“I got drawn into the antique business growing up in a house where my mother was an avid collector of mainly Georgian and Regency style furniture,” says Dublin native Chantal O’Sullivan. “She would change up her traditional interiors every couple of years and in my early twenties, after she asked me to help answer the phone for a Dublin-based antiques dealer, my fate was ultimately sealed. This dealer collected a bit of everything from the Queen Anne period to the Edwardian era, but I completely fell in love with his Georgian pieces. I liked the fine lines and the simplicity of its design.”
At 29, O’Sullivan opened her own antiques shop in one of the oldest areas in Dublin called the Liberties, ultimately tripling its initial 2,000 square foot space into what it is today. Six years later, O’Sullivan launched a second location in Manhattan’s downtown antiques district on East 10th Street. “I was having dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant nearby and saw a lease sign to a 4,000 square foot store with its own little back garden,” she says. “I don’t know what made me come back the next morning but the moment I put my foot through the door, I knew it was for me.”
While O’Sullivan’s quest for quality 18th and 19th century Irish Georgian furniture has not wavered – she still purchases most of her private pieces in Ireland or England – the way in which her clients find her has changed. “When I first came to Manhattan, my customers were already dedicated antique collectors,” she says. “But over the years, my customer base has grown to include first-time collectors and investors in fine pieces.”
There have certainly been hurdles along the way in making these connections happen: the disruptions of 9/11, the financial crash of 2008 and now, the Covid-19 pandemic which literally separates client from treasure, not to mention from O’Sullivan herself. “It’s a particularly challenging time for my business as everyone is effectively grounded and cannot travel. Luckily, I have been able to source pieces through my regular contacts whom I have been doing business with for the last 30 years,” says O’Sullivan.
Technology gives us more opportunity to grow our market and introduce us to new clients but ultimately, it comes back to the personal connection between ourselves and our clients – Chantal O’Sullivan
Another advantage has been the company’s digital presence – O’Sullivan began procuring an online venue for selling 15 years ago. “I have always thought that technology gives us more opportunity to grow our market and introduce us to new clients, so I am grateful to have that virtual outreach already in place,” she says. “But ultimately, I think it comes back to the personal connection between ourselves and our clients.”
While business as usual during the pandemic is anything but – shipping internationally was one of their key problems initially – O’Sullivan manages to keep in touch with regular clients through calls and personal emails. “It has remained more or less steady thanks to more people staying at home and, in turn, wanting to transform some of the spaces that cocoon them,” she says.
O’Sullivan counts some of the world’s best and brightest designers among her avid fans. Having these global connections has proven invaluable, despite their different approaches. US designers, such as Los Angeles-based Michael S Smith and New York’s Alexa Hampton, integrate O’Sullivan’s expertise in their projects from the get-go. “In America, the designers are involved from the very beginning and therefore have great insight into their client’s aesthetics,” says O’Sullivan. “Meanwhile, in Europe, people have grown up with antiques over generations and this has influenced their approach. The clients themselves seem to do all the purchasing so they are incredibly involved. Ultimately, there are two different ways of doing business between the continents but with the same result.”
American decorators like symmetry so O’Sullivan finds pairs of chests or pairs of mirrors are sought after. “They like nothing heavily carved or anything unduly fussy,” explains O’Sullivan. A simple pair of Windsor style library chairs with a barrel back and upholstered in green leather or a George III Neoclassical bow front sideboard with tapered legs and flame mahogany would do just the trick. Europeans, on the other hand, would go for the slightly fussier lines of an 18th-century Irish Chippendale side table with finely carved open fretwork or an 18th-century mahogany Pembroke table with shaped frieze supports.
Regardless, there’s always room for a piece that strikes a memorable chord, no matter their ultimate destination. “I strive to find the unique and the timeless,” says O’Sullivan. “I once found a grandfather clock that had been owned by George III. It played 40 waltzes which they used to dance to after dinner,” says O’Sullivan, who ultimately sold it into a private collection. She also once discovered a rare pair of 18th-century Waterford glass mirrors that had been commissioned for a country estate in England: “At seven feet tall, they were incredibly unique!”
Once a fantastic piece has been found, O’Sullivan faces the decision as to whether to showcase it in her Ireland or New York location. “No matter where they are based, my buyers are drawn to unusual pieces at the moment,” she adds. “Quirky and simple lines and manageably-scaled pieces, such as the works of the Gillows cabinet firm from the UK during the Georgian period or Thomas Hope during the Regency period, continue to thrill each new generation that discovers them.”
It makes me enormously happy to be able to bring comfort to people in their homes where they are now spending more time than ever. In many ways, my work has never been more rewarding – Chantal O’Sullivan
These younger clients aren’t just drawn to the carbon footprint of buying antiques, which is often lower than buying new, they also have a growing appreciation of creative craftsmanship that offers comfort and timelessness in a world that can so often feel unsure. “Like antiques, we will endure through this challenging passage of time,” says O’Sullivan. “It makes me enormously happy to be able to bring comfort to people in their homes where they are now spending more time than ever. In many ways, my work has never been more rewarding. If I simply follow my instinct when I buy a piece, I know that a buyer will follow.”
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