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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Clyde Chinitz

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-11-07

Call it karma, or call it continuum, but Clyde Chinitz, CEO of David Davis Paints, believes that life consists of connections.

For example, it was during his five years as a sous chef in French haute cuisine kitchens that he learned the professionalism and precision.

"It was exactly the kind of professionalism and precision that's useful in paint making, which was my next job after being an under-chef," Mr. Chinitz said.

His next job was at a storied company - David Davis, the world's leading source for oil colors for artists. It used machines manufactured by his paternal grandfather, Aaron. Those machines, designed to blend colors and linseed oil, are still in use at Mr. Chinitz's three factories.

If one were to search for the karmic element in how it was that Mr. Chinitz joined David Davis, it would be the fact that the paint maker was a good friend of the machine manufacturer.

A third continuum involves Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

Rembrandt, as in the 17th century Dutch master of rich color and chiaroscuro?

"Yes," Mr. Chinitz said. "For all intents and purposes, Rembrandt used David Davis paints."

The paint company was formed in 1960 in Brooklyn, while Rembrandt died in 1669 in Amsterdam. So did Mr. Chinitz transport his products to Holland by some time machine?

"Of course not," Mr. Chinitz said. "But I can recognize the special quality of the pigments he used, and the canvases that he painted on - we make the same kind of paints and canvases today. Let's put it this way: Had Rembrandt been living today, he would have bought David Davis paints."

Coming from someone else, that might sound sententious. But Mr. Chinitz, a low-key sort of fellow, speaks matter-of-factly. He has every reason to be proud, of course, because David Davis - which sells more than 150,000 tubes of 50 colors to artists, and thousands of feet of cotton and linen canvases - enjoys a legendary reputation.

It may be hyperbole to say that every major artist in America and elsewhere uses Mr. Chinitz's paints; but it's not reckless to suggest that many do. His customers are based in virtually every corner of the globe, and his sales now exceed $5 million annually.

That figure was slightly less than $2 million when Mr. Chinitz joined David Davis in 1993. While the company was already established as a leading purveyor of paints, European competitors such as Britain's Windsor & Newton, and Rowney, and Holland's Old Holland, had the lion's share of the global market for high-quality oil paints.

"The art world was also much smaller than what it is now," Mr. Chinitz said.
He brought a natural aggressiveness and innate marketing ability to his job.

And here again, karma played a role.

The founder, Mr. Davis, had no progeny. He was, in fact, in the process of phasing out his business. Mr. Chinitz saw an opportunity, a steadily deepened his own involvement with running all aspects of David Davis Inc.

"He had a reputation for being very difficult to deal with," Mr. Chinitz said of Mr. Davis. "That didn't surprise me - most artists are temperamental, and I suppose Mr. Davis needed to be temperamental himself in order to deal with artistic types."

But the older man decided to mentor his new employee - not the least because Mr. Chinitz was always asking him questions about the paint business.

"I've always been inquisitive, I've always sought answers to things I didn't know anything about," Mr. Chinitz said. "I mean, look at how I started as a sous chef. I was at Tufts University, becoming increasingly bored, and I decided that I just wanted to go out there and become independent, to make a living."

That decision to leave college did not please his parents, William and Helen, who were both well-regarded teachers. But the son was determined to strike out on his own.

It was while walking along the Brooklyn Heights promenade one afternoon that Mr. Chinitz ran into a friend who was about to open a upper-end French restaurant in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The gig lasted five years, although not at the same facility, and he became disaffected with the restaurant business.

When Mr. Chinitz's grandfather suggested that he might want to meet Mr. Davis, the young man hurried to meet the paint-maker.

"Difficult though Mr. Davis was, he was very free in sharing his experience and knowledge," Mr. Chinitz said. "He just didn't want anyone to dissent. So I would ask questions, and never challenge his assertions. He really knew the paint business."

Mr. Chinitz, in turn, recognized that Mr. Davis harbored the idea of passing on his business to him.

"He never said it specifically, but I think it was always understood that I would run David Davis some day."

That day came in February 1990, almost five years to the day Mr. Chinitz had joined David Davis. Mr. Davis passed away three years later, but he lived long enough to see his protege expand the business.

The paint business that Mr. Chinitz runs is, by definition, a small one. He doesn't sell to the mass market, for instance - David Davis paints aren't used to color interiors of rooms or exteriors of buildings. They will never be used by the automobile industry.

"We're never going to be a paint manufacturer for a large market," Mr. Chinitz said.

But he may take his company public some day.

Mr. Chinitz is careful not to reveal the colors that star customers like best. But he does say that among his customers' favorite paints are lead white, and cadmium red. He own favorite is cerulean blue, a cobalt-based paint that's used in ceramics.

"My wife Jeannine - who was educated at the Sorbonne - and I often go to galleries and museums to see how our colors are used," Mr. Chinitz said. "But, of course, no matter what types of paint the artist uses, there's got to be talent there to make it a great work of art, no matter which school the artist comes from."

And which school of art does he like best?

"The school of learning by living," Mr. Chinitz said.

Is he surprised that the Tuft University dropout who labored in French kitchens for five years is now the pre-eminent figure in the artist-paint business?

"Tough question," Mr. Chinitz said. "I'm not one to talk about my achievements."

"But it's all been earned," he added. "Every bit of it. Luck and serendipity may have played a part, but it's been very hard work."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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