As a young boy, living in the southern Italian town of Taranto on the Ionian Sea, Claudio Mariani trained with his artisan father and grandfather in the art of furniture making. In the five decades since, he’s established himself as a preeminent antiques restorer and a gifted craftsman of fine, museum-quality furniture in another town-on-the-sea, more than 6,500 miles away: San Francisco.

made in california seal
Michael Schwab

Thirty-six years after opening his 33,000-square-foot gallery and workshop, C. Mariani Antiques, which has been dubbed the “Louvre with price tags,” Mariani uses the same centuries-old methods to painstakingly repair and bring back to their original condition furnishings and domestic treasures that once resided in Europe’s finest homes and estates—or to re-create the furniture himself.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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When it comes to restoration, Mariani shuns modern advances, using products and formulas that have been favored by craftspeople since the 18th century: unadulterated European beeswax; flaked French polish derived from pine resin; fish glue Mariani makes from boiled sturgeon bones and skin (“a family tradition passed on to me,” he says), for veneer work; and leather-embossing wheels made from 24-karat Italian gold leaf and brass, which he collects on trips abroad.

He knows his fastidious attention to historical fidelity can seem out of step with trends in design, especially in a tech-enthralled city that’s endlessly fascinated with the new. But Mariani would say that’s the point. Clients go to him because he honors tradition with uncommon devotion.

“If you want museum quality, you have to stick with the originality of the finish,” Mariani said on a recent afternoon visit. He would no more use a new chemical formula (something plenty of vendors have tried to sell him) to polish wood than he would carve or build a desk with a robotic arm or a 3-D printer. “Using chemicals and materials I don’t suggest using on antiques, to try to simplify the process, it really ruins the piece,” he says. “We do things the same way they’ve always been done. That’s why people come back to us over and over again.”

Mariani has built a clientele of high-end designers and collectors, including Oprah Winfrey (he worked on pieces for her Montecito home), Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob, and Joe Montana (“one of my favorite clients,” Mariani offers).

As you step through C. Mariani’s unassuming Harrison Street entrance in the South of Market district, impeccable taste and restoration skills are on display in every corner of the first floor: gleaming gilded chandeliers, massive neoclassical statuary, hand-painted chinoiserie cabinets, Dutch marquetry desks, dozens of ornate colonial tea caddies, even an ancient Egyptian burial mask.

Mariani, who is almost 70, is tall and fit and looks younger than his age. Wearing his well-worn monogrammed work apron, he steers me toward an English Regency mahogany partners desk and a George III walnut games table, running his fingers over each as he explains the delicate process of hand-embossing them “with gold leaf I get in Florence.” It’s a skill he acquired, along with marquetry, parquetry, stonework, and metalwork, at Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti, where he began his studies at 18.

“Let’s sit and talk at the 17th-century table,” Mariani says when he sees my eyes wander to an enormous ash refectory table, perfectly restored and oiled. We pull up chairs. Well, to be clear, these are no ordinary seats. They’re “19th-century Brescia carved-and-inlaid walnut meuble de style chairs from Lombardy,” according to their tag (“price upon request”).

I tuck my iPhone away after being distracted by its brash newness on the 400-year-old tabletop; the device is so out of place in an environment where nothing has been mass-produced. “Knowing this piece has been here for hundreds of years, and wondering what stories and history it’s seen, is what still intrigues me,” Mariani says of his lifelong fascination with antiques.

claudio mariani, owner of c mariani antiques in san francisco, working on a reproduction of a coffee table using raffia, which requires the pieces to be glued one at a time
Claudio Mariani working on a reproduction of a coffee table using raffia, which requires the pieces to be glued one at a time.
Penni Gladstone

One need only hear Mariani describe the differences between the graining in the bottom boards of wood drawers constructed in the 18th century (vertical graining) and in the 19th (horizontal) to appreciate the satisfaction he derives from knowing the precise details that have defined well-made, elegant furniture for hundreds of years—and make it worth preserving. (The oldest pieces Mariani has sold date to 1690.)

“Everybody in my family was involved in antiques,” he says. His late brother, Antonio, moved to California in the 1960s. When Mariani followed him to San Francisco in the 1970s, “there were very few people here that knew or liked antiques,” he recalls. Mid-century modernism reigned. But as the Mariani brothers’ reputations as dealers, restorers, and craftspeople grew, antique lovers started to look to them for one-of-a-kind pieces to anchor their home collections.

Mariani now employs 20 artists and master craftspeople, most of whom he’s trained himself, in his sprawling second-floor workshop. He’s a calm presence in the atelier, slowly checking on and complimenting his artisans in a space that’s buzzing with activity, sawdust in the air. Workers are reupholstering velvet chairs from Queen Victoria’s reign in one corner. In another, a carver is replicating a floral detail on an antique child’s bed. Thick slabs of recently delivered Italian burled walnut are stacked on the floor. It’s like Santa’s workshop—if the world’s children asked for hand-carved pearwood tables ($45,000 for the set) and filigreed boulle-work mirrors.

Since 1983, Mariani has also run a thriving apprenticeship program based on the 15th-century Renaissance model, keeping these hands-on traditions alive for the next generation.

“He is right there looking over the shoulder of his carvers, gilders, and painters, which is the best sort of quality control one can have,” says Amanda Ahlgren, a design principal at San Francisco–based interior design firm Tucker & Marks, who has known and sourced furniture from Mariani for 24 years.

She’s expecting a 17-by-5-foot dining table from Mariani for clients in the Santa Ynez Valley; it’s based on a carved detail of the property’s oak leaves. “We were able to go into Claudio’s gallery, see a similar table with a different type of leaf pattern there, and say, ‘This is what we want,’ ” Ahlgren says. “Then we drew it up, and now he’s doing a sample of the carving. Knowing Claudio, I know it will be amazing.”

Mariani says that 60 percent of his work is these custom projects, which range in price from a few thousand to upwards of $20,000. Customers come to him with a photo or sketch of something—a bed, a table, a gilded sconce, for example. Maybe it’s something the client saw in a castle, or museum, or magazine spread. Mariani prides himself on replicating anything, not as a faux reproduction, but with the expectation that the quality of the new piece will stand the test of time, just as the original has.

“There are very few people born in this country who can do this work,” he says, introducing me to carvers from the Philippines employed by the company, including master carver Jesus Bong, who has been with C. Mariani for 30 years. “Mostly, this is a lost art, and it’s very difficult. They call me the ‘last of the Mohicans,’ ” Mariani says with a laugh.

High-end antiques have plummeted in popularity in the 21st century (though the pandemic sparked a craze for all things vintage), and many top-tier dealers in New York have shuttered. But C. Mariani’s enduring appeal, and whopping price tags, prove that living with furnishings that predate modernism (and tell stories of their own) has never lost its draw among a certain U.S. elite who can afford them.

When asked whether he himself is still hands-on in the workshop, and is not just the boss giving his stamp of approval, Mariani lights up. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It still brings as much joy. I love doing this.”•