I had the chance to sit down with world-class faux finisher Joe Stallone in his apartment, fresh off his latest job, Robert De Niro’s new Greenwich Hotel. Joe’s work surrounded us as we sat and talked on his sofa, from the gorgeous faux doors and cabinets, to the Tondo he made on the wall in the style of the Renaissance greats. Though this Tondo used to be a hose, it now sparkles gold, flawlessly framing a giant painting of a nude.
What is the best part of the job? Is it seeing clients’ expressions after you transform a steel door to antique rosewood—or what? JS: The actual doing of it, I’d say. That’s the fun.
I read a NY Times article commending your workmanship. It also happened to mention your penchant for finding future treasures disguised as someone else’s trash on the streets of NYC. What’s your favorite piece you’ve done? Something for a client or something for yourself? JS: This statue right here. (Joe points over my head to the life-size statue on his mantle.) It’s St. Joseph. A homeless guy and I put in one hundred and ninety hours of work. The hands, feet and shoulders were all gone. It was just sitting on a friend’s patio for three years. We used bondo, put it glass eyes, the works.
I have a quote for you here, from Miss Mina Thomas Antrim, author of Don’ts for Girls: A Manual of Mistakes. I don’t think she was talking specifically about faux finishing, but here’s what she’s got to say: “Illusion is the dust the devil throws in the eyes of the foolish.” What would you say to Mina? JS: Well, if you’re a fool, it’d be devilish. No, really, there’s a lot more joy in it, it’s like a scotch: you like it or you don’t. Why would you spend that money on it…my teacher in Belgium used to say, “There’s illusion and then there’s illusion.” There’s different levels of illusion, different qualities as well.
Speaking of teachers, you went to one of the best schools in the world for faux finishing, but was this something you’d always had planned? What, if anything else, could you see yourself doing? JS: Well, the last college art teaching jobs had dried up. I’d tried a lot of things, driven cabs, installed furniture in boardrooms, and then Charlotte [Charlotte Forbes], my wife, she’s a writer, won an O. Henry award, she’s so modest though, would never mention it, anyway, Charlotte suggested I take this course. It was a 2-hour course, afterwards I was convinced I could do this. 3 years later, I went to Belgium to study with the world’s best for 6 months. I swear the man must have been a former SS officer. It was intense. 6 months, 6 days a week, what working conditions. The bathroom was basically a whole in the ground. The women weren’t drinking water to avoid going near it.
I imagine the upscale places you finish now, like the Greenwich Hotel, have slightly better working conditions. What was it like working with Robert De Niro? Is he the tough guy of Goodfellas and the Godfather II or the goofball of Meet the Parents?
JS: He’s really the most polite, gracious, focused person I’ve ever worked with. Aware, that’s it, so aware, of everything that goes on in that place. He chose all the décor there, and it’s all very tasteful. There’s only good things to say about him. He’s a private guy, very generous, he’s something rare. I’d done work with him before, and then I ran into him on the street. He was on the phone, and I shout out, “De Niro, you prick,” joking around, and then he calls me back, saying, “Wait, I need to talk to you.” So I give him my card, (Joe hands me a Monopoly $1 bill and motions for me to turn it over. On the other side it says, “Joe Stallone, Faux Finisher”) and he says, “That’s good, I like that Stallone,” and we started working again.
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