First published in The Record, March 11, 2017
From a factory in Paterson, mansions for the 1 percent
David Zisa likes to sit in his office in downtown Paterson, pick up his phone and call billionaires. Sometimes they talk about happy things, like thoroughbred horses or investment-grade antique clocks.
Occasionally Zisa calls with disappointing news: The billionaire’s mansion in Manhattan or Miami or Dubai is simply terrible. Perhaps its color scheme is garish, evoking the interior of a Cheesecake Factory rather than a graceful Moroccan villa. Perhaps the indoor moat is too shallow, or the indoor waterfall imperfectly framed, or the home’s third turret is an unnecessary affectation and must be destroyed.
Zisa’s clients are members of the globe-trotting elite, people with opinions about private jet upholstery. Zisa calls them from the richly appointed design studio of Greenbaum Interiors, which sits next to a boarded-up police station, across the street from an abandoned firehouse and around the corner from stores named Crazy Discount and La Ventanita #2.
Greenbaum’s super-rich clients do not seem to understand the company’s humble surroundings, nor do they seem to care. Instead they invite Zisa into their mansions, and follow his advice, even when it means demolishing entire sections of their estates and starting over, as happened recently at a home and horse farm in upstate New York.
“Among this certain class of people,” Zisa said, “everybody knows Greenbaum’s.”
Selling high-end furniture wasn’t always such an exclusive enterprise. When Greenbaum Brothers opened in 1952, it was one of several stores in downtown Paterson offering nice furnishings to middle-class families, many of whom were leaving the city for the suburbs, said Jimmy Greenbaum, who founded the business with his brother Alvin.
Unlike their competitors, however, the Greenbaums preferred not to sell individual armchairs and tables, focusing instead on designing entire homes. The work grew more challenging in the late 1950s, Greenbaum said, as even the best furniture manufacturers started cutting corners to reduce costs.
The brothers decided not to compromise. Drawing on Paterson-based artisans expert in textiles, upholstery and furniture, they started their own factory in 1958.
“The quality kept going down, and we couldn’t find people to make things that were acceptable to us,” said Greenbaum, 87. “So we started making our own stuff.”
The result, industry leaders say, is a company like no other. Some companies design homes. Others make furniture. Some sell furniture, broker art and furnishings to design firms, or install built-in furniture in high-end homes.
Greenbaum Interiors is the only company on the East Coast, and possibly in the United States, that does it all. Over time, the Greenbaum factory grew to include a wood shop, an upholstery shop, a cabinet shop, three wood carvers, two artists to decorate walls and headboards with trompe l’oeil paintings, and one full-time employee dedicated to the application of gold leaf.
“I don’t know anybody else who does exactly what they do – designing their own stuff, making it, and selling it,” said Joe Bograd, co-owner of Bograd’s Furniture, a luxury store that sat around the corner from Greenbaum’s for decades before moving to Riverdale in 1996.
“Most of the better-end stores have to stay within what the manufacturer provides,” said Alan Granetz, executive director of the Greater Metropolitan Furnishings Association, a trade group for furniture companies in the New York area. “That’s what really makes Greenbaum’s unique, is they can design from scratch.”
By controlling the entire process, Greenbaum’s offers a degree of exclusivity that titans of industry seek. Many people have experienced the feeling of buying a nice couch from Ikea in Paramus or Roche Bobois on Madison Avenue only to attend a party and find the same model sitting in a friend’s living room.
This is a disappointment Greenbaum’s clients never experience. At Greenbaum’s, sofas are not fungible. The depth of the seat is carefully calibrated to the length of a client’s outseam. The seat may slope gently or deeply to the rear, depending on whether the gentleman or lady prefers to sit or sink.
During a recent tour of the Greenbaum factory, a visitor was invited to sit on a purple couch. The upholstery was cool, but it warmed quickly to the touch. The sitter plummeted through a distance of pillowy cushioning before settling into a nest that was soft yet reassuringly firm.
Also, the visitor was informed, the sofa was not purple.
“I believe,” Greenbaum said, “that color is more of an amethyst.”
As the gulf widened between the quality of most commercially available furniture and items that are handmade in Greenbaum’s factory, the higher the company’s prices climbed and the more exclusive their clients became. Greenbaum’s has designed houses for Bill Gates, Mike Tyson, King Hussein of Jordan and members of the Onassis family, plus three homes for Eddie Murphy and one for Murphy’s mom.
“We serve the top half of the 1 percent,” said Ellen Greenbaum, Jimmy’s wife and the company’s co-owner. “We don’t fool around.”
One turret too many
On a foggy winter morning not long ago, David Zisa walked into a mansion in Saratoga Springs, New York, and found many unacceptable things. The home is built around an open-air atrium framed at the four corners by marble columns. Looking closely, Zisa discovered one marble stone jutting out from the others by an eighth of an inch.
“That is not OK,” he said, running his fingers over the bump. “I don’t know how the hell they’ll fix it. But I know it isn’t going to stay like that.”
Later Zisa frowned at the home’s indoor waterfall, an engineering marvel that flows with clear liquid silicone rather than water. That’s because the home will be occupied only six weeks of the year, during the thoroughbred horse racing season at nearby Saratoga Race Course.
When the season is over, the owners can turn off the waterfall and shutter the house without fear of returning months later to smelly pools of stagnant water.
The waterfall itself is striking, and the silicone polymer makes it more so, flowing in slow molten waves instead of water’s spritzy splash. The arch over the waterfall, however, was crafted from a simple piece of wood, which Zisa found incongruously flimsy for such a substantial home.
“It doesn’t feel done to me. It’s too thin,” Zisa said. “Maybe we could face it with stone?”
Zisa already has ordered big changes to the mansion. His predecessor on the project, a Canadian designer, had installed three turrets on the roof as an homage to the historic grandstand at Churchill Downs racetrack in Kentucky.
The problem, Zisa said, was obvious: Churchill Downs has only two turrets. He declared that one turret, built right over the front door, must be removed.
His client obliged, and paid for the demolition. The homeowner declined to be interviewed for this article.
“David walked in and said, ‘This is ugly! This is wrong!’” said Casey Gallagher, Zisa’s assistant. “He walked in and changed it all. He and the owner have become good friends.”
Such niggling issues aside, Zisa said, there is so much about this house to love. The walls of the dining room soar upward 2½ stories, reaching a dome covered in walnut. Just as Central Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as a series of unfolding vistas, every outward-facing window and door in the home functions as a picture frame, directing the eye to the horse barn or the formal garden.
“The owner wants everything to be special,” Zisa said. “The whole idea is to give you focal points everywhere you look. The house should feel like a resort, with something beautiful to see in every direction.”
A man cave made modern
Zisa’s favorite part of the house is the wood-paneled man cave, on the second floor. Most rooms with wood paneling feel stuffy and cloistered, Zisa said. But this one will be covered in broad panels of black walnut and Makassar ebony, beautiful and exotic woods usually used for small pieces of furniture, not broad expanses of wall and ceiling.
“The wood has these long vertical grains that make it look more modern, more distinguished,” Zisa said. “I’m so thrilled. It makes the place feel palatial.”
Joseph Trzciak, Greenbaum’s master woodworker, traveled three times to Sarasota Springs, twice to measure the man cave and once to install the panels.
“If you have talent and experience, you can do this,” Trzciak said. “I try to make everything gorgeous.”
Zisa designed every square inch of the room, and all of it was manufactured in Greenbaum’s Paterson factory. It includes an L-shaped bar topped with solid malachite, and a TV cabinet with doors covered in faux shagreen, or shark skin. The handles are fashioned into the golden square of the homeowner’s family seal.
“Oh my God, this is beautiful!” Zisa said as he ripped a plastic sheet off the cabinet to see it for the first time. “This might be my happiest thing. I designed it, and now they’ve made it, and it’s perfect.”
Perfect, and singular. Advertisements for mass market chains like Pier 1 Imports and World Market claim to offer “unique” furniture, and the website Overstock.com describes its factory-made, altogether-ordinary 86-inch Oxford Leather Sofa as “exclusive.”
At Greenbaum’s, those superlatives still mean something.
“There’s not another house in the world that has what I’m putting in this house because it all came from my head,” Zisa said. “You can’t buy any of it. We made it all, in Paterson.”
Even with its roster of wealthy clients, Greenbaum Interiors is not immune to broader trends in interior design. Demand for big-ticket projects shrank in recent years, Ellen Greenbaum said, and the company was forced to let its furniture painters go. (The factory still applies lots of gold leaf, but the volume is no longer sufficient to warrant a full-time employee.)
The change is cultural, not economic, the Greenbaums and industry leaders say. Wealthy people spend so much money on their houses, and their tastes evolve so rapidly, many find it easier to fill their mansions with low-quality, mass-produced furniture they can replace every five or seven years.
“It used to be you’d buy a bedroom suite and pass it on to your granddaughter,” said Granetz, of the regional furnishings group. “Now they spend so much on the mortgages for these mega houses, what’s left over can be replaced.”
The Greenbaums view this shift with open disdain.
“It’s ridiculous when you see a million-dollar house and you’ve got a Raymour & Flanigan truck pulling up, unloading a truckload of garbage,” said Ellen Greenbaum, who harbors similar feelings about other marketers of midrange furniture.
Still, Jimmy Greenbaum said, “I’m not a snob.” He appreciates that young families of moderate means shop at stores like Ikea, where the furniture is well-designed but disposable.
“I’ve never been to Ikea,” Ellen Greenbaum said. “But I hear their meatballs are excellent.”