A Is for Authenticity: In Search of Midcentury Design at Centro Modern Furnishings
Authenticity is something of a buzzword these days. In an age of internet-enabled artifice, to be “authentic” (whether as an artist, a musician or simply a human being) is high—albeit ambiguous—praise. Its definition is unclear, murky, deeply subjective. But there’s one place where the term “authentic” still takes on a mercifully factual, objective quality: in the design business.
Located in a picturesque pocket of St. Louis’ Central West End, Centro Modern Furnishings has been guided by a commitment to not only “good” but to truly authentic design since its inception in 1998. In that time, furniture trends have ballooned and deflated in the typical cycle, but perhaps no design craze has saturated the market as thoroughly as the mid-century modern revival of the early 2000s. Blame Mad Men or the rise of design blogs bringing in-the-know aficionado vocabulary to the masses, but whatever the impetus, the result was the same: a truly innumerable number of furniture sites offering knockoff versions of storied mid-century design icons so every household could have its own “Eames” or “Aalto” (at least to the untrained Instagram eye).
Eames® Lounge Chair and Ottoman by Herman Miller.
Knockoffs themselves are nothing new—many of these key designs had their own spate of cheap “dupes” at the time of their initial release—but there’s a unique opportunity hidden in all this imitation, too. A public hungry for modern design is also a public ready to be educated.
That’s where Centro co-owners Ginny Stewart and Todd Lannom and showroom manager Steve Schuepfer come in. “Centro has been open since 1998, and during that time, we’ve attracted clients who are well-educated on the brands that we sell, and others who are not,” Stewart explains. “Our staff educates the customer on the designer, the materials and the technology used in the manufacturing of each piece—that’s important when you’re selling good design.” And this educational component is more crucial than ever—especially when the difference between a budget knockoff and a high-ticket authentic piece can be tricky to spot at first glance.
The Centro team’s role, then, is as much to act as docent to the design world as it is to facilitate a new purchase. “Our product offering is expansive, featuring the best classic and contemporary furniture, lighting and design objects in the world, and all the products we sell have stories behind them,” Stewart says.
ALIVE magazine caught up with Stewart and Schuepfer to learn more about the difference between original design and the lackluster reproductions on the market, the value of investing in authentic pieces and the tradition of craftsmanship and creativity that authorized reproductions represent.
ALIVE: First, for someone who is drawn to the look of a particular iconic silhouette (say, a wishbone chair or tulip table), but is not aware of or invested in the history, can you explain the difference between an official licensed product and a knockoff of the design?
Schuepfer: An official licensed product is made under an agreement with the original designer—or, if the designer is deceased, whomever is handling their estate. Licensed pieces are closest to the original design and are produced with the same materials as the original. A knockoff is made by a third-party manufacturer not affiliated with the original designer, without their permission.
Saarinen Pedestal Collection Tables by Knoll.
ALIVE: The price differential is usually pretty large between licensed reproductions and knockoffs, can you give some insight into what accounts for this?
Schuepfer: Licensed pieces are normally well-known design pieces that use the highest quality materials—and, in most cases, they’ve been tested for durability and use in commercial installations. Knockoffs use lesser quality materials, have not been tested for durability, and copy the original designer’s ideas without any compensation to the designer.
Stewart: Good design isn’t inexpensive and purchasing a knockoff can be appealing to a consumer because of the cost. However, a lower price usually means poorer quality along with a shorter life span. Original design is a long-term investment. I encourage [customers] to save money to buy the real thing—It’s so satisfying when a repeat customer comes in the store and says, “I love everything that I have bought from Centro over the years.” If you buy quality, then it’ll last forever.
ALIVE: For a customer who is informed and is committed to purchasing an authentic item, can you speak a bit to what draws someone to purchase a new licensed piece from a shop like Centro as opposed to buying vintage?
Schuepfer: Buying vintage is a good idea if the piece is no longer in production. Most vintage pieces will require a lot of TLC to bring them back to good condition. If a piece is in current production it makes sense to purchase it new—you’ll get to choose the fabric and finishes, and in almost all cases, the manufacturer will offer a warranty.
ALIVE: Which licensed versions of iconic designs do you notice generating the most interest lately?
Stewart: The Eames® Lounge Chair and Ottoman from the authorized manufacturer Herman Miller; the Eero Saarinen dining and side tables from Knoll; the Cassina Tre Pezzi chair by Albini; the Flos Arco floor lamp by Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni; and Iittala Aalto vases.
Arco floor lamp by Flos.
ALIVE: How can a customer ensure they’re purchasing a licensed piece when dealing with a vendor they might not be familiar with?
Stewart: A licensed piece will come with a form of authentication—either a certificate of authenticity, a sticker, or a production number or company logo stamped on the product. Be sure you’re buying a piece that is authentic and will have value when you go to resell it.
All images, including the featured image of a Cassina Tre Pezzi chair, courtesy of Centro Modern Furnishings.