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The Storied Collections of Fifty/50 #SouthofUnionSquare

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the neighborhood South of Union Square was considered the antique furnishing and decorations center of the country. Dozens of such businesses thrived here, including a shop with a more contemporary “antique” bent known as Fifty/50. Founded in 1983 by notable collectors Mark Isaacson, Mark McDonald, and Ralph Cutler, the shop at 793 Broadway would become a pillar of mid-century antiquing and collection during its twelve-year run, and herald the now-ubiquitous revival and re-appreciation of design from that era.

Fifty/50 Photographed in the early 1980s via Department of Finance / Featured in the New York Times 1985 / Mark Isaacson photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe

Fifty/50 was noted as an “emporium of mid-century modern design,” and source of design expertise. The three founders each specialized in different forms of mid-century decorative arts collecting. Mark McDonald, who still operates today as a successful collector of architect-designed mid-century furniture, was key in bringing forth the aesthetics of that era to the antiquing industry found south of Union Square. 

Co-founder Ralph Cutler was known as the resident expert on Frank Lloyd Wright’s applied arts designs while at Fifty/50. He was also valued for his equally detailed knowledge of furniture, ceramics, and jewelry from mid-century architects and designers. The third partner of Fifty/50, Mark Isaacson, came with a valuable network of contemporary artists that collaborated with the gallery throughout its twelve-year run on Broadway. Most notable was Isaacson’s collaboration with Robert Mapplethorpe.

The storefront of Fifty/50 opening at 793 Broadway, shared from the collection of Mark McDonald

Isaacson and Mapplethorpe worked together on multiple projects. Isaacson’s collection of ceramics and decorative arts were featured in the photographs of Mapplethorpe throughout the years. Additionally, Mapplethorpe was credited as the photographer for a handful of Fifty/50’s catalogs. Later, Isaacson himself would be featured in Mapplethorpe’s portfolio of photographs wearing a brooch that came directly from his collection of modernist jewelry.

Other clients of Isaacson included David Salle, Francesco Clemente, Jasper Johns, and David Byrne — all drawn in by his creative collection of mid-century pieces and modernist jewelry. Isaacson’s expertise on 30s, 40s, and 50s decorative arts gained him a reputation that would later connect him to institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in Britain.

Fifty/50’s collection featured in the New York Times, 1983

The storied careers of Mark Isaacson and Ralph Cutler are reflective of the innovation that existed in the art world of the eighties. However, their eventual passings in 1989 and 1993 also reflected how devastating the AIDS crisis was during this era. Leaving behind their storied collections of jewelry, ceramics, and furniture to their partners, Isaacson and Cutler’s pieces continued to uplift mid-century modern aesthetics within the antiquing movement, making it one of the most popular design themes we recognize today.

The origin of Fifty/50, first sourced by past Village staffer Hew Evans, is just one of many industry stories within the neighborhood South of Union Square — being a center for artbooksellersfashionphotographypiano-makingpublishingcivil rightsremarkable architecture, and so much more. You can explore all these and more facets of the area’s rich history on our South of Union Square Map+Tours.

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