Steinway & Sons’ piano factory in Astoria, Queens is one of the city’s great hidden gems, where 250 workers are still meticulously handcrafting the world’s most acclaimed pianos since the 1870s. It is only one of two factories worldwide for Steinway, supplying all of the demand for the company’s pianos in the Western Hemisphere, following many of the innovations patented by the company over the centuries. Steinway is still regularly adding new innovations to the manufacturing process as well, necessary to maintain its place among the great instrument names in the musical world. Steinway is also innovating on the marketing end, with the opening of a secret vault that showcases its most exceptional pianos, including the limited edition John Lennon piano.
The Vault is so off-limits that it is opened by biometric fingerprint, and only four people in the company have access. We recently had the opportunity to go inside the vault with Anthony Gilroy, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at Steinway & Sons. and once his fingerprint was approved, an automated female voice announced “Access granted. Welcome Mr. Gilroy” in a very James Bond-esque way. The vault door, hand wheel and all, is not visible from anywhere on the floor, but located behind another door. Inside, there is space for six pianos displayed to their most optimal conditions.
Each piano is presented as a “vignette” which is, fittingly, merchandised more as performance art than how it would be in a standard show room. The lighting, which can only be controlled by app by the four who have biometric access to The Vault, is custom-designed for each piano, all of which retail for at least $200,000. One rather unusual piano, inspired by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition goes for $2.5 million. “You’re going to light a wood finished piano differently than you would light an ebony piano with silver accents,” explains Gilroy.
The John Lennon Imagine piano
The most famous of the pianos in the Vault may well be the John Lennon Imagine Limited Edition, launched in 2010 with the partnership of Yoko Ono on what would have been Lennon’s 70th Birthday. It features artwork by John Lennon on the music desk, of which there are seven different versions. The piano is modeled after the piano Lennon bought for Ono in 1971 that sits in the apartment they shared together in The Dakota where Ono still lives today. The piano has Lennon’s signature at the right end of the keyboard and the words “You may say I’m a dreamer” on the inside of the rim. A portion of the proceeds of this piano go to John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, a non-profit mobile recording studio. There are only a limited number of these pianos left.
Power to the People by John Lennon
The Lang Lang Black Diamond Limited Edition piano is signed by the pianist and designed in conjunction with the furniture designer Dakota Jackson who is a pianist himself. Like most of the pianos in The Vault, this piano comes with Spirio, the program that enables the piano to play on its own. The Lang Lang piano comes with Spirio R, which allows you to record, edit and play back what you’ve been playing. Following Chinese superstition surrounding the lucky number 8, there are only 88 pianos available of the Lang Lang piano in the Model B size, and 8 in the Model D size that is generally used in concert halls.
The Lang Lang Black Diamond Limited Edition piano
Another piano is made from of one single flitch (or plank) of Santos rosewood, an exotic wood from East India — making it a particularly rare piano both in terms of the material and construction. Another piano has a Macassar ebony exotic wood veneer, while another called the Onyx Duet has the Macassar ebony only on the underside of the rim and lid. When the piano is closed, it looks like a classic Steinway piano. And one piano which has recently moved out of The Vault but is sitting just outside it is the Heliconia Designed by Lalique piano created in partnership with the Hamburg Steinway factory featuring crystals and silver-colored inlays from the famous French glassmaker.
Last but not least is “Pictures at an Exhibition”, the multi-million dollar art case piano with cuckoo clock legs. There’s only one available and it took four years to make. It was painted by notable Steinway artist Paul Wyse who has painted members of Parliament in Canada, a portrait of Billy Joel that was hung at Steinway Hall, and other works. The piano shows works of art referenced or inspired in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a famous piece for the piano and was developed in conjunction with Steinway’s President who was looking for a piano that could meld art and music.
The Vault also has a soundproof lounge, with furniture designed by Christopher Guy and a mid-century Teague Steinway piano a design created for the 100th anniversary of the Steinway company. It too has Spirio, so if a VIP’s guests get bored of the testing of the pianos, they can sit in the lounge, peruse a copy of Christopher Payne’s incredible book Making Steinway while listening to a pre-recorded piece. We are potentially planning a tour of the Steinway factory for our Untapped New York readers. If you’d like advance notice of this tour, sign up below!
Next, check out the Top 10 Secrets of the Steinway Factory.