention to itself.
It was a comfortable, well-built house for comfortable, well-off people. Champion said it was built by local mill owner Daniel Curtis, who provided houses in town for each of his three daughters.
Happily, Champion’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. People who understand how important buildings like this are in accurately portraying the life of a community have recognized his efforts. The Woodbury Historic District Commission has given him an award, which Champion said is the first of its type. (I must declare here that I have a soft spot for such bodies, being a member of the Historic District Commission in Schenectady, New York.)
Champion’s massive effort appears to be paying immediate dividends for his business. “The house has been a great sales tool,” he said. “People can see that modern things would work in their own homes.” To encourage people in this view, Champion has refrained from creating a standard “white-box” Modernist interior. Walls are painted various background colors. Fireplaces retain their original turn-of-the-century art tiles and rich wood finishes. He’s showing people that one need not live in a stark Miesian pavilion to make this stuff work.
He has also found that the house seems to make the trip to Woodbury worthwhile for designers. “The house has opened up a world of opportunity,” he said. When he had only the small shop next door, he explained, “There wasn’t enough to give them bang for their buck. Now there’s a volume of stuff.”
Retail folks appear to enjoy the increased choice as well. We visited Champion a few weeks into the new year, and he said, “A couple of customers did all their Christmas shopping here.” Welcome to the new world of antiques in Woodbury, Connecticut.
For information, contact George Champion Modern Shop, 442 Main St. South, Woodbury, Connecticut, 06798. Open Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5:30 p.m., and by appointment; (203) 263-8442; Web site (www.georgechampioncompany.com/modernshop/index.html).
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest