The Midwest Modern Furniture Store You Should Know About

On a Wednesday afternoon, after surfing Amazon from the comfort of my own worn-out couch, I closed my computer screen with a thud. My saved search history displayed my story of failure: “Modern sofa … comfortable … stain-resistant fabric … stylish … minimal.” Wading through thousands of Google results, I had a cornucopia of choices at various price points and still, a mismatched living room and a worn hole on the left cushion, where my 12-year-old terrier likes to nap.

Even in an age where the internet is king and the search for a stylish, well-designed product should be simple to acquire, it can be exhausting to make a big purchase. FastCompany.com reports on this “choice overload,” saying that having too many choices can affect our decision-making process and overall happiness in a negative way.

Enter the experts. Tucked neatly into a tree-lined street in one of St. Louis, Missouri’s most-fashionable neighborhoods, CENTRO Modern Furnishings has quietly become one of the Midwest’s best modern home-décor stores. In May, Architectural Digest called CENTRO, “a haven for inventive contemporary furnishings.” Along with their impressive curation and museum-like atmosphere, CENTRO’s team has more than 60 years of combined industry experience.

After giving up on Google, I swung open CENTRO’s large glass doors and breathed a shopping sigh of relief as I sat down to chat sofas with three of the Midwest’s go-to experts on contemporary design—co-owners Todd Lannom and Ginny Stewart, and showroom manager Steve Schuepfer.

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This may seem too simple a question, but I think it’s an important place to start: Simply describe good design. What does it mean to you?

Todd: Good design, to me, is hard to describe. It must please me emotionally, provide a function and be of the highest possible quality.
Steve:  I would say the definition is “form plus function,” but that needs some explanation. A form that is appealing to me might not be appealing to the next person, so the form part is subjective. Of course, the function part always has to be there.
Ginny: Good design is an innovation that improves and impacts our lives. It’s well-executed by utilizing current technology and materials.

If one were interested in transitioning to a more artful, thoughtful and lasting design approach, where would you recommend one start?
Steve:  Start looking through magazines and blogs to find spaces that you like.  Then determine what you like about the space. Is it the lighting, furniture, rugs, art? Start doing research on the things that interest you most. See what it takes to acquire these pieces. Most of the time, it’s going to mean shelling out some cash. If you can’t do it all at once, work on one piece at a time.  It’s better to go without than to buy things you don’t love.
Ginny: Attend design exhibitions, visit CENTRO and talk to their staff [laughs], begin to incorporate things that appeal to you. It truly is about surrounding your life with objects you enjoy and use on a daily basis. We have introduced products into our showroom to meet different budgets levels. Starting with an accessory product or a task lamp are good ways to enjoy a well-designed piece if buying a sofa is prohibitive of one’s budget.

The last time I was in, Todd was thrilled about a new Flos light, Superloon, that was displayed in the front window. Can you talk a bit about how you curate the shop?
Todd: While Steve is mostly responsible for creating our showroom vignettes, we all contribute our ideas during the selection process. We always make sure to include designs our clients are asking for: LED lighting, comfortable reading chairs and portable side tables, for example. But we like to surprise our clients, too. So we try to populate the store with a few statement designs—those designs that verge on being works of art, yet are still fully functional pieces of furniture or lighting meant to be used daily.  Steve: Every company that we represent manufacturers beautiful things. Personally, I try to find pieces that are the best design and quality but are more affordable.
Ginny: Our companies are constantly working with the leading designers of new products. They devote a strong percentage of their revenue to current research. Often, they go back to company archives and reintroduce a product using new materials and technology. We find it important to showcase both those current and iconic pieces.

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How do you mix genres? If you live in a restored Victorian home, for instance, how can you incorporate mid-century furniture? Or if you live in a mid-century home, will contemporary pieces work?
Todd: Good design works with good design. To my eye, the ornate architectural detailing of a restored Victorian is easier to appreciate when the furnishings have clean lines and minimal ornamentation. I appreciate good-quality traditional architecture, but I don’t want to live in a period-perfect home. I love mid-century modern architecture, too, but I can’t imagine furnishing a mid-century home with only designs originating from that era. There’s a lot of really great new design out there, and a good designer won‘t refrain from using it on a project simply because it doesn’t date to the same era as the structure it’s going in.
Steve: I agree with Todd, but want to add that with everything it all comes down to buying what you love. In my eyes, there is no right or wrong (I do believe that scale is important). Often it’s the things that are a little different that are most interesting.
Ginny: There really are no rules or restrictions on blending different periods. We have seen this from our travels in Europe to how our manufacturers showcase products in literature. The blending of good design from different periods is a reflection of that individual’s personal taste and lifestyle.

Can you share a story or two about designers you’ve met or have known over the years?
Todd: Our manufacturers introduce their new collections annually during Milan’s Salone del Mobile. In the late 1990s, Ginny and I had arrived in Milan a day early so we wouldn’t be so jet-lagged during our meetings, which started the next day. While wandering the city, we stopped into a building hosting an exhibit sponsored by the British Design Council. There were a few workers hammering away, finalizing the installations, but we pretty much had the place to ourselves. In one room, a tall, lanky man asked us if he could help us, and we started asking questions about what was going on and who the designers were. In the course of our conversation, it was revealed that we were talking to Tom Dixon. CENTRO was one of the first U.S. stores to sell Dixon’s designs through his company Eurolounge, and this was several years before the full-on launch of his eponymous design company, which is now one of the most sought-after design brands in the world.
Ginny: I believe it was 1998, maybe ’99, while attending the Salone de Mobile. It was late in the evening, and Todd and I were exploring the city locating smaller companies and designers that were showcasing their products. We went into a booth where we met Marcel Wanders, who graciously showed us his work. He then brought out his private stash of Jenever (traditional Dutch Liquor), which he had been keeping on ice in a cooler in the corner of the space. There were numerous shots taken while we engaged in a conversation about his designs. Marcel’s booth was outside Super Studio in Milan and has now been replaced with a large significant showroom by Moooi, where he became the art director.

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How did you meet? When did the CENTRO retail store originate?
Todd: I was working for a design store in the early 1990s named Mōssa at 1214 Washington Avenue in St. Louis, and Ginny was operating her independent manufacturer’s rep agency out of the fourth floor of the same building. Two years after the founder and owner of Mōssa passed away, we decided to open our own vision of a design-based retail store. We’ll celebrate 20 years in the Central West End in July 2018.

Can you all name a favorite piece or designer that is carried in the store now? Why is it a favorite?
Todd: My favorite brand hasn’t changed in over twenty years: Zanotta. Most of our brands preach a lifestyle which is promoted in their advertising campaigns all around the world. Zanotta, on the other hand, is a product-driven brand, where each of their industrially produced designs can stand on its own. Forty-eight museums around the world include Zanotta designs in their collections (the Saint Louis Art Museum owns three). Zanotta introduced the world to the first sofa formed in foam (Throw Away, 1966), the original “bean-bag” chair (Sacco, 1968, still produced today) and the rotating bookshelf (Joy, 1989). The history of modern Italian design cannot be written without the inclusion of Zanotta, yet their name remains relatively obscure to the masses.
Steve:  Today, my favorite designer is Patricia Urquiola. She is currently the design director at Cassina.  She opened her own studio in 2001, and for the past 16 years she has designed for a lot of the top furniture, lighting, bathroom and rug manufacturers. I think she is doing a good job at softening the look of the Italian-design manufacturers. She’s very good at color, too. Yesterday, my favorite was NENDO. Tomorrow, who knows? It’s all so good.
Ginny: This is difficult, because I’m constantly drawn to new products that I want to incorporate into my home. However, my latest lust is the Washington Skeleton Chair designed by David Adjaye for Knoll, especially in the copper plating (which will naturally tarnish over time). Adjaye was the lead designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Tell me something people may not know about CENTRO. What is something you’d like to share?
Todd: Since we’re a retail store open to the public and not a to-the-trade showroom, there’s a misconception that we don’t work with designers. Not true! We have an Architect and Designer program for qualified trade professionals to receive a discount for purchases made for their clients.
Steve: I like to talk to people who come in the store about the furniture that we sell. Every piece has a story or interesting fact. People shouldn’t be intimidated by the way the store looks. If they are interested, they have learned something before they leave.
Ginny: We have a history of offering our products to people outside the St. Louis area. Many online stores sell contemporary furniture and lighting collections, but they don’t offer the complete product offerings or the exclusivities that we do. If customers contact us with a verbal description or photo of a product, we are often able to immediately identify the product. Todd has even assisted auction houses in correcting information about a contemporary product detailed in their catalog. That comes from years of experience and knowledge of our industry. That level of knowledge and service is about the passion that we have for what we do and sell.

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