Sunday, December 4, 2022 Dec 4, 2022
48° F Dallas, TX

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Wlodek Malowanczyk

He fled communist Poland and found his way to Dallas. He opened a museum disguised as a furniture store. Now, having buried his love here, he leaves us for his next life.
By Richard Patterson |
Wlodek Malowanczyk 1
Elizabeth Lavin

This is the story of a man who, as I write this, is driving north in his black Mercedes van, currently passing through West Virginia, up the east side of the country, on his way to upstate New York, out of Dallas for good this time (probably). It’s the story of connection, of displacement, of homecoming, and of no home. It’s mostly about a man named Wlodek Malowanczyk but partly about me, partly about Dallas, and partly about America.

Wlodek is not a Czech. He is a Dane. Originally he was a Pole. But he prefers you don’t mention it. With this in mind, I should start near the beginning of Wlodek’s story, or at least how he came to America and Dallas, how I got to know him. Suffice to say, now that Wlodek is going, I’m sad to see my friend leave. When a friend leaves your city (Dallas is my city now—until I can find another one, that is), it feels like something of a bereavement, even if it’s not. I’m partly jealous, too: he’s made it! He’s on the other side. He’s out. Like escaping from Colditz Castle or something. There is still a chance he’ll end up back here, that he’ll get picked up and brought back by the guards.

Wlodek was born in Głuszyca, Poland, in 1950. By then, 90 percent of the 3 million Jews who’d lived in the country had been murdered in the Holocaust. Antisemitism continued to infect post-war Poland under Władysław Gomułka’s Communist government, and by the time Wlodek was 18, he’d gotten the message. He wanted out. The deal was, though, you could leave the country, but you surrendered your nationality if you did so. You became stateless.

In 1968, Wlodek made for Vienna and then Rome, where he could live in exile while awaiting the papers he needed to reach the United States and secure political amnesty. But after more than a year in Rome, still no papers. So he turned instead to Denmark, which was also offering asylum and citizenship to immigrant Polish Jews if they agreed to settle in a city of the state’s choosing.

Wlodek’s description of his move out of Poland reminds me of an image in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting of ripening pears on a tree in the foreground and Russian tanks rolling across the horizon. Kundera, like Wlodek, was an exile. Unlike Wlodek, he was a Czech. In an interview, Kundera declared himself a “dissatisfied hedonist” threatened by the possibility of the “end of all eroticism.” While Wlodek knew he was fleeing a political situation in Poland that was not great, at the same time he was a young man in search of adventure—which is why, at the expense of his citizenship, he abandoned the sleepy city of Aarhus for the more freewheeling Copenhagen. He landed to the sounds of The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, the exuberant colors of Scandinavian fashion, and the pleasures of soft drugs and hardcore pornography. He set about learning the difficult language of Danish.

Eventually, Wlodek fell in with four French émigrés who’d set up one of Denmark’s first vintage clothing stores. They were wholesalers of Hawaiian shirts, Western shirts, Levi’s—stuff that didn’t really exist in Northern Europe. Wlodek helped out around the warehouse and met an American with whom he started a business, exporting Danish antiques to an auction house in La Porte, Texas. And so it was that Wlodek made his first connection to the state where our paths would cross.

Whenever I meet other outsiders in Dallas, I always ask, “What brought you here?” It’s a loaded question. When I moved here (from London, it’s a long story), my first point of contact was a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art called Suzanne Weaver. She said to me, “You were meant to just fly in and leave again! You weren’t meant to stay here!” But Dallas is, as they say, a sticky city.

When I bought a house here with my wife in 2004 for the price of a high-end BMW, we set about furnishing it, as one does. From London we’d brought our shag pile rug and Robin Day couch, a George Nelson daybed, and some Ikea self-assembly, self-fall apart. While I knew who Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Charles Eames were (and had owned some of these items in a previous life), I didn’t know much else. But I had a penchant for old motorcycles and old cars—because they look better, because of the history in their engineering that links them to a particular time and place in a way that becomes more poignant when you realize you’re in a state of loss. That is to say, when you have lost the country from whence you came. That loss, for a voluntary exile, is a pain that is hard to describe. As Mark Goldbridge of the United Stand, a Manchester United fan forum, likes to say (of the subtleties and nuance of football), “If you know, you know.”

And so it came to pass that after buying a Peter Løvig Nielsen desk from Chris Thurman (now of Sputnik Modern but then sharing space at a sort of consortium of furniture dealers on Main Street, in Deep Ellum) and a nice early Eames soft pad and a couple of Pollock office chairs, someone then pointed me toward this place on what was then Industrial Boulevard, now Riverfront, called Collage 20th Century Classics. I was told it was fancy, high end, that the owners didn’t suffer fools gladly.

I wandered in one day. If I’m not mistaken, the Malowanczyks were out of town, and a man I later came to know as the esteemed Dallas painter Otis Jones was babysitting the store. He was very nice and said he’d pass on any interest. Later I returned and got the frosty “What do you want?” treatment from Wlodek’s wife, Abby—the type of reception I believe all Dallas art galleries should employ, since it’s honest and ultimately more appealing. The thing is, I knew a tiny bit already about furniture. Soon Wlodek appeared from the warehouse. I was interested in a Bruno Mathsson dining table and some Hans Wegner chairs, and we talked a bit.  Very quickly I knew we were both Europeans and somehow both in the wrong place and that surely we had more rather than less in common.

I bought the table and the chairs. Later I would buy Marcel Breuer, Poul Henningsen, Poul Kjaerholm, more Wegner, more Mathsson, Frits Schlegel, Harry Bertoia, Mogens Lassen. I’d caught the bug. I wanted to know about all of it. I’d swing by and just hang out. The Malowanczyks lent me furniture when we first bought our next house, on Commerce Street, for a one-off party. They later lent me a pair of Kjaerholm chairs and a Kjaerholm table for one night just so I had the right stuff for a talk I did with Toby Kamps at the DMA’s lecture theater. (Whenever possible, I like to bring my own furniture for such engagements.)

Wlodek and Abby had an extensive library of Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild catalogs going all the way back to the 1930s. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know and the more I wanted all of the furniture in my house. Why? Somehow it represented something about Europe, perhaps also my idealized version of Europe.

[img-credit align=”alignnone” id=” 869415″ width=”1200″][/img-credit]

As I spent more time with Wlodek, I learned that our shared love-hate relationship with Dallas was something to do with Dallas seeming like a blank slate with a fat bank account. Quickly I learned that Wlodek had a standby catchphrase—I mean, within about 10 minutes of meeting him. Heavy Danish Polish accent: “Fucking Dallas, man!” It’s a sort of a lament. It’s uttered with several decades of weariness born of a faded but ever-
replenishable frustration but also with a certain amount of love. We both say it all the time. It crops up several times in every conversation. It’s a bit like when people say rhetorically, “What are you gonna do?” Or like in England, when it rains—as it does quite a lot—you look at the sky as if it’s yet more bad luck and say, “Fucking weather, man! It’s raining.”

I got to know Wlodek because he’s a furniture dealer, and I needed furniture. I mean to say, I needed it in an irrational and obsessive way, much like when I was 31 and I decided I needed a minimum of around 12 vintage motorcycles: a 1958 BSA Gold Star, a 1957 Triumph Trophy, a 1968 Triumph TR6C, a 1961 Matchless G80CS—and the list went on. I stopped riding due to a bit of a back issue before I left London. Somehow the bike/car obsession became sublimated into vintage Scandinavian furniture. It’s actually pretty logical. If you know, you know.

And so I went on my furniture quest, and this is how I met Wlodek.

Wlodek’s initial foray into the world of furniture after working in the vintage clothing business was into antiques with his Danish American friend Jimmy. When the auction side of their export business slowed down a bit, they decided to move to Dallas and switch to retail. Together they opened Atlantic Antiques in 1975 on Lower Greenville, specializing in art deco pieces from the 1920s and 1930s.

It was at this point in Wlodek’s life that things took a decisive turn: first, he began dating Abby, who had become a customer. Meanwhile, Wlodek and Jimmy were beginning to see different directions for the business, Jimmy wanting to specialize in Danish Golden Age paintings, and Wlodek preferring modernist Scandinavian furniture from the 1930s onward. Wlodek decided to sell the business to Jimmy and, having become sufficiently homesick, persuaded his new girlfriend to return with him to Copenhagen.

Life there was good, and their first child, Michael, was born in 1985, but Abby struggled with the lack of Dallas sunshine and the language. Danish is difficult to learn and even listen to. (Other Scandinavians will attest to this.) Eventually, the couple compromised and elected to return. Abby’s part of the bargain was that they could live in the United States; Wlodek’s part was that he could choose where. “Anywhere but Dallas!” he announced, and the young family decided on Laguna Beach, California, where they set up their first modernist furniture store with the contents of one shipping container, filled half with vintage Scandinavian pieces and half with contemporary Scandinavian. At this time, modernist furniture was still a bit esoteric, the overly broad descriptor “midcentury modern”—which drives Wlodek up a wall—not yet having made its way into popular use.

The Malowanczyks’ Collage bought and sold furniture from around the beginning of the Bauhaus period, 1919, through to about 1980, with occasional unique contemporary pieces. (The architect Russell Buchanan exhibited some of his furniture there.) The Scandinavians took inspiration from the modernism of the Bauhaus, but by the early 1930s, the Nazis were looking to close the school of art and design. By the late 1930s, some of its most prominent architects—Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer in particular—had already fled Germany for America.

Similarly, Denmark had its equivalent, although less radically modernist, school. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, with roots going back to 1754, has a furniture school that was founded in 1924 by Kaare Klint, considered the father of Danish design. Klint believed great design in furniture already existed, but he wanted to rid it of decoration and frill. In a sense, his work was about updating classical design from 18th-century England. His lineage runs through Ole Wanscher, Børge Mogensen, and Hans Wegner. I have examples of all of these and gravitated to earlier pieces from the 1930s to early 1960s, since these were produced by small cabinetmaker workshops. They are rarer, entirely handmade, more valuable.

Wlodek dealt in a broader range than solely Scandinavian, however, including Italians such as Gio Ponti, the various German, Belgian, Swiss, and French who made up the Bauhaus group and the brutalist movement. Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand. Key modernists such as Jean Prouv. Americans such as Edward Wormley. And, of course, Charles and Ray Eames.

Wlodek Malowanczyk 4
Window of Their World: The Malowanczyks’ splendid inventory rotated in and out of their Irving Boulevard showroom. This final location was their fourth in Dallas after moving from Laguna Beach.

Essentially, for me, Collage was a mini design museum with a library attached, and learning the histories of the various schools of thought and design naturally mapped onto everything I already knew about the history of art. Without disappearing too deep into the design vortex, I would be remiss not to mention here that no Scandinavian furniture collection is complete without the ironic inclusion of a vintage cheese fondue set, a first edition of The Joy of Sex, and some ABBA vinyl played on a late 1970s Bang & Olufsen stereo. Obviously.

The great thing about becoming addicted to collecting furniture is that at first you can fob it off to loved ones as “I think we need a coffee table?” Because you do. But then you have three coffee tables. Then you buy a Bruno Mathsson lounger that is really too big to fit in your house and, frankly, not comfortable in any case. I bought one from Lejre in Denmark and shipped it to Dallas (which cost me even more), but it was in exceptional condition and unmarked. I started buying from London, upstate New York, Nashville. It felt like rescuing puppies at times. These things simply had to have a proper home. I couldn’t bear that some interior designer or whoever would randomly buy them for their clients.

Here’s a horror story: Wlodek told me of one such consultant who came in to the store and wanted to buy a pair of somewhat anonymous Scandinavian open-armed chairs. “I like them,” said the consultant, “but they’re a bit too high to go with the overall space. I think we’ll saw a couple inches off the legs.”

“Fucking Dallas, man!” as Wlodek would say.

For me, I like pieces to be fully original, which means I often had to pay Wlodek on installment. Fabric is a problem, since it rarely gains a good patina but simply wears out and looks grubby. Original leather—if it’s Klint or Wegner or Jacobsen or whoever—will often look great but may or may not fare well. I have an original 1952 Wanscher armchair, for instance, that I acquired out of state for $2,400. Two of its seams have given way at a stress point, but this would be common to this model. The thing is, I’ve only ever seen one other example of this particular chair, ever (and I check other dealers and auction houses quite a lot). The only other one was offered by Wyeth in New York (the Gagosian of furniture dealers) for $27,900—and it sold quite quickly. Did I get a bargain, or was Wyeth crazy overvaluing it?

Like art, furniture value is fluid. It’s whether you think it’s important. To me, it’s irreplaceable and represents a time and a type of culture of design, study, and manufacture that we can’t get back. I am a painter, but I don’t have paintings on my walls because they’re messy things, and they’re always the bloody same. Every morning, they’re still there, just staring you in the face like last night’s washing up that you’d left until the morning. Whereas furniture, you can move it around. You can sit on it, put drinks and books on it. Although, if you do this in my house—well, you won’t be doing this in my house.

I got to the point where I had twice as much furniture downstairs as I needed. It looked like Wlodek’s store, but I liked this look. I wanted it to look like a store. Since my living room is enormous and the back part is 24 feet in height, I began fantasizing about building cantilevered shelves above head height so that I could place prized chairs on the walls, like the Shakers did, only more extreme. I decided they’d look way better than the messiness of paintings, with all their dauby, demanding egocentricity and misplaced self-importance. The me-ness of painting is far too hard for me to live with. Mainly because it conflicts with me.

Prior to the pandemic, when people came around, I never wanted them to sit on the furniture, not for fear they’d mess it up (although partly) but because they wouldn’t appreciate what they were sitting on. Nor would I have a good opportunity to tell them what it was and get a book out to show them its historical context.

An early Eames plywood chair.

I have vowed that post-pandemic, as guests arrive, I will say, “Sit anywhere you like!” And then I will make a sweeping gesture with my arms to the acres of concrete floor. “Anywhere at all on the floor is totally fine!”

In Laguna Beach, the new retail business thrived, and Abby and Wlodek had their second child, Sara. But two things happened that drove the family back to Dallas. First, Abby had a congenital condition that led to organ transplants and eventually shortened her life. She would pass away in 2016, the day after Christmas, at age 64. She was a slim and beautiful woman of Arabian descent, with dark, warm eyes and golden skin. She did not deserve to be born with the condition, but even less so deserved to be in a culture with no proper system of healthcare. The birth of their second child cost the couple $160,000 in medical fees, and, to make things worse, the AIDS crisis began to affect the business in 1987. The Los Angeles Times then ran a headline saying that Laguna Beach was the epicenter of the disease. Laguna Beach had a large gay population at the time, and it was decimated not only by AIDS but also the knock-on effect of the headline.

The family moved back to Dallas with a limited inventory and lived for a while with Abby’s parents, who allowed Wlodek to convert a garage into a small warehouse. A short while later, in 1990, Wlodek spotted a small 400-square-foot space for rent on Routh Street and there met Otis Jones, who was renting an adjacent space. Next door was the Routh Street Cafe. It was an inspired spot because it became something of a nexus for a certain type. Before he knew it, members of the Stanley Marcus family were dropping by, as were respected Dallas architects such as Frank Welch and Andre Staffelbach. This was where Wlodek first met a young Russell Buchanan, who would later design and refit the industrial building on Irving Boulevard that Wlodek has just vacated. A breezeway separated the Collage store from an elegantly contemporary single-story apartment where Abby and Wlodek saw their last years together.

Soon after leasing the Routh Street location, invigorated by the new interest, Wlodek was running out of room for the inventory he was discovering in office sales, flea markets, and auction houses. He expanded into another space, doubling in size. Business was good enough that Abby could quit her job at the Galleria, a job she only took because it offered healthcare. How can it be that someone with a serious condition (not one caused by bad diet or lifestyle in this instance) could not reasonably afford healthcare and that a young and enterprising family were nearly bankrupted by simply having a child? Shame on America. Is it a wonder why Wlodek pined to get back to Denmark?

Somehow or other, after 20 years together, the Malowanczyks were running properly under their own steam. In 1993 came a bigger space on Henderson. The modernist thing had truly taken off all over the States and Europe. Stores like Habitat, under the direction of designer Tom Dixon in London, were recommissioning new productions of older designs by people such as Robin Day. Every London storefront seemed to have a Jacobsen egg chair in it. Williamsburg in New York seemed to be going the same way. Every hipster needed a vintage fiberglass Eames rocker.

From Henderson they moved to the space on Industrial, which is where I met them. It was only after a few years that I began to truly get to know them well enough to find out what was going on. It was perhaps the day I ran into the couple at the Fort Worth Modern. Wlodek was leading Abby by her arm down a flight stairs. She had temporarily lost her vision due to renal issues and other complications. It was only then that I realized how ill she might be. Abby was stoic and never complained. Wlodek, too, was stoic.

Wlodek Malowanczyk 5
Arms and Legs: Collage dealt in modernist furniture from all over the world, but Wlodek was especially drawn to pieces from his adopted Denmark, like these Hans Wegner chairs.

Then one day I was looking at a pair of Mathsson Eva chairs, I think. No one was in the store, which was fairly normal, except me and Wlodek. Abby had been in hospital for an extended period and was out, but he told me she had at most a few months to live. I burst into tears on the spot and hugged Wlodek and didn’t know what to say. Wlodek disappeared into the apartment to leave me in peace for a moment.

A few months later, returning from London to see my family and my aging mother (for what turned out to be the last time), my flight touched down at DFW Airport, and my phone pinged as I turned it on, and there was a text from Annette Jensen, the groovy owner of the Oak Cliff hair salon Sweet 200. She told me that Abby had passed away and the service was the following day in case my wife and I wanted to attend.

Only late in our friendship did we discover that we shared a hairdresser. Weeks before, Abby had arranged it so that she and Wlodek and I could have back-to-back haircuts and all hang out together. She then invited my wife and me to a dinner at a restaurant in Bishop Arts that had been hard to get a booking at and that we’d all wanted to try. Predictably, Wlodek and I started poking around at some of the food, tutting a bit and questioning some of the culinary decisions. I believe the words “Fucking Dallas, man!” were uttered by one or both of us at some point.

I think Abby knew that this would most likely be our last dinner together.

After Abby’s death, Wlodek and I formed an entirely new bond over a shared passion. For me, I became obsessed with Gareth Southgate’s England football squad during the 2018 World Cup. For Wlodek, football had been a mostly lifelong passion. When the World Cup ended, I felt bereft. England had made it to the semifinal, when our young team was out-guiled by a more experienced Croatian midfield. You have to be English to understand the 50 years of hurt that comes from not winning a major trophy since the 1966 World Cup.

And so I decided to refocus my attention on the English Premier League, the most celebrated, competitive, and vibrant in the world, and in which all of the national squad played. I struggled to know which team to support at first, wondering about Chelsea and then Liverpool, thinking I ought to support a London team. But in the end, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s story seemed compelling to me. The ex-Man United player dubbed the Baby-Faced Assassin for his focused intensity and choirboy looks had become the team’s manager. And so I became a United supporter.

Abby at the shop with their library of Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild catalogs going back to the 1930s.

During the difficult time following Abby’s death, Wlodek and I realized we shared a passion for football—and neither of us had to pretend to the other that it was called soccer. Where did I watch the England versus Croatia match? At Wlodek’s. He’s a great host and a good cook, and he laid on delicious snacks, along with Scandinavian vodka chasers for our beers. His friend Burt Finger, the photographer and dealer, was there, too, not a football expert but respectful and eager to understand the offside rule and so on. When England were put out on penalties—the feeling of utter bleakness is hard to put into words. I think it was Martin Amis, but maybe someone else, who once said that football is the most important of all the unimportant things.

Wlodek has been watching for years and watches many leagues but agrees that the English Premier League is the best in the world. (I mean, it’s not a debate.) While he, of course, supports the Danish national team, his favorite club has always been Tottenham Hotspur—particularly when Christian Eriksen, the Dane who technically died this year on the field during the Euros but came back to life, used to play there.

Together we watched Denmark play England in the Euros this summer. England won, but it was hard on both of us. One of us had to be disappointed, and there’s no such thing as being only a bit involved when you watch a match. It’s full on. You shout, you emote, you strut around the room, you cower behind the sofa. Your adrenaline means you can’t feel how many drinks you’ve had.

A Wegner Peacock chair with a shirt from Wlodek’s beloved Danish national football team.

We watched all these games sitting on Wlodek’s splendid inventory, which tended to get rotated in and out of his showroom. For the England match, I sat on a Wegner Peacock chair, designed 1947, produced probably early 1970s, made by Johannes Hansen. I have an identical one of two that I bought from him. The night before the game, he texted me a picture of his Denmark football shirt neatly arranged over the rail of the back of the Peacock chair. By chance, I was holding my England shirt that I’d just got out the dryer, my actual official player version, the slim-fit one that the squad actually wear. It shows my 57-year-old pandemic-exacerbated love handles that I’m really, really wanting to lose. But I don’t care, because it’s what the players wear, and the players are, I’ve decided, not just my countrymen but, like in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, all my sons. I will wear what the players wear, even if I look like a plonker. I laid my England shirt out over the back of my Peacock chair and snapped it with my iPhone and sent it back to Wlodek. A minute later, he’d collaged the two images of the identical chairs, the red Denmark shirt on his chair, the white England shirt on my chair, with the words “Game On” written across the middle of the picture.

Did Dallas appreciate Collage and the Malowanczyks enough when they were here? What’s enough? I guess that would be the next question. As Goldbridge says, if you know, you know. Did Wlodek appreciate Abby’s home city of Dallas enough? Like me, I’d say, how does one know what’s enough? “Fucking Dallas, man!”

As Tina Turner said, “What’s love got to do with it?” (I met her once, by the way. I think she fancied me. That’s another essay.)

I don’t have Collage to visit any longer. There won’t be another container load arriving from Scandinavia for me to go and peruse and then research online. There won’t be any more football matches in Russell’s lovely, light-filled space, sitting on what was, I think, an Edward Wormley sofa. We will, of course, stay in touch, and Wlodek will be back, and I will visit in his new place in upstate New York. But I’ve lost my European Dallas soulmate, the person who is 14 years my senior, left a country that he really wanted to escape, lived in a country I’ve never been to. While I left a country that I really didn’t want to escape, because my country is, well—this scepter’d isle, etc. If you know, you know. But from our different life circumstances, we connected and found joint passions. I wish him well.

Wlodek is New York’s gain and our loss.

The thing is, this won’t be the first time he has left Dallas. He returned once before. Just saying.

As we say in football, it’s very much a game of two halves.

Richard Patterson is a YBA painter who has shown around the world.