It was such an honor to be interviewed for the Wall Street Journal! The talented Heidi Mitchell wrote an admiring editorial about my most prized possession in my NYC apartment – a collection of Palio di Siena plates! My Aunt Agnus helped me acquire the fantastic treasure in my early 20’s. They even featured some photos of the plates displayed on my wall, which gave me the opportunity to connect with my collector’s on a more personal level. Aunt Gus would have been so proud! Check out the story below:
A Home Décor Guru’s Most Prized Possession
Jay Strongwater’s greatest treasure is a set of hand-painted Italian plates his great-aunt helped him purchase
Designer Jay Strongwater in his New York City apartment with his collection of hand-painted Italian plates hung on the wall. BENJAMIN HOSTE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
If you own a collection of picture frames in your home, there is a decent chance one of them was designed by Jay Strongwater. The self-trained designer of what he calls “jewels for the home” creates decorative pieces that appeal to those on the hunt for the perfect Mother’s Day present, corporate gift-givers looking to purchase 80 of a single figurine and everyone in between. His glass vases adorned with ceramic lilies and spangled peacock figurines frequently sell out at Neiman Marcus and Harrods—and are in constant rotation in his New York City apartment.
But of all the objects Mr. Strongwater could prize the most, it is his first major purchase to which he is most loyal: a set of 24 hand-painted Italian plates that he bought with a $1,000 gift his Aunt Gus gave him in his early 20s.
“My great-aunt would give each of the grandcousins $25 for our birthdays, but one year she announced that it was too hard to send an annual gift, so instead she gave us each a big check,” the jeweler-turned-home-décor guru recalls. That was in 1983, and Mr. Strongwater “raced down to Macy’s, where they had the most fabulous collection of bold, hand-painted plates in the antiques shop,” he says. He bought them all.
Since that big investment, Mr. Strongwater, 55 years old, has done research into his beloved plates, which he occasionally takes down from their perch on the wall in his Chelsea apartment to use as serving dishes. He learned that the images depict the insignia of the various districts that participate in the Palio di Siena, the medieval-style horse race run twice a year in the Italian town. “I didn’t know much about them at the time,” he says. “I was just mesmerized by the pattern and the color.”
Since he was a young boy growing up in New Jersey, Mr. Strongwater has always been fascinated with bold adornments. He tinkered with pottery and crafts as a child, and enjoyed going to Manhattan galleries with his parents to see works by Rothko and others from the New York School of Abstract Expressionism.
He dropped out of the Rhode Island School of Design after two years to create a jewelry line that reflected the more-is-more ethos of the 1980s. With his parents as his staff, the company, he says, grew to a $3 million-a-year business with products distributed through major department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. When the pared-down looks of the 1990s took over runways and fashion magazines, Mr. Strongwater adapted, moving away from body jewelry to home décor.
“I have never really been too hung up on the medium. My work didn’t need to be in precious metal, it just needed to be the right color combination,” says Mr. Strongwater, whose namesake company now does about $14 million a year in sales, according to John J. Ling, chief executive of Aurora Brands, the holding company that owns Jay Strongwater, the brand. “Moving into picture frames and vases and figurines gave me the opportunity to work on a larger-size canvas versus tiny necklaces or earrings all the time.”
Mr. Strongwater says the Italian plates look and feel as if someone hand made them with care. He dreams of visiting Siena to see the Palio and to try to pick out the banners of thecontrade, or districts represented in the race, that are similar to the ones on his wall. He’d also like to complete his plate collection. There are 17 contrade and Mr. Strongwater believes he’s missing a few, despite owning 24 plates of varying sizes.
“Maybe I should have invested Aunt Gus’s money in stocks and bonds,” he says. “But I couldn’t help myself. Those plates still look so beautiful on the wall, and they haven’t lost their luster or their color one bit. To this day, I love my plates.”After purchasing the plates Mr. Strongwater discovered that his collection represented the contrade, or districts, in Siena, Italy, that raced in the biannual Palio horse race in the town piazza. BENJAMIN HOSTE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL