Behind the overflowing window boxes and weathered copper bay windows of Creel and Gow, a shop couched between the townhouses of NYC's Upper East Side, lives a decor menagerie to make your skin prickle and wallet-reaching hand twitch. Here "exploded" crustaceans are threaded with copper wire, butterflies are sealed between glass panes, and shells are dipped and plated in silver. The glass spine will set you back $2,200. The genuine narwhal tusk? $30K. James Creel and Christopher Gow peddle it all, specializing in one-of-a-kind pieces of incomparable quality and unexpected charisma. The owners, of course, are equally so: as much as their wares embody swank and quirk, they themselves embody warmth and (gasp!) regularness, quick to entertain the meandering (tantrum-throwing) child who's come to see the taxidermied lionness and, of course, ready to surge with enthusiasm for vintage Yemeni textiles (but more on that later). Creel wraps large hands around his beloved 19th-century carved coconuts with all the familiar indelicacy of your grandmother and a brown onion, while Gow is quick and cornucopian with his love for "beautiful mother nature."
The store Creel and Gow is all about contradictions: the objets that define the place are a mesh of the haunting and the embodied, the scientific and the artful, the visceral and the elegant. The atmosphere has the feeling and weight of a place that's been around forever—a thought that perhaps stems from the space's past as the stables of a Grosvenor Atterbury-designed mansion—though Creel and Gow as it stands has actually only been around since October 2012. Prior to that the shop space belonged to interior design doyenne Charlotte Moss, and before that king of home fragrance Harry Slatkin. "This space is actually kind of magical," Creel says.
Its offerings come from each divot on the planet. Creel is based in Paris, though spends weeks at a time hunting around in Holland and Morocco, while Gow had recently come back from a stint in South Africa. The store is populated by things like gun powder containers carved by 19th-century French prisoners in Guyana, stuffed toucans ("a live toucan costs thousands and thousands of dollars—literally $50K to $100K—but you can get a stuffed one for $5,000!") taxidermied at the request of American bird collectors, and dresses made for the four wives of the King of Bhutan. In order to find the goods, the owners do the usual procurement rigamarole: drinking yak butter tea ("awful") and asking men from Yemen to peer inside their grandmother's trunks. "Every item that makes it, there's 20 items that don't," Gow says. "It's really a fine line between kitsch and absolutely beautiful, but when we get it right it's fantastic." So fantastic, in fact, that they're wares are often loaned to showhouse designers (the albino peacock Alessandra Branca borrowed for her Elle Decor showhouse just got back this week) and magazine photo shoots.
The filament running through them all, besides the fact that most were hand-picked by the owners, is simply that each piece is meant "to delight the eye." The "marble" dishware is ceramic, the animal busts are papier mâché, the leaves are bronzed, and the skulls are fossilized wood. Still, Gow insists in the simplicity of their pieces. The average customer, he says, doesn't ask for the back story or history. "The objects speak for themselves [...] It's so natural. It isn't contrived. It isn't complicated. For some people these objects push the right buttons; it captures inside their souls. There's something there." The average client is a creative-type, they say: actors, fashion designers, and others who are a bit more "secure" in their decor choices. It's also the place to go to find a gift for a person who has everything.
Do they ever take anything straight home? "Of course," Creel says. "Oh my god, that's what I've been doing the last 30 years." Gow has a more tragic tale: his house "used to look like this," but then "a burglar with exquisite taste," nudged him into a more contemporary feel.
As we head out to leave, our photographer delights in that she's managed to not break anything, despite the store's well-packed single floor (there was a close call with a paper walrus bust, but he managed to get off unharmed).
"Don't worry, [James] does it all the time," Gow jokes.
"It's true," Creel says, mentioning the busted swan in repose, single-winged, on the back office's counter-cum-gurney.
More photos, below.