Master woodworker Janos Spitzer and his team of artist-craftsmen stand ready to floor your home, whether you want intricate inlays, handsome floors of noble old-growth wood, or just a humble repair job | TEXT BY RUTH J. KATZ | Photography by Tim Lee
When the renowned New York City design firm McMillen, Inc., was hired to refurbish and redecorate “Nirvana,” an 1897 Stanford White mansion on Long Island Sound in Lower Fairfield County, lead designer Andrea Young faced at least one interesting challenge. The floor of the home’s capacious (23 by 18 feet) music room had been ripped up and stored … in the attic! The majestic parquetry now lay in 30 major pieces; even worse, three significant inlays, including the elaborate central medallion, were missing.
Constructing those pieces is not a job for an ordinary “floor guy”: It requires the artful hands of a master woodworker and a team of artist-craftsmen. Enter the Janos P. Spitzer Flooring Company, Inc. Arguably among the best in his rarefied field, the Manhattan-based Spitzer normally works for designers and architects. “We do things other people do not want to touch,” he says proudly. “Sometimes it’s as unglamorous as repairing floors that are out of alignment because the concrete base is off and therefore the subfloor is off-kilter. Sometimes it’s working on a once-in-a-lifetime project like this.”
Jobs at levels in between “unglamorous” and “once in a lifetime” might include the repair of worn-out floorboards or laying ultra-luxe flooring in a 9,000-square-foot one-bedroom apartment (one of Spitzer’s current projects in Manhattan).
But Spitzer wasn’t always the go-to guy for technically perfect substructures and luxury flooring. He was thrown out of high school in his native Hungary, he says, for being ever the “rascal.” So, at his mother’s “gentle insistence,” he took up a trade—carriage making. That’s when his woodworking studies began; he added to his knowledge by refinishing kayaks, which he raced in his youth. When he landed in America, at 19, he and a friend from home, another woodworker, decided to transfer their shared expertise to floors: “We thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ Well, our first real flooring job in America—just sanding and refinishing a very pedestrian floor—was a disaster. Our customer said to us, ‘We’ll pay you, but you have to promise not to come back!’”
Spitzer quickly perfected his floor-sanding skills, and that very basic work became the cornerstone of his early business. Throughout the ’80s, when downtown Gotham lofts were converting to residential expanses, he took on countless renovation jobs, laying hundreds of floors. Then he went on to bigger and more sophisticated projects — things like dance floors and gymnasiums.
Forty-five years later, he employs eight artisans, mostly Hungarian and Czech. He gets his top-quality wood from a handful of select, mostly Eastern-seaboard, boutique mills. His company works chiefly with quarter-sawn white-oak flooring, the wood of choice for top-tier floors. Quarter-sawn floorboards are beautifully patterned (an effect achieved because of the angle at which they are cut from the log) and deliver optimal stability.
Still, Spitzer is flexible: The company recently laid a maple floor (despite that wood’s instability) for a customer who wanted something very casual. Another client insisted on floorboards that showed at least a dozen annual growth rings in each inch of wood. That, Spitzer says, is almost unattainable: One inch usually contains six or seven years’ growth (i.e., six or seven rings). But he did achieve that 12-rings-per-inch goal for the floor, which is rich in markings (“flames”), showing “old growth that looks,” as he puts it, “quite noble.”
Prices for his floors usually fall between $25 and $50 per square foot. The higher fee buys “usually something pretty special, very artistic, with detailed parquetry.” For very intricate, custom-designed parquetry, the tariff can soar to $100 per square foot—or even more. Rambling off the proper names of numerous parquet styles, Spitzer ends, with a sigh and a shrug, “But there are so many! And I love them all.”
Though the bulk of his work is in Manhattan, Spitzer has worked as far afield as California and Washington, D.C. His first celebrity client, he confides, was Joan Crawford; others have included Carl Icahn, Bruce Willis, Paul Newman, and Paul Allen.
These days, Spitzer gets called in to consult on flooring for major Manhattan high-rises, among them renowned architect Robert A. M. Stern’s 15 Central Park West; 515 Park Avenue; 731 Lexington Avenue (“the Bloomberg building”); and the Peter Marino–designed 170 East End Avenue.
And, as for “Nirvana,” Spitzer acknowledges that this will be a time-consuming operation. First he must create motifs for the floor (he has a faint drawing of the original floor, so there is a guide of sorts to follow). Of course, the three new pieces must have the same character as the older pieces and look as if they have always been a part of the floor. “We need to locate the just-right woods,” he notes; he is visibly excited by this project. The tariff? “It could easily soar beyond six figures.” But Spitzer’s work is, as the MasterCard commercial puts it … priceless. TME
Janos P. Spitzer Flooring Company, Inc., 131 West 24th Street, New York, New York; 212.627.1818; www.janosspitzerflooring.com
Senior contributing editor Ruth J. Katz, the former on-air Home Services Expert on Fox-TV, has been a consumer, shopping, and service writer for New York magazine for more than 20 years. She has contributed extensively on service and design topics to The New York Times, Traditional Home, and Hearst’s Classic Home.