Interior designers and hospitality project managers take note, Matthew Santoro is one of the best-kept secrets in the industry for achieving one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures and lamps.
I am a brontosaurus,” chuckles Matthew Santoro, a Brooklyn-born New Yorker who entered the lighting restoration world at age 17. “I am one of the last experts in period lighting. It’s a wonderful and historic art,” he comments.
If you think there aren’t many young people gravitating to restoration work today, Santoro is on a mission to change that. “I enjoy being a historian as well as an archivist,” he affirms. Fortunately, his enthusiasm is not only apparent, but it’s catching on with the students he has taught in his workshops.
Holding monthly classes in his Bayside, N.Y. studio (Crystal Renaissance Fine Lighting) in the Manhattan borough of Queens, Santoro is busy educating design students, interior designers, and the design-curious about the splendors of antique lighting.
Having designed or restored lighting for some of New York City’s famous landmarks (i.e. The Plaza, the Waldorf-Astoria, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and countless historic buildings) over the past few decades, Santoro is renowned for having amassed an unparalleled treasure trove of component parts, such as an opaline glass bowl circa 1935 or crystal arms from a chandelier made in 1840. His workshop easily conjures up the old Staples® slogan: “Yeah, we’ve got that.”
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“I am one of the last experts in period lighting. It’s a wonderful and historic art.”
Ivana Trump personally reviewed – and approved – Santoro’s renderings of the lobby chandeliers he designed for The Plaza’s renovation back in the 1980s, when the Trumps owned the property. Years later, Donald Trump visited Santoro’s studio when searching for unique fixtures to go into his private residence with his next wife Marla Maples.
Santoro’s work is eclectic — from the traditional gasolier fixtures he made for Crystal Palace in Disney World® and the classic chandeliers for French town in Magic Kingdom to the funky table and floor lamps he was commissioned by Abercrombie & Fitch to create from flea market finds for its Manhattan store. “I am the little old Yoda of chandeliers,” he quips.
When asked what his “dream project” would be, without missing a beat, Santoro answers: “Fraunces Tavern” in New York City. A national historic landmark that is also a museum and restaurant, the historic building served as a headquarters for George Washington and housed federal offices in the pre-Revolution Early Republic.
How It All Began
Like most people in the industry, Santoro didn’t set out to make lighting his career. He was a delivery boy for the Long Island Press while he was in school and one of his customers was a chandelier factory/showroom run by three brothers: Robert, Harold, and Norman Greene. He was intrigued by the craftsmanship on display, an interest that was further piqued when Santoro was a freshman in college studying journalism.
“I went to Baruch around the corner from 230 Fifth Avenue [at the time, it was known as The Lighting Building], and just fell in love with the art I saw. It was like the opening scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Audrey Hepburn is looking in the windows at all of the chandeliers,” he recalls. Similarly, Santoro would visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to marvel at the chandeliers in the small display rooms. He inquired about a part-time job with the Greene brothers, and so began his career of doing what he loves.
“The three brothers were like fathers to me,” Santoro remarks. “My late teens and early adult life was spent there. I learned valuable things from all of them. Each taught the business in his own way. One taught me how it was all about fine art and taught me the basics of sketching designs; the other taught me valuable sales skills; and the third taught me a bit of humility, humor, and – later on – impatience for the inane.”
Student Becomes Teacher
For the last few decades, everything has come full circle and Santoro – while still actively performing restoration work and commissions for clients nationwide – has made time each month to teach students, designers, and creative individuals the rich history of lighting while helping them create their own lamps and fixtures in his studio.
“We’ve become a disposable society in general, but there is a select group of people who value antiques,” Santoro comments. The number of people interested in buying something that no one else has – and what are antiques, therefore, than beautiful items that are scarce – is increasing.
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Unlike my day job, where it might take time to see results, in this class you can build something in a matter of hours. It’s very satisfying; it’s like going into a magic shop!”
— Alissa D
Although even when customers (some are interior designers or project managers and others are consumers) come in and fall in love with one of the antiques Santoro has in his shop, they frequently ask if it can be customized further. “They will ask, ‘I like it, but can you do this?’” Fortunately for them, the craftsman skills and knowledge of components and wiring that Santoro has perfected over the years allows him to create exactly what the client has envisioned. “I consider some of the fixtures hanging in here to be works in progress,” he states, adding that they are ready for interior designers to tweak for their clients regarding a custom finish or perhaps a change in materials if possible. “These days, nobody ever takes something the way it is [presented], but by having those changes made, that chandelier or lamp becomes yours and yours alone,” he explains.
Watching customers’ reactions when they discover a vintage find in the shop or see the antique they’ve brought in to be restored or customized is tremendously satisfying to Santoro. Teaching others brings him great joy to be sharing this lost art. “I was educated in the Old World traditions of manufacturing and design. Most people have never heard of the masters who mentored me,” he says.
Among those who Santoro learned from were designers at the prestigious Edward F. Caldwell & Co. firm in New York City, which was one of the premier designers and manufacturers of lighting fixtures and decorative metalwork from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries (famous installations include the New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the White House in Washington D.C.).
Another of his peers was John J. Winston, son of founder Charles J. Winston of Charles J. Winston & Co., Inc., which was one of New York City’s most prestigious dealers in fine antique furniture, decorations, and lighting fixtures (Charles was also the brother of famed jeweler Harry Winston). “The lowest-priced lighting fixture in his store was $25,000,” Santoro recalls.
Sharing the Love
What Santoro enjoys most besides restoration work is conducting classes at his studio for lovers of vintage lamps and lighting. “That’s what my business is all about,” he says. A people-person at heart, teaching classes also allows Santoro the opportunity to regale the students with the history of lighting design in a lively manner. After all, as a young child Santoro wanted to be a comedian — and his vaudeville-esque charm and humor regularly delights his students and clients alike.
These monthly classes consist of a handful of enthusiastic “artsy” people coming to the studio and picking through an array of component parts that spark their interest as potential lamps. Santoro provides guidance, gives a history of the various components they have chosen, and handles the intricacies of rewiring and the more technical work.
More often than not, creating lamps from scratch with Santoro has made several students frequent customers. For example, Jodi, the owner of a yoga studio in Queens, had just been walking past the shop one day while en route to the beautician who was doing her hair for her upcoming wedding. “At the time, I was also looking for vintage bottles for my wedding. It was evening and the lighted chandeliers in the window caught my eye. I told myself, ‘I have to go in there.’” Sure enough before her next bridal appointment, Jodi scheduled the time so that she could stop in at the lighting shop. “Once I came in, it was like that movie Chocolat [where a chocolate shop in the French countryside offers incredibly delicious homemade treats that have a magical hold on the villagers].”
Jodi has purchased at least five lights from Crystal Renaissance Fine Lighting, starting with one table lamp and proceeding with fixture after fixture.
Massage therapist Jill P. attended a recent lighting class and built a lamp. “You don’t often get the opportunity to come into an antique store and do something like this,” she says. “Before I came in here, if I thought about ‘lighting,’ I’d think ‘Home Depot.’”
Alissa D. from Long Island attended the lighting class in August with the purpose of creating a wall sconce for her new home. “It’s such a fun idea. Unlike my day job, where it might take time to see results, in this class you can build something in a matter of hours. It’s very satisfying; it’s like going into a magic shop!”
After spending two hours in the shop, attending the class and building her lamp, Susan C. sums up the experience as, “It’s like being in Willy Wonka’s factory. I feel like a kid in a candy store!”
For students who are nervous about whether the components they picked look “right” together, Santoro is there to provide guidance. “Make believe it’s a LEGO® set,” he urges one. To another he says, “Take a look [at what you put together] and consider if it has the right ambiance for your home.’”
Designers’ Best Resource
Just as Crystal Renaissance Fine Lighting is the place for consumers who love antique lighting, Santoro is the go-to source for interior designers seeking one-of-a-kind, unique looks for their projects. Last year, he participated in the Holiday House Design Show in New York City, an annual designer showhouse event held in a historic mansion and benefitting the Breast Cancer Research Foundation® charity. The previous spring, Santoro added his expert touch to the wall sconces in the Master Chamber as well as the Library plus a chandelier in the Grand Salon at the Mansion in May 2014 Showhouse, held at the historic Blairsden estate in Peapack-Gladstone, N.J., an event that raised $2 million for Goryeb Children’s Hospital at Morristown Medical Center.
“I love being surrounded by this beauty I created, and I want to keep the tradition alive. I am always brainstorming ideas and designs,” Santoro remarks.
His studio is currently involved in an intensive restoration of lobby fixtures for a historic Brooklyn apartment building. “I could never retire. I enjoy mentoring, designing, and collaborating on projects too much,” he adds.