Delighting With Decoupage: Schmollenberger Decorates Pianos With Flair
Jim Schmollenberger, a retired visual designer, woke up one morning and decided to change the appearance of his old Chickering baby grand piano.
Inspired by handpainted, beautifully executed antique harpsichords that he had seen, he was determined to have a similar appearance for his piano.
"I had gotten tired of looking at its ordinary finish, so I went to work with sandpaper," he says. "I thought if my plan to decoupage the piano didn't work out, I could always have it refinished. I had never tried to do any decoupage before, but I have never been afraid to try something new."
The art of decoupage is a technique of decorating something with cut-outs of paper or other flat material over which varnish or lacquer is applied.
In the case of Schmollenberger's project, he took reproductions of baroque artwork in the style of Raphael and Botticelli depicting cherubs and angels. He pieced them together, painted over the panels to blend the various selections of artwork, and then antiqued the whole case.
Placing a thoughtful cherub on the inside cover of the piano, and a stream of joyful cherubs on the music rack, Schmollenberger again used the same method of applying an antique wood tone finish in an Italian coloration. The legs of the piano were covered in book back paper of the sort that is used by antique book binders.
The artistic talent of Jim Schmollenberger was displayed throughout a 47-year career in visual design, mainly for fine department stores and specialty shops.
"I designed everything that showcased the fashions and created ambience for the merchandise, including the special display windows," he says.
He was brought up in Fort Washington, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Upon graduating from high school, Schmollenberger planned to go to the Museum College of Art. Meanwhile, he took a summer job as an apprentice using his natural artistic abilities with a top-of-the-line specialty shop.
"My parents approved of the fact that I was getting practical experience, and I fitted right into the upscale retail world," he says. "I never did go to the Museum College, and from that small beginning, that summer job started me on a career path that was very rewarding, with stores such as Strawbridge & Clothier and John Wanamaker in Philadelphia."
His professional experience also took him to Kansas City, where he worked for Woolf Brothers, a group of "marvelous" specialty shops, until the firm was bought out by a mid-range national chain. He accepted an offer from Foley's, "an icon in Houston and one of the most respected and beloved names in retail," and spent the last 15 years there before his retirement.
An exciting high point in Schmollenberger's career came in May 1990 when he received the prestigious award inducting him into the National Association Display Industries Hall of Fame.
"I always managed to have great people working for me, no matter what the location," he says. "It was thrilling for me to tour the stores and observe the sort of imaginative pieces they would create, and at all of the stores with which I associated we were encouraged to maintain a focus on dcor and atmosphere."
Following his retirement in 1996, Schmollenberger moved to North Carolina and together with Bob Lowery, his longtime companion, restored an historic house in Warrenton, about 70 miles north of Raleigh. They moved to Pinehurst two years ago, and since then Schmollenberger has been working on renovating their present residence, which is decorated with a fine collection of antique furnishings and artwork. One of the notable pieces is a lovely harp made in Paris in 1912.
They added a delightful patio and pool, and right now they are creating a striking new kitchen, making an enlarged dining room from the old kitchen. Hanging above an expansive, granite-topped center island in the kitchen is a wonderful brass chandelier. Schmollenberger likes to tell the story of how he picked it up at the Habitat for Humanity store for a paltry sum, and then spent five times the amount on the lampshades.
Although Schmollenberger is retired, he likes to keep his hand in decorating projects, and so when Sylvia Ploufee asked for his assistance in the interior design of her home in Longleaf, he was happy to help.
"As I worked on the house, she decided she wanted a piano like mine, so I found her one at a local sale," he says. "It is a Sohmer grand piano called a 'cupid' because it is not a full grand piano, but a somewhat smaller size."
Ploufee, who was from England originally, and her husband, Pete, a French Canadian, moved to Moore County from Las Vegas, and have always been horse people. In fact, Pete is still active as a trainer. Consequently, they wanted the theme for their decoupaged piano to be about horses.
Ploufee supplied Schmollenberger with photographs of themselves and their friends on horseback with the hounds during a Montreal foxhunt.
"I had the photos blown up, and as I did on my piano, I blended the photos by painting over and adding details and then antiqued the finished product," he says. "I used the enlarged head of one of Pete's favorite mounts for the inside cover of the piano.
"On the decoupaged music rack, Pete is pictured holding his riding hat on horseback among a group of other riders. The hunt continues all the way around the piano case."
The subjects of the two decoupaged pianos cannot be more different, but the artistry of Jim Schmollenberger has made the Montreal fox hunt and the band of cherubs and angels come delightfully alive on these two now very special pianos.
Contact Pinehurst freelance writer Mary Elle Hunter at email@example.com.
More like this story