When Michael James Chappell and Keith McCullar were living in London in the 1990s (while Chappell was studying for a PhD in Art History at University College London), their passion for collecting period furnishings unexpectedly turned into a business. Friends began asking the collectors to source pieces for them, and soon Chappell & McCullar hung their sign. The duo returned to the United States in 2002, setting up shop on San Francisco's renowned Jackson Street, one of the world's great destinations for antiques, while keeping a presence in London through an affiliate gallery.
The LAPADA- and CINOA-accredited firm has caught the eye of editors from magazines such as House & Garden and Robb Report, and has garnered fans such as respected interior designer Ellie Cullman of Cullman & Kravis. "The English antiques Michael and Keith offer are of the highest quality," Cullman told us. "We're also attracted to their excellent Chinese and Japanese decorative arts, which work so well with their furniture."
By 2015, Chappell and McCullar realized the bulk of their business was conducted online; so they left the Bay Area and set up a by-appointment shop in California's Central Valley, where they work primarily via the internet, offering not only a range of 18th-and 19th-century English and Continental pieces, but artworks and their own line of contemporary, locally made furnishings inspired by the historical pieces they admire and treasure.
LUXPOP! : An antiques dealer's life sounds like tremendous jet-setting fun. Tell us a little bit about what it really involves.
Chappell and McCullar: Frankly, we love what we do. It does involve a lot of travel, as every piece we offer has been personally selected by us to represent a fine example of its type. Travel also involves many, many trips to the restoration workshops we use. Our core business continues to be furnishings from the Georgian period and as we started our business in England, most of our contacts remain there. However, we've found interesting things in disparate locations. We once purchased a George II red, japanned bureau cabinet in Copenhagen that we sold straightaway to a collector client in Los Angeles. Speaking of L.A., we have a good relationship with the prop departments of several film studios. In the teens, '20s and '30s, Hollywood studios bought period furnishings in Europe to use as props, and although a lot of that material has been sold off, we still have the occasional opportunity to buy good pieces. A couple of years ago, we acquired a circa 1780 pier table that was used in the Grace Kelly movie Dial M for Murder. We've got great stills showing Grace and co-star Ray Milland in front of the table. Adding further interest, it was acquired by the studio from movie star-turned-famed interior designer William Haines, whose label was still on the table.
LP! : How would you describe Chappell & McCullar's clientele, and what sets the firm apart from other dealers?
C & McC: We sell internationally, with most of our clientele being collectors. We do have a number of designer clients, including our longtime friend, Ellie Cullman. However, the bulk of our business is with collectors, with our largest markets being New York City, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and London. It might seem surprising that much of our material is sourced in the United Kingdom, but in the age of the internet, collectors are more interested in the piece itself, not the location from whence it came. What surprised us when we started trading as retail dealers was the extent to which this is a relationship business. We have a number of collector clients who trade almost exclusively with us. It might be subtle but Chappell & McCullar has its own distinctive look that speaks to certain collectors who then purchase from us over and over. That look, while established initially through our galleries, has transcended to our website. We've made online sales in the six figures and have established a number of relationships entirely due to our online presence.
LP! : Is there one thing that everyone wants, or are you seeing any trends?
C & McC: Our blend of inventory is pretty much constant—a mix of tables, seating furniture, and case pieces including bookcases, commodes and chests of drawers. It's hard to keep everything in perfect balance, as we can only acquire what's available, consistent with our criteria. Pembroke tables, for instance, sell well for us. An interesting trend is the increasing number of younger collectors with whom we trade. Although our clientele over the years has been a fairly constant age demographic, it now seems we're speaking with more people, including interior designers, who are in their 20s and 30s. The shelter publications seem to be experiencing and responding to this, too, with more and more editorial given over to interiors with a greater amount of period material.
LP! : Tell us a little bit about your own collection, the kind of things you like to find for yourselves?
C & McC: Like most of our collector and designer clients, our own living spaces are an eclectic mix of period and more contemporary material. Our opinion is that good design is always good design and tends to articulate regardless of period. What we tend to collect personally is British modernist paintings, mostly related to the Bloomsbury Group and the Slade, Camden Town and St. Ives schools. Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore are our favorite artists.
LP! : Why has 18th-century English furniture remained a perennial favorite for collectors?
C & McC: It's impossible to know but virtually everything anybody thinks of in terms of dining tables, chests of drawers, and seating furniture derive from period originals. A lot of it has to do with the cabinetmakers of the 18th century who were working in the Age of Enlightenment and brought serious study and scholarship to their designs, as well as fine craftsmanship. The names everyone knows from the period—Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite, and Thomas Sheraton—all published pattern books that were well received and widely distributed, and influential in the history of design down to the present day.
LP! : What advice would you give young collectors?
C & McC: One of our collector clients encapsulated his advice on purchases when he said, "If you don't know your jewels, then you better know your jeweler." For a new collector, whether a private client or a designer, it is imperative that you limit your purchases to those from members of the accredited trade in art and antiques. Most dealers are generous with their time and forthcoming with information, certainly about the pieces they are offering for sale. Where possible, a new collector should enhance his/her knowledge with visits to decorative arts collections and museums, and also to historic homes to see how the pieces might have been used or placed. This can allow a novice purchaser to avoid a few simple mistakes, like asking for an 18th-century cocktail table! Finally, always shop for quality and purchase the very best you can afford.