After 50 Years in Business, Interior Designer Rita St. Clair is ‘Downsizing’ and Auctioning Off Pieces of Her Collection

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Photo via Alex Cooper Auctioneers

Rita St. Clair, the Baltimore-based interior designer, has traveled around the world in search of furniture and decorative arts for the various restaurants, hotels and residences she helped create over the years.

Now many of the items that never found a permanent home are going up for auction in a day-long sale largely devoted to her collection. Alex Cooper Auctioneers has set June 3 as the date for the sale, which will feature approximately 200 pieces, including furniture, accessories, lighting and carpets.

“She is one of the finest, most respected, most famous designers in Baltimore,” said auctioneer Joseph Cooper.

“It’s a vast collection,” added Brooke Friedman, creative director for Alex Cooper. “There are pieces from all over the world.”

St. Clair, who is married to the artist Joseph Sheppard and divides her time between America and Italy, said she has never had an auction of her pieces before. She said she decided to hold a sale because this is the 50th year since she started her own company, Rita St. Clair Associates, and she wanted to cut down on her scope of work.

St. Clair in her office solarium.

St. Clair stressed that she wants to focus on design work for clients, rather than procuring furniture and accessories for them, as she has in the past.

“I’m not retiring,” she said. “But I’m certainly downsizing to doing what I want to do.”

It’s “completely eclectic,” she said of the collection up for sale. “It’s a lot of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Italian Modern, Kilim rugs from Turkey, pieces from the 70s and 80s… It’s all the things I love. “

St. Clair created The Polo Grill for Gail and Lenny Kaplan, Velleggia’s in Little Italy, Petit Louis in Columbia and the public spaces at the Residences at the Ritz Carlton in Baltimore. Her hotel design work includes the old Peabody Court hotel in Mount Vernon and the Inn at the Colonnade on University Parkway.

The pieces in the auction are representative of her eclectic style of design and diverse influences. They include:

  • The prototype for the “Diana Chair,” designed by St. Clair for the luxury furniture manufacturer David Edward. It won the prestigious Daphne award for the best commercially produced upholstered chair, and is now manufactured around the world.
  • A “Chinese Opium Bed” dating from around 1790 and purchased in Paris. The hand-carved, red lacquered bed features gold accents and custom silk hand-painted cushions.
  • A console table, a one-of-a-kind Italian modern product from Milan.

St. Clair said in a statement:

Through my work and extensive travel, I learned that the most enduring and interesting interiors are based on the proper combination of styles and a bold combination of colors. The pieces included in this auction are my inspiration, found while I was working on various projects around the globe. I am a Modernist at heart and therefore I love Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Wiener Werkstadt and all the various styles of the 20th century.

The designer opened her Baltimore office in 1967, and later added offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. As her business grew, she traveled extensively in search of pieces for her projects. In many cases, she said, she bought pieces with the idea of holding onto them herself if a client wasn’t interested.

St. Clair bought her current building at 1009 N. Charles Street just after the civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That year, she said, not many people were interested in buying real estate in Baltimore, and she got a good price. “It was right after the riots. No one wanted to be downtown but me.”

She later acquired the building at 1011 N. Charles. For many years, she operated a shop called “Findings,” where she sold many of the items from her travels. It’s since been converted into upper-level apartments and a street-level office space.

The June 3 auction will begin at 10 a.m. at 908 York Road in Towson. Preceding it will be a “preview cocktail reception” on May 31, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

St. Clair said she plans to give a talk at the preview about her years as a designer and lessons she has learned. She said she’s not sure if she’ll go to the auction itself, because it’s hard to part with so many reminders of her life’s work.

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “I just hope these pieces will all have a good home, with owners who enjoy them and treasure them.”

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