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Roche of Ages

Television junkies all know how furniture can reveal a character's personality. Think of Archie Bunker's recliner, Frazier's coffee table or that Venetian funnel light fixture on Friends that started a mighty illumination trend.

Remember a few seasons back when Tony and Carmela Soprano had a big fight? Did Carmela grab a Scotch or run out to drop a mob-wad on Harry Winston? Heavens, no. She calmly made a couple of phone calls, and a few days later the Roche Bobois truck pulled into her New Jersey upscale suburban driveway and started unloading purchases. That brief shot did more to unveil Carmela than an hour of dialogue.

Brigitte Mareschal, the gamin-glam French manager of the Roche Bobois gallery in Naples, looks at me blankly while I prattle on about the furniture choices of the Sopranos. She's not into video gangster lifestyles but she did inform me that one of the Star Wars movies used Roche Bobois glass and metal tables as part of the film's futuristic set designs.

Mareschal has been with the Naples gallery almost since it opened two years ago, and she has a lot to do with the showroom's ambience. Furniture is arranged on gray carpeting vignette-style in residential groupings with décor accents of Murano glass vessels and bold oil paintings by Naples artists. Special attention is paid to lighting and to wall colors so that buyers can see how the furniture will subtly slip right into their décor schemes.

Subtlety is a large part of what Roche Bobois is about. The 50-year-old firm, headquartered in Paris, maintains a substantial presence in Milan, too, since that's where many of the designers have their studios. Although the furniture firm is known for its fashion- forward approach, Mareschal reminds me that the term "modern" goes back nearly 100 years and includes such august names as Jean Michel Frank, Le Corbusier, Isamu Noguchi and Eileen Gray. Today's Roche Bobois designers, including Hans Hapfer, Massimo Ghini and Arnaldo Gamba, take into account a classic continuum.

In general, Roche Bobois case goods (entertainment center, buffet, bookcase) hover closer to the ground than most other furniture. Each highly functional piece usually combines fine wood (maybe wenge or wild maple) with glass and sculptured metal. All the pieces appear light, airy and timeless. A room full of Roche Bobois furniture seems to float.

Light as they are, Roche Bobois objects have the weight of authority. They're immaculately designed, carefully crafted things you instinctively want in your life. The details are right, and the human-scale proportions make you feel balanced. Buyers tend to keep Roche Bobois for a lifetime, periodically switching out upholstery fabric on the sofas and chairs, moving a console from the hall to the den, that sort of thing.

The biggest-selling category in the 5,700-square-foot Naples gallery is the sofa. Then comes dining rooms, and then wall units. When choosing leather for the sofa, 80 percent of customers choose creamy white. A 133-inch sectional sofa (and sectionals are very popular right now) is about $7,400. But there are sofas with loose cushions and no cushions, sofas perched on chrome bird-like legs, or set on graceful wooden carved feet. Prices and styles vary greatly.

"Our furniture is pure and elegant," says Mareschal, who owns a Roche Bobois sofa in pale gray fabric. The manager reports that her typical Naples client is over 40, well traveled, avoids trends, has an eclectic fashion sensibility and comes in wanting an alternative to the familiar Old World Mediterranean look so prevalent in this region of Florida.

"The majority of our clients live in condominiums, and they're only here seasonally," Mareschal explains. "They aren't looking for a matched or overly coordinated look. They're wanting relaxed, expertly made furniture with clean direct lines. They are people who know how to mix modern furniture with traditional paintings and a family European antique or an Asian chest they bought on their travels. They have style."

They also understand that quality costs. A wenge and glass cocktail table requires an investment of about $3,200. A two-seat leather sofa can be had for about $5,000, while a dining room sideboard is about $4,000. A large entertainment center can easily run $8,000, and a dining room table of glass, aluminum and cherry is about $5,500.

Even if you have no passion for modern furniture and accessories, do browse the Roche Bobois gallery, because it's like visiting a highly selective museum of contemporary European decorative arts. Two things especially to note-a pair of square milk glass and chrome cocktail tables that rise just seven inches off the floor. I swear, sitting for a moment and looking down at them could lower blood pressure, they're so soothing. And them look up at the French and Italian fanciful chandeliers. They are a revelation in what's being done at the high end of the lighting industry. My favorite is a construction of delicate chrome rods and tiny star white lights that seem to be swept up by the wind on a blustery night. And, indeed, the name of the light fixture is Le Mistral, that fierce and mysterious fall wind that scours southern France and sometimes changes lives and fortunes.

* * *

Grabbing for the Turquoise Ring. Talk about changes in one's life and fortunes. Thirty years ago a young Tim Brick was running his family's restaurant and bar business in Pittsburgh and feeling antsy about what to do with the rest of his life. One day he wandered into a Native American jewelry store, struck up a conversation with the gallery's knowledgeable owner and bought his wife, Susan, a $60 ring by Vidal Aragon, a Santo Domingo Pueblo Indian artist.

"I had to put it on layaway and pay so much a month," remembers Brick. "Every time I'd go back to the store, I'd learn a little more. I was fascinated by the beauty and the history of the jewelry, pottery, rugs, everything." Brick began to educate himself on Native American art. He formed connections with artists and dealers; and in 1981, when the couple moved to Naples, he was ready to start a new career.

Brick reports that about one-third of what people buy at his Four Winds Gallery stays in Naples; the rest is sold to seasonal residents and tourists. Collectors from all over the world phone or e-mail their wish lists to him.

The gallery is known primarily for its pottery and high-quality Navajo rugs. Navajo women raise the sheep, shear the sheep, build the loom, create the design and weave the rug. Talk about multi-tasking women!

Native American rugs can be identified by style and colors, Brick explains. For instance, the Two Greyhills tribe never uses the color red in a rug. Some tribes like figures, one of the most popular being the Yei, a band of Navajo deities who accompany souls from this world to the next. These Yei figures can be identified by the prayer sticks and corn they hold.

Navajo rugs in The Four Winds gallery are woven of 100-percent wool and are full of lanolin. For upkeep, you vacuum -never wash. If a rug needs repair, Brick sends it to a special place in New Mexico. Rugs in the gallery start at about $3,500. Price is determined by condition, rarity, craftsmanship and size.

Other objects of desire to discover at the Four Winds? Hand-hammered silver and gemstone jewelry, fetish creatures, Sioux beaded objects, stone and wood sculpture. Seminole Indian dolls made of saw palmetto circa 1940 are a lovely buy (starting at $45) for beginning collectors who live in Florida and want a piece of recent history. Brick has a few exquisite antique baskets (they are getting harder and harder to find), Hopi kachina dolls and a select assortment of rare pre-historic pots excavated from pueblos in Arizona. The Bricks bought them from museums that were de-acquisitioning some of their inventory. The Maria Martinez pots sell in the $18,000 range, no surprise to serious collectors who vie for her sensuous black works of art.

Buyers are also interested in the Hopi pottery of Steve Lucas, a young artist in his 30s from Arizona. His pottery is characterized by a caramel background. Lucas personally takes his clay from local dry riverbeds, extracting only what he need for each project. Using a pinch and coil method, he fashions his pot and then fires it over an open pit filled with manure. No wheel, no kiln. He hand colors each piece with paints he mixes from local mineral deposits. His amazing pots sell in the range of $6,500.

Tim and Susan Brick make western buying trips three times a year for pottery, blankets and sculpture. Jewelry comes into the gallery more frequently, since the Bricks have established relationships with several artisans who send their collections to Naples on a regular basis. Besides the familiar turquoise, the jewelry cases at the Four Winds Gallery are filled with gold, opals, lapis, platinum, diamonds, and coral worked in 18K white gold. And yes, Susan Brick still wears the ring that started it all. But today, her husband's gift is worth considerably more. And not just in money.

* * *

Fishing for Fashion... Think you're a pretty sophisticated shopper and there's nothing unique that you don't already know about? Well, sashay over to Ocean Leather at the Village on Venetian Bay and get ready to be amazed.

Jean-Charles Grenon-Andrieu, a French designer, is taking inspiration and raw material from Neptune's own store to create glamorous accessories-everything from briefcases and handbags to key chains and flasks-made from the skins of fish. You have to touch these fabulous things and listen to manager Mary Doyle talk about the process to understand how special these luxury products are and how well priced they happen to be at the moment.

The art of embellishing fish skin is French and dates back to ancient times when artisans tanned skins of white cod and Atlantic salmon to make useful home products. The practice has existed in remote French villages ever since, but recently fish skin tanning has been rediscovered by the global fashion market.

Trendy designers such as Helmut Lange, Alexander McQueen, and Philip Tracey showed fish skin accessories on the catwalk recently and are now designing fish skin boots, belts, totes and more, and selling them for upwards of $1,000. The Bottega Venita line ranges from $800 to $2,000. You can do better right here in Naples.

The Ocean Leather objects featured in the Village on Venetian Bay gallery are all by-products of the fishing industry. No fish were killed just for these skins. All the objects are beautiful and up-to-the-minute fashionable, but there's another reason to browse the gallery. You can learn a lot about obscure fish.

For example, there's the spotted wolf fish that lives off the coast of Iceland and has no scales. This fish inhabits water so deep, it never sees the sun. Handbags made from this fish skin are silky smooth. By contrast, the Nile perch lives close to the surface of the water in Lake Victoria and is heavily scaled. Objects made from its skin have a lot of texture.

Jean-Charles Grenon-Andrieu is from a second-generation fisher-family and has been working with skins for many years. He opened his Naples shop two years ago and works with designers in France, Canada and Asia to stock his unusual fashion aquarium. In the store you'll find neck collars, lipstick cases, earrings and pendants, eyeglass holders, wallets, date books, and, of course, those elegant handbags in a full range of sizes and shapes.

Prices at Ocean Leather start at about $10 for a key chain and escalate up to $400 for a large handbag. Nearly all the bags are dyed to bright designer hues. You'll need at least three or four to match your various outfits. And the little evening bags are in a class all by themselves. Items for men include flasks, business card holders, and handsome briefcases. Cuff links are made from stingray skin. You need to go casting for Ocean Leather.

Roche Bobois

Parkshore Centre

3601 Tamiami Trail, Naples


Four Winds Gallery

3401 13th Avenue South, Naples


Ocean Leather

The Village on Venetian Bay

4320 Gulfshore Boulevard, Naples


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