Trophy hunters with their eyes on cultural interiors

BRAGGING – rights for homeowners are
fleeting, hard to hold as a fistful of fog. You think your home is special
because your backsplash is covered in tile imported from Mexico? There are
those who think nothing of dispatching their architects and builders to the
ends of the earth to personally scope out far more exotic goods — to the Middle
East for the perfect limestone, even as bombs are going off, or to Indonesia
for centuries-old reclaimed teak. 

For the ultra-high-end contractor, it’s
just part of a day’s work.

Consider John Finton, a Los Angeles
contractor who is known (at least to his press agent) as “a modern day Indiana

Mr. Finton, whose jobs run $5 million to
$100 million, travels the world to find rare and beautiful building materials
for his clients. He has gone to China for cobblestones from a road that was
being demolished, to pave a client’s driveway; to the jungles of Nicaragua — by
jeep, if you please, because another client wanted an authentic and rustic clay
tile with colours that would have variations, but not too many variations; to
Jerusalem, to make sure the so-called biblical stone his client had ordered was
coming from a school that really was hundreds of years old.

True, Mr. Finton has not been thrown into a
pit filled with venomous snakes, but that is not to say he has not been
threatened by bad guys. The greatest danger he faces tends to be misrepresentation
— the French limestone company, say, that turned out to be cutting its stone in

There are other challenges as well. For a
client in Russia building a rather large country estate (55,000 square feet,
with 880 windows), Mr. Finton arranged to have thick slate for the roof brought
in from Vermont. Some weeks later, he received a call in the middle of the
night from what he believed to be a check-point in Russia, informing him that
the slate was radioactive.

“They held it for a week and fined us,
like, $20,000 for ‘storage,’ ” Mr. Finton said. “The slate wasn’t radioactive.
Everybody wants a payoff.”

Mr. Finton added: “The days of contractors
going to a big superstore to buy material at the level that we’re doing just
doesn’t happen anymore. I’m sourcing materials from literally around the world.”

Sonokeling, inga, tamarind, bloodwood,
evocative names, all. And who wouldn’t be intrigued by the prospect of owning
tile dating back to the 17th century, which Jiun Ho, a San Francisco designer,
found on vacation a few years ago in an abandoned house in Turkey and bought
for a client’s kitchen?

You might think an architect or designer
would be able to obtain such things without leaving the office. But
contractors, architects and designers who travel abroad to find these treasures
would disagree. The only way you can make certain the product is as advertised
is by going to the source, they say.

Ronnette Riley, a New York City architect,
agrees. A designer often needs to go to the source to ensure that the colour is
consistent, that there is sufficient quantity and that the material is
structurally sound, she said.

Do not waste your time or his by asking
Fernando Sanchez, a Miami designer who owns Pineapple Designs, for a floor
plan. Mr. Sanchez doesn’t do them. He doesn’t do budgets, either.

His fees begin at $350 an hour, or $5,000 a
room.. His finds include a collection of 19th-century opium pipes that are
being set into an acrylic wall for a client in South America, and stingray
skins — his equivalent of the hunter’s snarling lion head on the wall — which
he plans to use on panelling in a bathroom.

Last month, Mr. Sanchez travelled for two
weeks to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand.

On this particular trip, he was buying
items for a $9 million home in Miami, which he is redoing to look like a 1920s
Art Deco house. He was also shopping for a wooden door frame on a concrete
splint, to go in a meditation garden, and scouring the ruins of overgrown
buildings for antique tiles, for both the Miami project and an elaborate garden
in South America that already has an 18th century Chinese horse-watering tub.

“These tiles are full of moss, I don’t wash
them,” Mr. Sanchez said. “The spores of the moss are in the terra cotta, so
once you get them to the right place, the moss grows out again. In three
months, you have the green wall. It looks very aged and antique.”

Lee Mindel, of Shelton, Mindel &
Associates in New York, doesn’t mind travelling for client, he has been to
Italy for stone and Germany to buy glass. But the wanderlust of his clients is
something he has come to fear.

“They come back with what I call vacation
ware,” he said. “A client is in, like, Bora Bora with a fire pit, and they have
some adobe or hideous tile they pick up.”

He continued: “We have to re-educate them.
It’s like the cuisine. If you are eating a pig buried in the ground in
Thailand, it doesn’t mean you want to eat it for Passover

Stephen Fanuka, a 42-year-old contractor in
Manhasset, N.Y., had a client who saw a house in Naples, he said, and decided
he wanted his own to look just like it. “He says it was the best facade he had
ever seen,” Mr. Fanuka said, “and he wanted me to go to Napoli and find the guy
who did it.”

So Mr. Fanuka “went house to house” in
Naples, he said, asking “Who did the facade?” Eventually, he found out that the
man who built the house was dead, so “midnight, I go out to the house, I find
the smallest little part I can that looked loose, I chipped a piece off and
ran.” He continued: “We were able, at the end of the day, to figure out how to
do it, but it just didn’t work with the way the house was being constructed. It
was a big house in Southampton, a $6 million house, and the facade was going to
look cheap on the house — the house was so massive. So we went with the brick.”

Mr. Fanuka said. “The things you do for the
rich. I was given a proposal once that I go to Afghanistan to the mountains,
literally, me and the architect, and choose the marble. There was one issue
with this: they were still fighting the Russians. I was like, ‘I’m out.’ ”

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