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Food Writer Turned Furniture Guru Opens a Landmark New Store on Westheimer

A Young Storyteller at Work

BY // 09.07.17
photography Jenny Antill Clifton

To say it’s been a landmark year for Robert Willey is an understatement. He moved to Houston from New York by way of Washington, D.C.; married Elizabeth Esfahani, a textile designer for Matt Camron Rugs & Tapestries, at San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito; purchased and began renovating a 1930s Southgate home; and has now opened Galerie Novella, a proper home for his collection of important 20th-century furniture and lighting, mostly French and Scandinavian. Willey scours Europe (and sometimes Instagram) to source items, primarily those that date from the ’20s through the ’60s, along with what he dubs “a few cool exceptions” for the gallery.

Galerie Novella, located in a former frame shop on Westheimer across from St. Anne’s Catholic Church, is a streamlined world of white, black, and tan, where walls, floors and ceiling are awash in white and furniture gleams in rich caramel hues.

The furniture business is a birthright of sorts for Willey, but his path was not direct. His father has been in the business for nearly three decades, and Willey frequently went to auctions outside D.C. with him. Willey, who grew up in North Dakota and Virginia’s Eastern Shore, went to St. Andrew’s School (where Dead Poets Society was filmed), then Columbia University. Culinary school followed, as did food and libation writing for The New York Times, Details, Food + Wine, Bon Appetit, and Esquire. But Willey found himself more interested in redecorating his apartment and combing flea markets (the tragically shuttered Antiques Garage in Chelsea was a favorite) than in chasing the next big food story.

This background in food and drink is a bonus at Galerie Novella, as Willey’s clients are often offered a handsome spread of Marcona almonds, fresh figs, charcuterie, and a good wine as they browse. Ask Willey about a chiseled oak table with a hammered-iron base in the studio, and instead of the price, you’ll get a fascinating history lesson on Atelier Marolles, a group of artisans led by Jean Touret who fled Paris post-WWII to the small town of Marolles with the desire to produce pure, minimalist furniture from raw and natural materials. When asked how he became so educated in his new métier at his young-for-the-trade age, he says, “The learning is constant, for sure.”

Willey spent a great deal of time in the hallowed halls of the Library of Congress while living in D.C., pouring over books on old French and Scandinavian design and home and architecture magazines from the ’20s through the ’50s.

“I also talk to collectors and other dealers,” he says. “I ask them a lot of very specific and probably annoying questions. As a field of research, 20th-century design is relatively young and constantly expanding, so it’s often possible to reach the most knowledgeable people in the world simply by visiting their shops, sending them an email, or even finding them on Instagram.”

Well-known makers at Galerie Novella include two of the pioneers of Danish Modern, Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen; both have handsome sets of chairs represented. Attractively curved low-seated wicker chairs, dating to the late 1940s, are by the master of rattan, Louis Sognot. Fellow French designers Mathieu Matégot and Pierre Chaopo are also represented. Then there are the cool exceptions, such as two Mats Theselius folding screens, dating from around 1989/1990. The copper-clad wood version (the other is aluminum) is part of a limited edition of 200. Galerie Novella, 2131 Westheimer Road, galerienovella.com.

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