He 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.”
She continued: “I love to build more than I love to buy.” (More on “decorators as personal shoppers today.”) Down to the theater basement: “This is my real big saw. We have all kind of big-boy tools down here. We could actually build anything.” Ms. Imperioli was talking about her stepfather. Mr. Imperioli, on the phone, said: “I am very terrible at carpentry.” He excels in other areas. In addition to playing Tony Soprano’s nephew Christopher, he has acted in more than 30 films, written five Sopranos episodes, and co-authored the brilliant Spike Lee Summer of Sam film. “I wrote that when I was still poor,” he said.
Back to the tools: “There is such a tendency to do things on the cheap,” Ms. Imperioli said. “I abhor that. I have to have architecture in the space—a good floor, a nice ceiling, a sense of differentiation. The modernist tendency is economically based.” What about Corbusier and others? “Yes, well, modern classicism. Sparseness is not an aesthetic now. We tend to make everything from plastic and glass.” Are her interior-design clients all Empire enthusiasts? She wouldn’t reveal her clients, though her Web site shows some contemporary pieces mixed in with the Empire stuff. She said that her time is more taken up with the theater.
At first look, the cost of such upholstery—the silk, the seeming inlay—would be astronomical. A closer look revealed not gold inlay on the theater’s creamy lobby ceiling, but rather thin gold ribbon precisely applied in a cross pattern. “I used thousands of yards of ribbons,” Ms. Imperioli said. The medallions, rosettes, were painted with gilt. “You can get them anywhere,” she said. “Yes, Home Depot.”
“My father and I do 80 percent of the work. I did send out for feather cushions,” she said, looking down at a settee. The 50-some cream-colored silk-damask Louis XVI chairs for the audience members? “They’re reproductions. I bought them from a dealer. They’re clearly not antique chairs. They wouldn’t hold the 500-pound people in America.”
Their theater—which is so Méliés’ Magic Theater inside, or else 19th-century Russia—presents work (currently about three plays a year) set in convenience stores, bubble rooms, off-track betting parlors. Ms. Imperioli is nonchalant about the
incongruity. “When people come to a beautiful environment, they expect more. Somebody will put a piece of gum on the molding,” she said, indicating a piece of gum on the molding.
“All of our plays have some kind of social commentary,” she continued. “You have to be responsible to your audience. We don’t entertain; we don’t do musicals. We do plays of serious nature. We deal with a lot of dark, heavy matters.”
“We’re not opposed to doing something not realistic,” Mr. Imperioli said on the phone. “We’re interested in new plays. They don’t have to be set in modern times—we’re open. Maybe we’ll do something with a palace in it.”
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