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Grand Pianos in the Home
by Dr. Oneida Cramer
If a grand piano is in your home decorating plans, then you join a growing number of people tuning up to grands. That's the consensus nation-wide as Yamaha in California spotlights a wide range of decorator and Diskavier pianos, as Story and Clark Piano in Pennsylvania builds a new line of grand -the Hampton, and as Baldwin in Ohio reports strong growth in acoustic piano sales.
"Grand pianos have always been consistent sellers," said Bill Everitt, Jr., whose family, since the 1950's, has owned Brook Mays, Dallas' oldest music store, established in 1901as a piano store and later a representative music store. In 1993, Brook Mays dedicated one store exclusively to keyboards for serious piano buyers to test several six-foot pianos side by side, according to Everitt.
"There's almost always a spot for a baby grand," said Sharon Hayslip, who began designing in 1974. She says that 80% of her clients opt for grand pianos, which fit well in today's minimalist, sleek furnishings. Marti Olden ASID in the Design Studio at Gabberts says that once every four to six weeks, she sees customers who include a piano in their home designs.
Historically, piano sales fell when radio, TV and computers moved into home entertainment, according to Danny Saliba, one of two partnership owners at Steinway Hall. Today that trend is changing. Saliba sees baby boomers, people 30 to 40 years old, playing a lot more piano; educated people such as doctors make up 30-40% of his customers.
"The traditional piano purchaser, the person with the six year old, still buys," said Ivan Kahn, owner of Kahn's for Pianos and Encore-piano restorations. "But by far the huge majority of people are buying them (pianos) to have nice furniture in their homes."
Pianos come in all sizes
Pianos come in many sizes of grands from the baby grand at 4'11" to the 9-foot concert grand, which rarely finds it's home in the house. Homes don't have the right acoustics for such a big piano, according to Hayslip. Baby grands, medium grands around 5' 7", and the larger grands up to 7'6", accommodate most homes. Space-saver, economy minded piano buyers have traditionally chosen the console, vertical pianos.
"Vertical piano sales have been at a decline the past year," said Everitt. "Part of that reason is digital pianos that sound exactly like the real pianos, but you don't have to pay movers to move them. You can plug in ear phones if you want or hook them up to computers." And people who play keyboards tend to gravitate to the grand pianos. Yet grands, because they're purchased as luxury items, are an issue when the economy is bad, less when the economy is good, says Everitt.
Where to put the piano
Ellen Benois, who doesn't play piano, kept a white baby grand in her home. When she opened French Homestead at 1400 Turtle Creek Blvd. in the Dallas Design District in October 1996, she moved her piano into the showroom with two formal French china cabinets and an elegant concert tapestry giving this area an ambiance, which she uses to assist customers in their selection of furnishings.
Olden keeps a grand piano in her library at home. Years ago, she covered it with pictures; today, she likes it sleek and unadorned. In a Colleyville home with a large 40 foot living room, Olden placed a piano against the inside wall making a listening-reading center in the middle of the room, which also had a TV-entertainment area at one end and a fireplace-seating group on the opposite end.
Although the piano is almost always placed in a formal area, says Hayslip, the setting doesn't have to be in the living room. One of her favorite places is under an open staircase in a large foyer.
"It's a beautiful piece of furniture when you walk into the entry way," said Hayslip. Acoustically it's wonderful. Music permeates the entire house. And your living room and other spaces are available for more seating and larger groups of people. Children also like this area for practicing.
"People don't necessarily buy a piano for children to bang on because children don't bang on pianos-just for a few minutes they might," said Hayslip. Although many Hayslip clients live in grand, spacious home (5,000-10,000 sq. ft.), they generally buy one piano for both decoration and function. Sometimes in very large homes, a second piano, a console, may go in a children's playroom.
Black is the most popular color. "It is elegant, it goes with any decor, and it is timeless," said Hayslip.
Ninety percent of the pianos sold at Brook Mays are in black ebony. "That's because some people perceive that (black) is a good piano; all concert pianos are in ebony," said Everitt. But pianos also come in a variety of wood finishes, colors and styles to complement almost any decor.
As long as the piano isn't too expensive, Hayslip suggests having fun with it. She put a baby grand in the bay window of a dining room with a circular dining table. The family re-glazed over the piano's purple-lavender color with a sandy finish and created a driftwood undertoned in purple, an effect which matched the room's furnishings. Hayslip suggests that today's windows are wonderful locations for pianos, a practice generally avoided before the development of thermopanes and improved insulation. However, she cautions that care should be taken to keep the piano away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures.
A family in Arkansas moved into a large home previously owned by musicians with a music room upstairs and out of the way. The new owners, non-musicians, had to choose between putting their grand piano upstairs away from entertaining or downstairs in the living area, says Hayslip. Contrariwise, Olden put a grand piano into one bedroom of a two-bedroom duplex for a couple who wanted a music room.
People living in ranch homes with traditional floor plans-living room, dining room, eat-in kitchen, with a den on the opposite side of the kitchen-might move the dining room table to the living room and put the piano in the dining room, advises Olden. The den becomes the family room. And the piano room with chandelier, an ottoman and few chairs becomes a place for reading, sitting, and music making. The family can eat in the breakfast area, as observed by Lamar Pecorino at Steinway Hall, or in the living room in view of the piano, which is quiet or played by a musician or an attached player.
Digital piano players
Adding a digital, computer based programmable player is increasingly popular among piano buyers. The unit costs about $5000 and is attached to the piano at the dealers. Actual concert programs, recorded on CD, are duplicated on the home piano. Not only is there a growing library of CD's, but recordings can be made on one piano and duplicated on another, according to Kahn. This feature allows piano students to record their own performances and send them to families and teachers.
However, interior designers do not recommend players for everybody. Hayslip, says that attaching a player diminishes the value of the piano because the box detracts from the beauty of the piano, which can be seen in its entirety when elevated. But for people who want players, Hayslip continues, the boxes increase the value of the pianos for them. Olden would prefer her customers purchase another piece of furniture, unless budget is not a factor for them.
Sound, a feature not normally associated with decorating, becomes an important issue when considering pianos.
"I think that the sound of the piano is the most important thing, even for people who don't play," said Hayslip. "And no piano, especially an entry piano should be purchased without an expert checking it."
Saliba recommends bringing a professional artist into Steinway Hall to play on several pianos as part of the selection process when customers can't play. Yet, sitting among the many pianos on the cutting edge of sound at Steinway Hall is a keepsake 1864 antique piano with keys covered in mother of pearl, which might sell for $30,000 if anyone were interested.
"I think it's a pretty piece of wood," said Saliba. "But to a pianist, this is the most miserable thing in the world." The keys are too heavy or too light. The pedals aren't developed. Saliba would rather have Steinway Hall build a piano exactly like it with today's standard keyboard. It takes about 14 months. And it's possible because all Steinway pianos carry serial numbers with matching sketches.
Henry Steinway and the development of the piano
Henry Steinway, a German immigrant crafted his first piano in 1836 in his kitchen in Germany, and he established Steinway & Sons after immigrating to New York in 1850. Over the years Steinway & Sons invented the shape of the grand piano, the plate, the strings, the action works, all in all over 103 inventions, which sculptured the grand piano into what it is today according Saliba.
"By the mid 1940's, pianos stopped maturing and changing drastically," said Saliba. "Standards were set world wide, how much the keys should weigh, how the pedals work."
Hayslip's preference is Steinway, not that Baldwin or Bosendorfer don't make magnificent pianos and aren't just as good, but that they do not have the market value or the name recognition. Steinway grand pianos start just under $30,000, and an antique Steinway embossed with a painting by artist Blackwell sold for $380,000, according to Saliba. Steinway also makes Boston, a line of piano which sells around $14,000 and is more competitive with a grand piano market that begins as low as $7,000 for a new baby grand or $4,000 for a used one.
But suppose you find an old piano and fall in love with it? "There's a definite reworking to the older finer American piano," said Kahn, who boasts about his production man and Steinway trained personnel. "Actually, American pianos made in this century were probably the best pianos ever made in the world. Steinway was one of them. Mason & Hamlin, Knabe, Chickering; there were a number of beautiful pianos." In the late 1800's and early 1900's, there were about 250 piano makers in Boston alone making one to five pianos a year, according to Saliba.
"To restore a piano properly, up to and including replacing the sound board can be somewhere between $5,000 and $15,000," said Hayslip. "So you have to weigh how much the piano is worth and is that worth it. The piano, of course, you have to buy on top of it. But an antique piece of furniture does have value, and an antique piano is the best buy."
"The keys?" Hayslip raises the question. "Old pianos often had ivory. New pianos never do; it's against the law to have new ivory. However if you buy an old piano, that is the question. If the keys are discolored, do you change them?"
"My preference is, unless they're just atrocious, try to keep the ivory because they're replaced with plastic, " said Hayslip. "The ivory keys are very precious, and it is possible to replace a few keys. I would say try everything before you take off the keys."
Custom building pianos
Pianos can be custom built to sketched designs, according to Kahn, who has built ornate and decorative pianos and collaborated with Manheim Furniture on decoration. Kahns restores antiques such as Steinways and a Knabe sitting on top a six-legged pedestal. For a family from Waco looking for a rare piano called Packard, named after the company that made the Packard car, Kahns found one. " It had the most unusual shape and body. I called and said 'This is in terrible shape.' They bought the piano, and we rebuild it."
So, whether you're into playing piano or not, there are a bounty of ways to use the piano in the home. But in size and cost, it's a large purchase, one that should be made carefully because when purchased correctly, a piano can last a lifetime.
How to Decorate with Pianos
1. Learn about pianos. Visit local piano stores. Compare costs, features, sound etc. Ask for the names of interior designers.
2. Interior designers are also good beginnings. Ask about the pianos they've placed for other clients and what pianos they might recommend.
3. Do-it-yourself decorators should know the dimensions of their rooms. Consider the placement of the piano bench because that's where the pianist sits. And someday, somebody will sit down on that bench. Then consider where the listeners should sit.
Decorating with Musical Instruments
"It's very hard to decorate with musical instruments," says Sharon Hayslip of Hayslip Design. Out of respect for the instruments, it's not good to subject working instruments to conditions that impair their musicality For instance, the violin's supple wood requires frequent playing, and they are not good for decorating. However, miniature violins (1/16th size), used in very early violin study, make wonderful accessories, and can be displayed after the child outgrows them.
Harpsichords are delicate instruments often needing tuning while being played. So, they're rarely found outside the homes of musicians or harpsichordists. Harpsichords are not used much in entertaining except by harpsichordists, who transport their own instruments.
A small percentage of people use harps, which are more likely beautiful, old harps rather than new ones. And there aren't many old harps available.
Dr. Oneida Cramer
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