Empire of the Imperiolis

schlesinger imperiolis2v Empire of the ImperiolisHe is a man of few words, and she is a woman of many rosettes. Together, the Imperiolis—Sopranos star Michael and interior and theatrical set designer Victoria—are building an ever-growing performing, media and real-estate empire.

At a preview the other day of the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club Decorator Show House, Ms. Imperioli was standing in a shiny black vinyl coat near the “La Dolce Vita” sitting/music room that she had created for the occasion. It immediately brought to mind Napoleon and the first French Empire style, with the medallions, laurel wreaths, furniture mounts and murmurings of ancient Imperial Rome, and also thoughts of Malmaison and Napoleon’s divorce from Josephine, who adored roses (he thought she spent too much on the house). Ms. Imperioli’s deeply red room pressed down heavily on the lungs but was startlingly apart from Kips Bay’s other rooms: Amy Lau’s pastel and watery California colors and David Barrett’s pink-and-purply-flowered “Cocktails in a Townhouse Potting Shed,” which smelled vaguely of soil and vodka. Often theatrically named, these rooms all have a bit of a narrative: one with a glass snake, another with a letter opener for murder, and—the staple these days—in the frozen still life of the artificial displays, flat-screen TVs, as in the Jed Johnson bedroom, with the film clips of women screaming at and hitting men, including Barbra Streisand throwing something: “You son of a bitch.”

Ms. Imperioli’s aesthetic of painted screens, braid, heavily draped windows when there are windows, and much cosseting and carpeting—all of which could be summed up as Lotte Lenya singing in a Fornasetti chair with hands tied to the arms—extends to all the Imperioli environments: their three-and-a-half-year-old theater, Studio Dante, on West 29th; their gutted former-factory-building townhouse in Tribeca, now rehabbed into a palazzo with an Aubusson rug and a bronze of Antinous; and, in past years, to Ciel Rouge, the very red and French Old World–looking bar they owned in Chelsea.

During an interview with Ms. Imperioli in the 66-seat theater—which is next to a car park but looks like a French Russian palace inside, and where they perform neorealist dramas (one set in the Bronx, and featuring a rooster)—she talked of how she and Mr. Imperioli married five months after they met 11 years ago in a bar. Which bar? “It’s too personal to say the name,” she said, sitting on a velvet banquette along the theater lobby wall—as in the Imperiolis’ home, banquettes are up against the walls, an imperial-court aesthetic. (But then courts are theaters, with large public spaces for bestowing knighthood and so on.) Ms. Imperioli also discussed her beliefs, such as: “I like ornate, but my ornate is very strict.” And: “Interior decorators are mostly personal shoppers.”

Her husband was elsewhere, either filming the last of the Sopranos episodes, or preparing for upcoming independent films in Portugal and Iceland, or surveying their latest purchase, a five-story walkup at 499 Canal Street that, as reported by The Observer, the couple just bought for $2.4 million to house the expanding theater offices. When Mr. Imperioli called once, she said, “I’ll be there soon, Poopy”—or maybe she said “Poppy.”

Mr. Imperioli grew up in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., where his father was a bus driver. When he was asked on the phone if his wife’s aesthetic was familiar to him, he replied, “No—that’s Victoria.”

Ms. Imperioli went on about how, for their anniversary, they “love the Plaza Athénée—the furnishings, of course. I call myself the Uffizi Gallery.” Then she went on to discuss Dante, as in the name of the couple’s theater and the bust in the lobby. “Florence was his true love,” she said. “He was in exile 28 years. He loved Florence like a man loves a woman.”

Ms. Imperioli’s vision must have taken seed somehow in the Ukraine, where she was born—the Russians were obsessed with the French in the 19th century—and then flowered after coming to New York City with her mother, who works in real estate, she said. She left home at age 16 and studied philosophy and art at the School of Visual Arts. “I remember living in a crappy railroad apartment,” she said. “I painted it. The floor was black; the fireplace and moldings were white; the walls were gray. It was monochromatic, yes—but nice.”

Mrs. Imperioli takes hold of a situation, a place, and makes it hers like a military campaign (though no Russian winter will destroy her). “I basically take everything apart and redo it,” she said. The houses, the gutting, the rebuilding, the upholstery, her stepfather from Poland, Ryczard Chlebowski, as her first officer, and the Imperioli children—Isabella, 16 (from a previous relationship of Victoria’s), Vadim, 9½, David, 5½. “We incorporate them here, in the theater. In the summer, I take off two months. I take the kids to our condo in Florida. I tutor them in the summer. What we do with the kids, we travel a lot. We went to Italy for Christmas and New Year. We had a tour guide with us. We went to Villa Adriatica, where the children could see the barracks, where the soldiers’ rooms had beautiful mosaics. Every single floor in every room was different—not a single repeat.”