It all started with an elegant little silver coffeepot on her breakfast tray every morning at the Excelsior Hotel in Florence, Italy. The young American woman, who worked in the fashion industry and was there to see the new collections, so admired the design, the function, the liquid beauty of the diminutive item, that she received one as a gift. She was engaged to be married and thought it a wonderful wedding present. The year was 1962.
By 1988 Ginger Kilbane had raised a family in Darien and was newly divorced. “I was reinventing myself, the idea for Hôtel Silver was germinating all those years, and I just started the business. How do you learn to ride a two-wheel bike? You just get on and ride!” she says.
Calling her new venture Hôtel Silver, Ginger returned to Europe, scouring England, France and Italy for vintage pieces from the grand hotels, steamship lines, railroads, restaurants and cafés. She named her business after the generic term for the hard-wearing silver-plated nickel service pieces used in the hospitality industry.
Hôtel Silver made its retail debut in a small display case in what was then the Good Food Store in Darien. Just in time for the 1990 holiday season, Ginger was invited to open her first boutique on the coveted seventh floor of Bergdorf Goodman in New York. A gleaming anchor of the boutique promenade eighteen years and counting, Hôtel Silver is dazzling.
“It’s like a candy store,” she enthuses, referring to the abundance of enticing trays, teapots, cutlery and bowls massed together, reflecting the light off one another, in mind-boggling, myriad shapes and sizes, set dramatically against Ginger’s favorite wall color and backdrop, an earthy, rich mushroom. The shimmering boutique has a devoted following, from the gentleman from Texas who purchased a pair of rolling meat trolleys (think roast beef at Simpson’s in London) at $32,000 each, filled them with ice and used them as poolside rolling bars, to the lovely lady who comes in periodically and carefully selects a single spoon ($22) to add to her collection.
What is so compelling about an old utensil, the dimpled trays, a stout teapot?
“The best of all worlds is that they’ve had a life of their own,” says Ginger. Even though she replates and restores every acquisition, the wear, she explains, is under the silver. “I have the best plater in London,” she notes. “He leaves things in the tank a long time. He loves to work on good, old pieces. We triple-plate.”
She prefers items from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s, and the simpler, the better. “I don’t buy something just because it has a name on it,” she says. “I buy it because it’s unornamented, feels good in the hand. It’s all about the shape.
“It’s so satisfying,” she continues. “Many of the pieces were designed for the finest hotels, steamship lines, railroads. The hotel silver is kind of the pride and joy of the great hotels. It’s really good stuff. Often things go out of service, and that’s where I come in.”
Her boutique is filled with the emblems of glamorous travel, “when the countries were competing for luxury and speed in the steamship lines,” explains Ginger, specifically transatlantic. A pre–World War II coffee/tea set from the Italia Ocean line looks like an Art Deco landscape. “Look at the chamfered and sliced sides, the rounded bellies of the pots,” she says, holding one up, feeling its weight. “See how it’s canted to make it more stable? Function dictates the design of hotel silver. I think Art Deco is so smart, but I like it selectively. Some of it doesn’t blend.”
The pursuit of the finest vintage hotel silver has led her to flea markets, auctions, basements, an assortment of dealers, contacts and several countries. “I find pieces in wretched condition. My latest big heist was the Savoy in London,” says Ginger, who bears a resemblance to Helen Mirren, sharp blue eyes flashing. “I got there first in the basement. We counted and photographed and made a bid that was accepted. It was in the Bergdorf’s catalogue that Christmas. The Savoy had such a history. During the war the Grill Room was still going.”
Sometimes a piece is unique, and in limited quantities, so Ginger will reproduce it. “I still favor finding the vintage pieces, but if something is a good prototype, we reproduce it in India,” she says and adds, “I feel I’m spreading joy.” Reproductions constitute only 10 percent of the boutique’s inventory.
The quality of Ginger’s Hôtel Silver reproductions has added another dimension to her business. “A buyer from Bergdorf’s was hired by Martha Stewart, so I was her first phone call. I met her [the buyer] for dinner, and I plunked on the table Connaught salt and pepper shakers, a little butter tub, napkin rings, and an egg cup. We copied those for Martha for the Martha by Mail catalogue. We also did cake plates and pedestal compotes.” The commission grew to include platters, trays and fish poachers over the next three years.
Ginger often cites serendipity for her success. “Then Ralph Lauren called. For five years our things sparked up his room settings. The silver works well with the suede, all kinds of textures,” she explains. “It was called ‘Ralph Lauren’s Hotel Silver Collection.’ It was a great marriage.”
Ina Garten, author of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, is an early fan of Ginger’s Hôtel Silver. “She uses the little four-inch finger bowls as prep bowls on her television program. On the set on open shelves behind her, she has quite a collection of Hôtel Silver. People called from California: ‘We want Ina’s bowls!’” she recounts.
Aficionados will spot Hôtel Silver in the Williams Sonoma Home retail stores this season. “We’re doing tabletop, and big things for entertaining, decorative pieces like great bookends and silver boxes, trays, pillar candle holders. I found an old boat propeller in London and reduced it in scale to eight inches in diameter for a paperweight,” Ginger explains.
This season visitors to Hôtel Silver will discover a collection of the old British regional railway LNER (London & North Eastern Railway). But the big trend is unmatched vintage cutlery.
“You set a table with different handles on the knives, the forks, from the Excelsior, the Gritti, the Grand, it’s magic. Everybody has a story. It’s not twelve matching place settings. You can have your family silver, but you can change the pieces throughout,” she says.
Call it ultimate recycling, but unique uses of hotel silver thrill Ginger no end. “I love it when customers tell me how they use things,” she says. People are using marrow scoops as cocktail stirrers and fish poachers as wine coolers. Meat skewers, which are about twelve inches long with a ring at the top (presumably for one’s thumb during the carving of a roast), make excellent letter openers, according to Ginger. Asparagus tongs show up on buffet tables, and crumbers — which collect the meal’s detritus off the tablecloth before dessert — make great enchilada servers. One of her favorites is a baby gift created by combining a little divided vegetable dish for baby food, to which one or two after-dinner coffee spoons are tied. Many pieces have space for monograms.
At home, Ginger uses menu holders to keep her spot in her Rolodex. When she redid the kitchen in her old stone and timber home, she skipped the tile backsplash and parked a thirty-inch oval platter behind her gas cooktop. She punched out a skylight, the effect of which is maximized by the trays and ice buckets filled with spoons and knives, the teapots and sauceboats, poachers and bowls reflecting, liquefying, tossing the daylight around in brilliant silver counterpoint.
Ginger loves to entertain and reveals a secret: “I don’t cook, I assemble.
“We have great take-out: Vietnamese, those pretty tortillas, grilled vegetables, desserts; you just put it on a pretty silver dish, there’s no work! Buy a torte, put it on a pedestal. It’s a gesture of hospitality. The silver is just a way of welcoming that you can do in your own home.” She uses it every day, all day long. “On silver,” she says, “the first scratch is a tragedy, an ‘oh-my.’ Many scratches are what we call patina.”
The best part? It all goes in the dishwasher.
Ginger’s dining/living area has silverscapes that capture the eye and imagination. She uses an oblong pastry tray from the J. Lyons tea room at Claridges from the 1920s or ’30s as a bar tray, holding a skyline of early twentieth-century English cocktail shakers. Bowls of green apples dapple the color within. Compact ice buckets from the Dorchester and the Park Lane, with tongs ready to serve, along with openers and corkscrews. A meat cover from the Royal Automobile Club has been flipped over and given silver ball feet and is now a stunning wine chiller, “with ice and bottles jumping out of it,” she says. An array of large trays of varying geometric shapes leans on a sideboard up against an interior, windowless wall, bringing light to the room from the windows opposite.
Ginger buys Twinkle by the case, which, from squinting around her Darien home, clearly works very well. How does she keep up with it? “It’s like painting the George Washington Bridge: You just keep going around and around.”
In the spring of 2008, Hôtel Silver opened its first European boutique, in the ultimate British food mecca, Fortnum & Mason, in London. It is an especially rewarding venture for Ginger, who thought at one point that she might end up incarcerated in the Tower of London.
“One of my dealers in London found barrels and barrels of wretched, mangled cutlery, pots and platters from the House of Commons. It was all badged with their symbol, the portcullis — that’s the drawbridge that drops down to defend the fortress — because they consider themselves the protector of the people. It was all restored then sent to Bergdorf’s,” she explains. “It got back to me that an MP in the House of Commons asked, ‘What are we doing selling our family silver to an American woman?!’”
Is there a Holy Grail of hotel silver out there waiting for Ginger’s uncanny instincts to lead her to it?
“I know what I won’t ever get,” she says, “the Ritz in Paris. Word came down from the top that they’re not selling. And I’ll never get the ultimate service — the Hindenburg. That’s my quest.”
What about other countries in Europe? “I’m still mining London,” she notes. “But I never know what the next phone call will be.”