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Making Metro Modern

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Who could pass up a 1950s Erector Set Ferris Wheel? Of course you need that. It’s fantastic! Sally and David Ramert’s love of Richmond is palpable too and we’re glad they are here. Richmond’s Metro Modern is a fabulous place to find things you didn’t realize were cool… until you remembered they were. The kind of emotional response triggered by these kinds of things certainly comes from good design but also from the sense of craft imbued in their making. Things so good, they can’t be discarded.

This might be the best story told on vaMODERN to date. Enjoy!

Interview with Sally and David Ramert, Owners of Metro Modern | by Josh McCullar

Q: How was Metro Modern born?

A: The idea for Metro Modern was born in San Diego and Palm Springs, California.  We had been buying and selling MCM (Mid Century Modern) design pieces since we’d been married. We lived in San Diego and by the 1990s there was much excitement, buzz and energy surrounding MCM design. Dealers and collectors were buying and selling designer pieces with an expectant passion. The movement became infectious. Important designer pieces were relatively inexpensive at the time and folks were hoarding the stuff. There was so much of it to be had on the West Coast.

IMG_0107_2We personally witnessed a new urban aesthetic come alive in the late 1970s and 1980s. This movement was partly the result of gentrification of urban areas and partly young professionals looking for the new and the interesting in cities.  Generally, these people were the true and painfully avant-garde, pioneers who acquired Art Deco and by extension, Mid Century Modern. Invariably, sellers/dealers of these furnishings set up shop in obscure warehouses, basements of brownstones, abandoned storefronts as we witnessed in Haight-Ashbury and similar places in LA—on streets like Melrose, Beverly and La Cienega. Artists and musicians and owners of coffee shops also appeared. The words small boutiques and one-of-a-kind sounded very appealing. We remember a young German artist and designer who set up a small storefront shop in San Francisco’s Little Italy. She handmade beautiful leather jackets—all were one-of-a-kind.  She used fabulous leather colors and when she ran out of one color, she mixed various colors to get a jacket done. The jackets were $400 and we were shocked. The jackets took weeks to make and we understood the effort. So much talent appeared so quickly and consumers were willing to pay money for good design and materials. The first Sam Maloof chair we saw was a rocker priced at $700. We thought the price was outrageous but we wanted it because it was so beautiful and wonderful to touch—it was made of rosewood and jacaranda.

The thrill of good Mid Century Modern design and the renewed interest in case study houses brought a revival in Palm Springs in the mid 1990s. Alexander- built houses had really been used up but a lot of us saw potential—even if some of the houses were in fall-down condition.  By 1997 people thought a second home in Palm Springs was a genius idea—houses were being sold for $75,000- $90,000.  Simultaneously, dealers opened MCM shops on Palm Canyon—some were bare bones. Some shops had fabulous 1950s French lighting and furniture.  Additionally, several books about Palm Springs were published—Adele Cygelman’s Palm Springs Modern was published by Rizzoli in 1999 and Joseph

Joseph Rosa wrote a forward for Albert Frey, Architect in 1999. We were all hooked.  We bought an MCM house in Palm Springs which we renovated and furnished in MCM.  It was a two hour drive from San Diego for us and we liked going from coastal to desert in so little time. Highway 10 was a stream of cars going from LA and exiting Highway 111 to Palm Springs early every Saturday morning. By 2000, we decided it would be a lot of fun to open a retail space which would give us a greater opportunity to meet more people than just other dealers.

Q: Why Richmond?

A: We had traveled all over the east coast several times, but in 1997 we visited Richmond with our nephew Vincent. Our trip was part of a history trail kind of thing. Our family is littered with historians, archeologists and poseurs of same.  We all go looking for history when we travel. We stayed at a bed and breakfast on Monument Avenue and in talking with the owner, we learned a lot about the pains and costs of house restoration and ultimate satisfaction with preserving historic houses. We saw many beautiful neighborhoods, from Church Hill, to Ginter Park to The Fan to Byrd Park—all offering a pleasing urban look and all within downtown proximity. We had several excellent meals and excellent service at the Jefferson Hotel. But what really pleased and charmed us, was that we actually got to meet the governor of Virginia, George Allen. He invited us into his office and graciously spent a few minutes talking to our nephew about Virginia and loaded him up with pens and post cards. Later, Vincent received a letter from the governor thanking him for visiting Virginia. We were touched and impressed with the governor’s hospitality and care extended to an out-of-state visitor—not even a voter in Virginia. How much did that letter influence Vincent’s decision to enroll at the University of Richmond we’ll never know. We had considered several cities—Seattle was too wet, Savannah seemed way too quiet at night and too humid. Charleston was fun as a tourist destination but not as a place we wanted to live. In comparison, Richmond was close to DC and the coast, was the state capital, had the Federal Reserve, VCU and was close to Highway 95. We have visited many cities in the United States but we found Richmond to be one of the most beautiful, with all the amenities of a true city.

Richmond was envisioned and designed by rather enlightened and progressive minds—offering boulevards, tree-lined streets laid out in grids and large and small parks. Richmond also did not succumb to the freeway frenzy that almost destroyed many other cities. Highway 195 and Highway 95 were subordinated to urban streets and housing with lots of plants and virtually hidden ramps.

Richmond is easy to navigate. We like the grid layout of the city, the many parks, profuse planting on all streets and the rich cultural offerings of restaurants, art galleries and music venues. The city has an amazing diversity of talent—many who walk into Metro Modern—furniture refinishers, IT boffins, musicians, artists, architects, academics, design students, interior and brand designers, museum curators, photographers, set designers—wow—many curious and interested in MCM. The notion of provenance might have had its start in Richmond. People really love the back story and ask for it even if they don’t like a piece of MCM. Richmond has lots of energy and has become a destination—for work or leisure– for people from DC, NY and Boston.

We moved from San Diego to Richmond in 2005, leaving that MCM locus, and brought a vanload of merchandise with us. Richmond had hard core MCM design owners and lovers, and we believed a retail MCM store could contribute to the small buzz already in the city. There seemed to be opportunity in Richmond, promoting good MCM design and selling to a widening interest group.

IMG_0033_3After the purchase and upfit of two commercial spaces on West Cary Street in the Fan district of the city, Metro Modern opened for business in December of 2006. Our fingers were crossed, but we had a plan and some beautiful pieces to sell.  We knew Richmond was heavily focused on traditional antiques like camel back sofas, Sheraton, Queen Anne and Chippendale. There were many uncertainties. Frankly, Richmond responded generously, and enthusiastically, earlier even than other east coast cities. New York had just awakened interest in MCM—about a decade later than cities on the west coast, even though 1st Dibs quickly accumulated dealer participation in 2002. Initially, folks called our merchandise retro but with some gentle persuasion, and armed with new design information, people began to call this furniture Mid Century Modern.

Q: What are some of the most unique things you’ve sold here?

60003303-1A: Among all the items we have sold at Metro Modern a few do stand out as unique and memorable. One of the more memorable sales was a bunch of metal bands imprinted with numbers, used as elk ear tags for tracking and study. Even more interesting was the buyer—a motorcycle rider with a ZZ Top beard.  He thought the elk tags were fabulous. He was going to partition his beard and clip the elk bands on each strand—just right for keeping his very long beard controlled and out of his eyes at high speed. Who would have thought of such repurposing—every time we recount this story, we can’t help but grin at the audacity and genius of this idea. Some pieces were rare and impossible to replace like a rare Finn Juhl stool, a very rare Eames RAR Seafoam Rocker and a couple of 1950s hand- made California skateboards.

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Q:  How do you source items to offer in the shop?

60003196-2A: Metro Modern offers predominantly original MCM designer pieces. Some of our merchandise is odd and just fun and appealing. We buy no new merchandise so we have to hunt and find. Probably 80% of our merchandise is purchased from other MCM dealers. Other sources are private sellers and auction houses. We buy few items sight unseen so we travel frequently to buy. We continue to purchase from dealers we know in Palm Springs, LA and San Diego. Since moving to Richmond, we have created relationships with dealers in DC, Palm Beach and Dallas. Atlanta has become an interesting place to shop because so many corporate entities have been housed there since the 1970s—once in a while we find something we love. Lately, more and more private sellers contact us wanting to sell one or more items they or their parents purchased in the 1960s and 1970s. More and more dealers around the country now have websites, allowing us to expand our reach. We have been asked repeatedly to offer our merchandise on 1st Dibs but we have resisted, preferring to have a local client base.  We do, however, sell to other dealers and buyers in North America, Europe and Japan.

Q: Who is the typical Metro Modern customer?

A: Since we opened in Richmond we have tried to profile our typical customer and we have failed to come up with a good answer. Metro Modern buyers are diverse. After seven years we feel like Rick on Pawn Stars—we never know who is going to walk through our doors. Age varies—18 to 80.  Our customers do share some similarities. They are well educated and most are salaried professionals and business owners. Most are familiar with MCM and some are serious collectors. Others are mixing or transitioning from traditional furnishings.  Young hipsters are in love with Mad Men and just want something MCM. Our repeat clients choose MCM furnishings carefully and relish adding new pieces sparingly and thoughtfully. Our architect clients know exactly the pieces they want and will not compromise even if the search takes years. Many of our buyers have a personal design aesthetic and may or may not consult an interior designer.

Q: What’s next?

A: We may lack imagination and/or ambition but we don’t foresee opening Metro Modern 2 or Metro Modern 3 or expanding our footprint. We’re pretty hands-on and enjoy the face-to-face interactions. We meet such a variety of people from all walks of life that we feel we have a kind of barbershop MCM environment we enjoy and would like to sustain.

We would love to see a retail space where five or more MCM dealers offer more pieces and more variety and where customers can browse and buy to their hearts’ content. Slowly but surely as demand increases, we might create a Metro Modern space where various Richmond MCM dealers can showcase and sell MCM goods. We’ll see.

Metro Modern
1919 W. Cary Street
Richmond, Virginia 23220
Store hours: Wednesday through Friday: 12:00-7:00 Saturday: 12:00-6:00 Sunday: 12:00-4:00
(804) 402-1919

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