A guide to furniture in St. Louis

A Lasting Legacy

From 18th-century French salons to living rooms around the world, Louis XV chairs enjoy a certain je ne sais quoi.

Wooden frames, rounded backrests, and graceful details characterize a style of chair made popular during the reign of French monarch Louis XV (1715–1774). Unlike the opulent large-scale pieces favored by France’s previous king, chairs from the mid-18th century were smaller in scale, more feminine in their design, and intended for use in the intimate salons of the day. Built primarily of wood, including mahogany and cherry, Louis XV chairs were often carved and sometimes painted—but always with a light hand. The wrist-length arms and wider, deeper seat accommodated the era’s full-skirted fashions. Today, these chairs’ aesthetic and practical qualities make them a popular choice among homeowners who enjoy traditional, modern, and eclectic interiors. We spoke with three St. Louis–based designers to learn more about these pieces’ enduring appeal.


Emily Hall

Louis XV chairs are decorator Emily Hall’s first choice when designing a room. “They’re a favorite because they’re like chameleons,” she says. “By simply changing the fabric, you can give them a completely new look. I’ve used these chairs in very modern spaces, as well as in traditional rooms.”

In Hall’s own home, a Louis XV piece serves as her desk chair in a living room that also holds two slipcovered sofas, a burl coffee table, and a console that also functions as her desk. “I love to sit and work here, because it’s where the kids hang out,” she says. “I can get work done but also be a part of everything.” Hall selected a Louis XV fauteuil, or armchair, for its curved back, generous height, and soft cushions. “I like using Louis XV chairs for desk and dining room chairs,” she says. “They’re a good height and comfortable enough to withstand long work sessions or dinner parties.”

The chair, dressed in a peachy-pink satin, is one of a pair that she bought at the Warson Woods Antique Mall. “I didn’t have to alter them at all,” she says. “The fabric gives a feminine touch to the room that I really appreciate.”


Annie Brahler

Annie Brahler, owner of Euro Trash, loves to spend time in France. The country’s flea markets, where she goes to shop for one-of-a-kind pieces, are a big draw. The two bergère chairs shown here were purchased from a private home sale in Metz, France. After shipping the chairs to the States, Brahler had them reupholstered in white Belgian linen for a client whose farmhouse she helped renovate.

“The owners wanted a European look, so we went for dark walls and lots of antiques,” Brahler recalls. A hearty linen fabric imparted a rustic look meant to contrast with the chair’s sophisticated lines.

The size and style of the furniture fit Brahler’s vision. With their rounded backs and arms and deep, comfortable seats, the designer says, the chairs, which she placed in the home’s library, among the owners’ collection of leather-bound books, are the furniture equivalent of a big hug.

Brahler says the chairs’ light weight makes moving them a breeze, and the neutral upholstery makes them versatile. “The beauty of a chair like this, and designing houses that have commonality between rooms, is that things can float around. In the case of this farm, the owners move the chairs if they’re entertaining and need additional seating.”


Amie Corley

Decorator Amie Corley, owner of Amie Corley Interiors, designed this Clayton condo as a vacation home for a Dallas couple. “We wanted it to be young and fresh, but the homeowners love antiques, which I love using as well,” Corley says.

Antiques, she says, imbue a room with a sense of history, as well as personality. Corley chose two antique Louis XV chairs, purchased at Plantation in New Orleans, for the living area. The cotton-linen print fabric is based on an abstract painting by artist Amanda Talley.

“The fabric and the modern art behind these chairs make them feel youthful and fresh, not like they belong in a formal, stuffy home,” says the designer.

The classic silhouette and minimal adornment allows the chairs to serve as a foil to other furniture around the home. “We have a track-arm sofa, grasscloth-wrapped coffee table, and Louis XVI dining chairs in the adjoining room,” Corley says. “There was a lot going on, and these chairs worked well with everything.”

Scale was a selling point. “The chairs are small but super comfortable,” says Corley. “They provide the seating we needed without taking up too much space.”


A new look at old furniture

St. Louis-based woodworker David Stine shares his expert insights on select vintage and antique furnishings, currently for sale on 1stDibs. His top takeaway? There’s no such thing as plain brown furniture.

1. 19TH-CENTURY SIDE TABLE, SPAIN

The bobbin-turned legs on this table were inspired by the spools of thread, or bobbins, that were used to make clothes in the 1800s. Nowadays we can put wood in a machine and set it to perfectly cut these types of legs, but it was difficult to achieve symmetrical turnings on those legs back when this piece was built. The woodworkers likely had to put a piece of wood in between two centers, tie a cord around it, and then tie that other end to a tree limb, working their foot up and down, while continuously turning the wood—almost like an old sewing machine. This was extremely hard to do and even more difficult to make all the legs the same. The top of this table is solid wood that they incised and added veneer pieces to in the desired pattern. Again, the color variety here is achieved by using all different types of wood, not paint: Someone sat with razor blades, chisels, and hammers, inserting the design piece by piece. People still do this, but it isn’t very popular.

2. TEAK CONSOLE, INDONESIA

This table, although vintage, looks like furniture that is made today for export from Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, villages of artisans exist where pieces such as this are made, and the conditions would be considered extremely primitive, probably in an outdoor workshop with no electricity. This piece is made with teak, a tropical hardwood indigenous to the area. The allure of it is the property of the wood: It has great color and good grain. Teak lends itself to outdoor furniture because it contains a natural oil that repels water, keeping it from warping and cracking. The top of this table is certainly one piece, with an apron carved by hand that stretches from one leg to the other. Traditionally the carvings are cloudbursts or animals or something of relevance to the local people and their traditions. Either way, these carvings are made with a chisel and hand tools. Though detailed and intricate, the apron was not carved by a machine.

3. EDWARD WORMLEY MODERN SOFA, UNITED STATES

Even though the technology behind this piece dates to the Industrial Revolution—when the steam press was first invented—we still create furniture like it today. The steam press enabled woodworkers to steam and clamp wood to a form to create curves. In this sofa, there is likely a single piece of wood that starts at the base of the left leg and goes up to caning. Ash wood lends itself to this type of technique because of its lengthening properties. By having the grain follow the lines of the curve, the wood can be very fine and narrow but also very strong.  The use of negative space makes this piece special. The designer was trying to play with empty space to make a piece that was functional but also as light as possible. Cane lends itself to that aesthetic, too: You can see through it, but it still provides structure. Cane is usually made from white oak or strips of reed that are woven together. It’s first soaked in water to make it more pliable and stretched over the paneled areas, then shrinks again as it dries.

4. BRIAN NEWELL CONTEMPORARY DESK, UNITED STATES

This modern desk is likely made from macassar wood, an ebony tropical hardwood. It looks like canary wood on the inside and was likely chosen because the artist wanted to create that fish-scale pattern. The desktop is a very intricate sunburst—lines radiating out from a central point, done using veneer marquetry. Newell would have taken rectangular sheets of veneer and cut them into triangles before arranging them into that elliptical shape. Those curved lines on the desktop could be done 10 different ways. It’s very complicated, since you have curves on curves. My guess is that it was either done using a coopering stave—wooden sides are shaped at an angle and then held together with either wood or metal bands—forming an arc shape, or he could have taken a solid MDF—a high-grade wood composite material—carved it into the final shape, and then veneered over that. What really sets this piece apart is the grillwork. You can tell it’s done by hand, because they’re not exactly the same.


Kind of Blue

After a chance meeting two years ago, a partnership was forged based on a love of artistic expression.

Two years ago, creative director Annie Genovese met multimedia artist Maggie Robertson at the Best of Missouri Market. Robertson, who works in such media as photography, printmaking, sculpture, and cyanotype, was selling her hand-painted blue-and-white ceramics. Genovese, in her role for Forsyth Saint Louis, a curator of repurposed vintage and antique furniture, was searching for inspiration. She was immediately captivated by Robertson’s delicate, antique-like wares.

“They are the kind of things you keep on your table or mantel forever, then pass down to your kids or give as gifts,” says Genovese, who soon partnered with Robertson to sell the collection online. One year into their partnership, Genovese decided that she wanted to launch a second collaboration, and she couldn’t think of anyone she’d rather work with than Robertson. “I’ve always had the wish to find someone to hand-paint furniture,” she says, “and I liked the idea of working in timeless blue and white.”

Finding the right piece of furniture would be as essential to the project as connecting with the right artist. A set of American-made early-20th-century wingback chairs and ottoman, found at auction, delivered the style and craftsmanship that Genovese sought for the project. “The construction is really interesting and cool,” she says. Their large surface areas—on both the sides and on the back panels—could easily double as canvases for Robertson.

“I loved the idea of putting Maggie’s art on a bigger stage,” says Genovese. “This collaboration is about bringing the artist’s hand onto a piece of furniture and making it into a work of art.”

Once Genovese acquired the chairs and ottoman, she sent them to be refurbished. Parts of each chair were rebuilt, and the wood was stripped of its original dark stain and painted ivory. Inspired by the large vertical configuration of the chairs’ back panels, Robertson decorated them in a charming motif that she calls “The Tree of Dream Birds.”

“I sketched out in pencil the tree shape onto the wood as a guide for the composition,” she says. “Then the birds, leaves, vines and all the details were painted freehand. As I work, the design evolves. It’s an organic, spontaneous process.” Influenced by a recent trip to Paris, the artist added the name of the design in French across the bottom of one chair’s back panel.

“We’ve taken these heavy, dark, clunky pieces of furniture with appealing shapes and created light, airy, almost lacy pieces,” adds Robertson. “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to create one-of-a-kind pieces that will be unique to someone’s décor.”

Back at Forsyth’s studio, the team applied two coats of polyurethane to protect artwork and paint from chipping and filled the cushions with featherdown. The chairs and ottoman were upholstered in a bone-colored linen by British interior designer Rose Uniacke. Genovese says the double-welt detail, incorporating a vintage indigo fabric, “creates an interesting outline on the wingbacks, following the branches on the trees.”

The chairs and ottoman, which took about four months to complete, are now for sale on Forsyth’s website. “They’re pieces that you can lose yourself in,” says Genovese. “You can sit in one and look at the other and let your imagination wander.”

More painted furniture projects are in the works. Genovese’s goal is to eventually offer 10 pieces, all designed by Robertson. Though each will be upholstered in a different fabric, all will feature the same enchanting aesthetic. With one project complete, Genovese and Robertson dream about creating more beautiful objects—such as a hand-painted stone lighting collection, already in the works—together.  “We’re always brainstorming about how Maggie’s work can translate to other mediums,” says Genovese.  “I’m beginning to think more sculpturally,” adds Robertson, “so there is much on the horizon.”


The Test of Time

Three experts offer tips on spotting vintage furniture that will delight you for years to come.

Secondhand furniture shops have proliferated as consumers gain awareness of the benefits of buying pre-loved home décor: lower prices, better quality in many instances, and a gentler environment impact. Local experts Suzanne Woodard, of The Refind Room; Brian Hoffmann, of The Brass Alligator; and furniture restorer Lucía Landa teach us how to spot gems.

1. SEEK UNIQUE FEATURES. After years of scrutinizing antiques for his shop, Hoffmann can see when a product was mass-produced and easy to come by. An unusual find is a good sign that a product or piece of furniture could be worth purchasing, he says: “The first thing I ask is, Am I regularly seeing this?

2. JUDGE THE MATERIALS. When scouting for pieces to add to her collection of restored antiques, Landa looks for signs that a piece is well made. Wood with an attractive grain—such as quartersawn or “tiger” oak,  instead of a conventional cut of oak; nice graining on solid walnut—is always a good indicator. “Some veneers are excellent, too, such as burled walnut or maple,” she says. “Look for signs of handcrafting, such as what might clearly be hand carving instead of machine carving, and also handmade joinery.” Unless a piece was made back when veneer was overlaid atop real wood, remember that veneer or laminate isn’t ideal because it’s usually been slapped atop particleboard and will be easily nicked or scratched. It’s also an indicator that the product is cheaply made.

3. LOOK FOR SIGNS OF AGE. “A chandelier could be absolutely gorgeous and have 600 crystals on it,” says Hoffmann, “but if the metal that surrounds the chandelier—whether it’s brass, bronze, or even chrome—has no pitting or luster, that is usually a tip-off to [its age].” Say it’s a silver-plated chandelier with no signs of oxidation. The prospective buyer should remember that it takes years to oxidize, so the chandelier is not an antique.

4. INSPECT EACH PIECE. Says Woodard: “Pick it up; turn it over. Is it new? Or is it old? You can tell that by the marks or the rubbing on the bottom.” A big indicator of quality? Weight. “If something is about 100 pounds, instantly you know it’s something different and it’s something of a higher quality,” she says. “You don’t really need to be an expert to know that.”

5. KNOW YOUR BRANDS. Hoffmann’s sure-bet purchases: furniture by Maitland-Smith and Baker and jewelry by Miriam Haskell. Landa looks for American brands such as Stickley, Drexel, Henredon, and Thomasville. “They are dependable and of top quality,” she says. “They always hold their value if maintained.”

6. TRAIN YOUR EYE. Take marble, for example. “The eye doesn’t lie,” Hoffmann says. “You don’t have to be expert level to look at a piece of marble and say, Oh, that looks like something fake.”

7. DOES THE ITEM THRILL YOU? “As many years as I’ve been in the business, I still walk [into a shop] to see something I’ve never seen before. Now that is special,” says Woodard. “A visceral reaction can be an easy way to decide to go ahead with a purchase.”


Eames & St. Louis

Architect and furniture designer Charles Eames is known the world over, but the seeds of his career were sown in the Gateway City.

When it comes to iconic furniture design, few names carry more prestige than Eames. The husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames used cutting-edge technology to create timeless pieces that are still in demand and in production today. They’re considered two of the most important designers of the 20th century.

Although the Eameses did their most notable work from their California office, Charles Eames’ career began in St. Louis, where he was born in 1907. He attended the city’s Yeatman High School, where he excelled academically and was named captain of the football team. Eames’ father, a Union Army veteran of the Civil War, worked as a railway security officer at Union Station until he was injured by a train robber. He died when Eames was about 12.

“Charles started working at a steel mill in Venice, Illinois, while in high school, probably to help support the family,” says architectural historian Eric Mumford, the Rebecca and John Voyles Professor of Architecture in Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. “Through the steel mill, he got a scholarship to Wash. U., which at the time was really only open to very wealthy people. His working in the steel mill and learning that engineering was probably really helpful in his career.”

In 1924, Eames arrived on campus, nursing an interest in the work of pioneering architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the emergence of modern as a design movement; but his time at Wash. U. was short lived. According to the Eames Office official site, Eames was “thrown out” of the university, then still a Beaux-Arts architecture school, for his advocacy of Wright.

Though he only studied at the university for two years, Eames developed strong local contacts. In 1929, he married Catherine Woermann, daughter of Fred Woermann, the owner of a local construction company. Her father sent the newlyweds on a honeymoon to Europe, where Eames saw works by such renowned architects as Le Corbusier, further expanding his interest in modern architecture.

“When he returned to St. Louis, he was competent at being an architect, even though he never finished at Wash. U.,” says Mumford.

In 1930, Eames opened his architecture firm in St. Louis and designed several homes in the area, most notably The Meyer House in Huntleigh, a collaboration with work partner Robert Walsh. Owners John and Alice Meyer commissioned the home after seeing Eames and Walsh’s design of St. Mary’s Church in Helena, Arkansas. Eames and Walsh also designed custom furniture and other decorative elements for the 7,000-square-foot five-bedroom home.

Eames’ work in the Midwest caught the eye of renowned Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, then president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Saarinen offered Eames a fellowship, and the young architect left St. Louis.

At Cranbrook, Eames worked as an instructor and, eventually, as head of the industrial design department. He studied with Eliel’s son, Eero Saarinen (who would later design the Gateway Arch) and also met student Ray Kaiser, his future wife and design partner. She assisted Eames and Saarinen with designs for the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Furniture Competition. The trio used molded plywood, a technique that would become the signature of Eames’ furniture design. Charles and Catherine divorced in 1941, and he married Kaiser that same year.

“The Eameses had a mission statement that I love, which was ‘We want to make the best for the most for the least,’” says Nathan Wilber, president of ModernSTL, a local Midcentury Modern design and architecture preservation group. “They were masters of transforming and elevating everyday materials into sculptural, comfortable furniture that was affordable and appealing.”

The first models of Eames’ molded plywood chairs were produced in 1946 by Evans Products. Rights to the design of the chair were later purchased by Herman Miller (now known as MillerKnoll). Today, MillerKnoll still manufactures the chairs, along with other iconic Eames designs, including the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, Eames Molded Plastic Chair, and Eames Wire Base Elliptical Table. In 2001, TIME named the Eames Molded Plywood Chair the Design of the Century.

“When Ray and Charles Eames designed a piece of furniture, they always took a human-centered approach,” says Amy Auscherman, head of archives and brand heritage at MillerKnoll. “Eames furniture has stayed in production and continues to sell more than ever because of that focus on human-centered design.”

Charles Eames’ life ended where it began. He died of a heart attack at age 71 on August 21, 1978, while on a work trip to St. Louis. He’s buried in St. Louis’ Calvary Cemetery alongside Ray, who died 10 years later to the day. Charles Eames’ local legacy is honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.


Showstoppers

Local design showrooms curate some of the most beautiful furniture in the industry. Let’s see what pieces are the most in-demand right now.

1. EJ Victor Laurent sideboard, Design & Detail / 2. Wesley Hall Houston swivel chair, Design & Detail / 3. Century Carlyle sideboard, KDR Designer Showrooms / 4. Taylor King Santel sectional, KDR Designer Showrooms / 5. Baker Huxley round dining table, KDR Designer Showrooms / 6. Hickory Chair Austell side table, KDR Designer Showrooms / 7. Baker Flute accent table, KDR Designer Showrooms / 8. Hickory Chair SheaSwivel chair, KDR Designer Showrooms


The Giving Trees

The Muny’s newly designed boardroom table is covered in history.

During the Muny’s first century of delivering summer musicals to sold-out theater audiences, the two swamp oaks flanking the stage served as unbilled actors in thousands of performances. Now the trees are making their swan song as raw material for the theater’s new boardroom table, designed by Goebel & Co. Furniture.

Muny executives had planned to preserve the stage-left tree that remained standing, even as the company demolished and rebuilt the stage between the 2018 and 2019 seasons as part of a multimillion-dollar Second Century renovation campaign. But the old stage structures had wreaked havoc on the root system, making it necessary to remove the remaining tree. (The tree at stage right was felled in the early 2000s.)   

“The minute we found out from the arborist that the tree was not going to survive the construction, we reached out to Martin [Goebel], because we knew we wanted to preserve and honor it,” says Tracy Utzmyers, production manager for the Muny.

Goebel, who founded Goebel & Company in 2011, had been collaborating with the Muny on other aspects of its renovation, including furnishing its below-stage green rooms. His St. Louis–based firm is equipped to oversee every step of production, from processing the wood to building and finishing furnishings fit for the historic theater. As an early partner in the project, Goebel was on the grounds of the Muny the day a backhoe pulled the tree stump from the ground; since the fall of 2018, wood from the oak has been drying in his company’s warehouse. In that time, the team has worked to remove multiple foreign objects from the wood, including nails and screws from past productions that had oxidized the wood, turning it shades of blue and black in large spots along the trunk. Goebel embraced the effect, forcing oxidation by applying a combination of iron oxide and vinegar to darken other parts of the wood.  He says it’s fitting that the finished product harks back to the tree’s theatrical roots.

“It’s not like it’s steel or ceramics. The tree is something that was once a living, breathing thing,” Goebel says, “so to take a tree with such history…I think it’s the duty of the craftsmen, of the designers, to honor that legacy.”

The resulting pile of lumber has been crafted into bowls and vases to be given as gifts to donors, as well as tables, chairs, and accent walls destined for the theater’s green rooms. But at 16 by 5 feet, the boardroom table would be a statement piece, honoring the theater’s history and setting the stage for future plans. Goebel incorporated wood from the existing table—which had been built from the long-gone oak tree at stage right—with wood from the more recently felled tree, ensuring that none of the wood from the trees would go to waste.

“The building itself is very Art Deco,” says Goebel in reference to the Muny’s box office and administration building. “Art Deco is a grandiose and dramatic style, so we wanted to take those old theatrical themes, but it’s also a modern boardroom with AV connections.”

As part of the Muny’s overarching renovation, CORE10 Architecture positioned the boardroom to offer a view of Forest Park, as well as the backstage lot where the shows take shape, says architect Amanda Norris, who served as project manager for CORE10.

  “The space was set up to be comfortable, flexible, and functional while representing both the history of the building and a nod to the future. These themes carried over to the table,” she says. Although the Muny’s buildings are mostly straight lines, she notes, “there are moments of curves and softness with a nod to Art Deco themes.” The table, for example, features softly curved ends and base supports, but the highlight is the inlaid stringing in a beautiful interwoven curving pattern.

The project team maintained a balance of form and function, anticipating how technology might evolve so the table would have as much staying power as the trees that gave rise to it.

“We wanted to make sure that the table would be timeless,” says Goebel. “It was a matter of celebrating the trees while highlighting the architecture and history of the Muny. I think we were able to do that.”


Perfect Finish

A desire for a new career led to a new craft and way of life for Sue Wheeler.

When Sue Wheeler decided to go into business, her marketing plan involved pushing flyers into neighbors’ mailboxes and driving miles to pick up a single chair to work on. Thirty-two years later, Wood Refinishing by Sue Wheeler is an in-demand business whose small team is dedicated to refinishing wood furniture, doors, and interiors.

Wheeler’s interest in the craft began at home. “I was like a lot of people. I found furniture and I wanted to make it look great again,” she says. Much of her knowledge has come from refinishing the woodwork in her own 19th-century house. The interiors, she says, “had been butchered. [The home] was a boardinghouse for a while, and then when we bought it, it was a nursing home. And that’s how I got practice,” she says. “Now I can make any wood look good.”

Before launching her own business, Wheeler worked 10-hour shifts as a restaurant manager, often getting home at 1 or 2 in the morning. “I had small kids, so I started looking around for something [else] to do,” she recalls. Furniture refinishing, she decided, could be the right choice. She called Rothschild’s and “a couple of other refinishers that were known at the time and found out what they charged.” Next, she recalls, “I made up my little flyers and stuck them in mailboxes.”

In the beginning, she worked on lots of chairs to gain experience. “[I] started asking questions of people that were in the business,” she says, “and I got more information about how to do things and what products to use.” Once she was experienced enough to eyeball a job or piece of furniture and give an accurate bid, she quit the restaurant job and acquired a business license.

As a business owner, Wheeler strives to provide an environment that helps her employees become better at their craft and makes them want to stay on with her. “But if there’s a way to help them move on to make their life bigger and better,” she says, “I’m going to be there.”

Wood refinishing is all about allowing the natural beauty of wood to show through, and Wheeler’s preferred method is hand stripping, which requires manual stripping, sanding, and staining. The alternative, called dipping or flow-over, “sucks the life out of the wood,” Wheeler says. “I love what I do, and I love this wood.”

Wheeler takes pride in what she and her team of six full-time and two part-time employees have been able to accomplish together. The firm’s marketing still relies largely on word of mouth, but in some cases, homeowners will stick a sign in the front yard to share the name of the company with passersby. Often her employees will be working on a client’s front door, then get a call from a nearby homeowner who liked the work and wants the same.

Customers remember Wheeler and her work, she says: “I had someone call me that I had done a small piece of furniture for 20 years ago. They sent me a picture of it, and they said it’s still in great shape,” she recalls. And then they said, “We’ve got something else for you.