Celebrities frequently capitalize on their fame to explore new business areas, but often there is little substance beyond the name attached to a product. That is not the case with an intriguing new collaboration between Frank Pollaro of Pollaro Custom Furniture, Union, N.J., and actor Brad Pitt. What started as a friendly chat over a bottle of wine has now become a full-blown furniture enterprise launched with a well-received exclusive New York exhibit and plans for major international expansion.

Wine and a sketch book 

Pollaro says the collaboration began in 2008 when the Golden Globe-winning and four-time Oscar-nominated actor commissioned a custom desk from Pollaro Custom Furniture. Pollaro, who is known for specializing in high-end veneered furniture and especially reproductions of pieces from legendary Art Deco designers such as Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, personally delivered the finished desk to Pitt’s chateau in the south of France. While sharing a bottle of wine with the actor, Pollaro noticed a sketch book Pitt had filled with hundreds of designs Pitt had created over a 10-year period. “I said to Brad, ‘You know we could make these real,’” Pollaro recalled.

Thus began a serious collaboration between Pitt and Pollaro that resulted in the debut in November 2012 of less than a dozen realized designs, including tables with continuous line bases in wood, steel and glass, upholstered chairs, a wall mounted cabinet, and even a marble bathtub for two.

Active collaboration 

Here’s how Pollaro describes the process:

“Brad conceives the initial designs through sketches. He has many sketch books which he fills with thousands of conceptual drawings of furniture of all sorts: tables, chairs, beds, cabinets, shelf units, etc. He will show me the books, and we will together select the pieces that will be built. In the case of his continuous line tables, he builds scaled three-dimensional models with his own hands. He will make 20 or 30 models and we will select the strongest designs over a few bottles of wine. Our meetings last eight to 12 hours and they are highly productive, at least until the eighth bottle of wine… Once we start building the pieces, Brad makes monthly visits to our workshop to select the exact woods we will use, inspect the pieces, revise the designs, alter the colors, and test the comfort. He is involved in every level of the process, and he is deeply committed.”

Prestigious debut 

Pollaro has a reputation for building the highest of high-end furniture for clients from Dubai to California and has even done art furniture pianos for Steinway. He describes the work of his shop as “museum quality” and applied that approach to the opening exhibit for the Pitt-Pollaro furniture.

“Brad and I spoke at length in many conversations over a period of months about the proper way to display the Pitt-Pollaro designs,” says Pollaro. “He was emphatic that he did not want the designs to be judged based on his celebrity. We decided that the best way to display them was to commingle them with Pollaro’s 20th Century masters collection.”

Taking over a fourth floor loft in the prestigious Chelsea art neighborhood of New York City, Pollaro set up a display that intermingled the Pitt designs with Art Deco reproductions from Pollaro Custom Furniture and even some of Pollaro’s original designs.

“This would allow the viewer to organically approach a Pitt-Pollaro piece, not knowing the name of the designer, and make a judgment based on the merit of the design, without the static of the Pitt name,” explains Pollaro. “If you liked what you saw, we assumed you would approach the piece closer to discover the fine details and the designer’s name on the placard. We also thought that it would be an interesting way to show current design in the midst of 100 year old pieces to display to the viewer how these pieces were all compatible in an interior environment. We feel we achieved both of those goals very well.”

Show reception positive 

Challenged with presenting the furniture to serious interior designers without being trapped in the paparazzi-crazed celebrity of Brad Pitt, Pollaro kept even the exact location of the show a secret until the last minute. Invited attendees were told the location by email the day the show opened for a three-day run. Filming commitments kept Pitt from the show, but Pollaro said he spoke daily with Pitt to update him.

“We were overwhelmed by the response and the attendance,” says Pollaro. “We received many hundreds of visitors to the exhibition. The response of the viewers was uniformly positive in every case. People were captivated by the large dining tables and the tub. Dozens of people told me that these pieces were their favorites in the exhibition. Some of the most successful interior designers from New York., L.A. and Chicago attended and they have already specified Pitt-Pollaro pieces for several projects. I think that says it all.”
Pollaro dismissed a few snarky comments that showed up in the design press in advance of the show, saying that the positive on-site reception proved the validity of the designs and the concept of the collaboration.

Making collaboration work 

Long known as much for his entrepreneurial skill and aggressive business leadership style as his relentlessly meticulous craftsmanship, Pollaro seems genuinely excited about this new partnership. But he recognizes that collaboration is not always easy.

“The success of a collaboration is based on the ability of the collaborators to work together both on the design side and on the business side,” Pollaro says. “There must be a balance in those two areas. The sum of the collaboration must yield a result which is greater than the two constituent parts; there has to be something compelling that arises out of the collaboration which is not present if one of the collaborators is missing. Lastly, the team has to be on firm financial ground to achieve something of this nature. It is requisite for both entities to be established and grounded in their respective contributions.”

Just the beginning 

Pollaro sees a bright future for the joint enterprise. “The Pitt-Pollaro collaboration will move forward immediately with the release of more pieces,” Pollaro says. “Brad and I met this week and he delivered the next round of designs. We have been asked to design over 50 pieces for a five-star hotel which is in development. The pieces are being specified for interiors globally. The exhibition will continue in 2013 adding cities both domestically and internationally. Brad and I enjoy working together very much; we are best friends and we love the creative process. We are here to stay!”

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