La Bella Vita
Todd Lannom sighs: “Yeah…brass.” He’s discussing the difference between American and European approaches to furniture and design. Take, for instance (and note this is our example, not his), a big-box, brass-plated sofa lamp destined for the curbside in a few years, versus the soft presence of a white Castore table lamp. In Europe, Mr. Lannom notes, people love design; they don’t think twice about spending four figures on a sofa. They know the name of the person who designed that sofa, as well as the manufacturer. And they don’t chuck stuff out on the curb—they pass it on to heirs.
Mr. Lannom, along with business partner Ginny Stewart, is the sensibility behind Centro Modern Furnishings in the Central West End. Centro (pronounced chen-tro), Italian for “town center,” describes the showroom’s goal to become a gathering place for people who love high-end, modern design; it’s one of the few places in St. Louis where you can buy pieces from firms like B&B Italia, Cassina, Cappellini, Driade, Vitra, and Zanotta. So even though Mr. Lannom and his partner, Brian Clore, made their first condo purchase in the Greystone, an Art Deco–era building on North Newstead Avenue, it makes more sense that they’d end up in a glassy, light-filled, totally 21st-century space—that would be 4545 Lindell, a 10-story building designed by architect Louis R. Saur. Starting with a “gray box,” the couple hired Phil Durham of Studio|Durham Architects (who oversaw the rehab of the couple’s old condo in 2000) to move walls, let in more natural light, and find the right finishes, including the glossy black porcelain Casalgrande Padana floor tiles.
“We really wanted to take advantage of the ceiling height, with architectural elements, so we used doors that went all the way to the ceiling,” Mr. Lannom says. Those ceilings are 10 feet high—and it’s worth noting that the huge doors, built from aluminum and frosted glass, are of Italian provenance. “They’re designed by Antonio Citterio, through TRE-Più,” he says. “When there is a lot of light behind them, they become almost a coppery color—they change light throughout the day.”
The condo also has direct access, which means the elevator essentially functions as their front door. It opens straight into a foyer, where Mr. Lannom and Mr. Clore have used extra wall and floor space to install art, including a mysterious-looking photographic print of an opening door by installation artist James Turrell. They’ve also placed three of Jeff Miller’s stackable white Carrara marble Plato stools out here, along with an early piece by Charles and Ray Eames.
“It’s a leg splint,” Mr. Lannom explains, laughing. “This is actually when they began experimenting with molded plywood. It’s not a prototype; these were mass-produced, so they’re not expensive, but they’re really, really interesting to look at.”
And local—Eames grew up in St. Louis, after all. Though Mr. Lannom and Mr. Clore love modern Italian design, the pair are big supporters of local artists and galleries, which becomes apparent after crossing the threshold into the main space. To the left, there’s a series of prints by French mathematical painter/sculptor Bernar Venet, who showed extensively at William Shearburn Gallery a few years ago. “Many of his sculptures are based on different arcs and degrees and geometry,” Mr. Lannom says, “and these are just prints of some of his twisted pieces. It’s the same pile, but you’re seeing it from different perspectives. William [Shearburn] commissioned an installation in Forest Park, right by the Grand Basin, so there were lots of them there. And there was one that the Gateway Foundation placed—they had three of the large arcs at the I-55/I-44 intersection.”
In the guest bathroom and in the library/sitting room are pieces by St. Louis’ “outlaw printmaker,” Tom Huck. In the half-bath, the print has a nautical theme: “It’s called the S. S. Skankboat II,” Mr. Lannom notes, and he and Mr. Clore dissolve into laughter. Hanging on the facing wall in the powder room are two lovely, early-20th-century pieces Mr. Clore picked out at separate Ivey-Selkirk auctions. “I liked them together,” he says. “This top one is Rockwell Kent,” a printmaker from the Ashcan School. “The other one, I don’t even know the artist. I don’t think that is all that important, but I think it plays well with the Kent.”
The two other objects of note in this room are the Agape sink—made of a solid piece of marble, designed by Angelo Mangiarotti—and a large turned-wood piece on top of a Bob Josten metal table, made by Mr. Lannom’s father, a systems engineer who used to put together Shaker-reproduction furniture in his spare time. “I think I just springboarded to modern from there,” Mr. Lannom says of his father’s influence. “He doesn’t want to make furniture ever again—he hates it. But about two years ago, he started turning wood. I asked him to make the largest piece that he could find, from a piece of hollow wood. That’s American cherry, and it’s about 16 inches in diameter.”
The other Huck print, quite a bit larger than the first, hangs near the grand piano in the sitting room: 2006’s Possum Promenade, from the series The Bloody Bucket, depicting tales from Mr. Huck’s hometown of Potosi.
“So there are possums on people’s heads,” Mr. Lannom says, “and all these great characters. I get the biggest kick out of her”—he points to a slatternly woman in the center, with a flower tucked behind one ear. “She looks like she’s just had a life, doesn’t she?” He laughs.
Mr. Lannom then points out Marcel Wanders’ 1998 Knotted Chair, which sits in front of their bookcases. It was made from carbon fiber, impregnated with resin. “When they get the resin in it, it’s still pliable,” he explains, “and there are weights that go down to the ground, and as it’s hung to dry and cured, the weights are pulling the shape of it as well, and then it’s sawn off and it’s a rigid chair. So it’s really sculptural. It’s modern macramé.” Mr. Lannom also notes the Sciangai clothing stand, designed by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino, and Paolo Lomazzi in 1973, which looks like a bundle of sticks; it collapses and can be stored in a closet, but is usually expanded and covered with “scarves and knit hats” during the winter. The design won the Compasso d’Oro prize in 1979, “which is an award given by an Italian organization to the best design made in Italy, not necessarily by Italian designers,” says Mr. Lannom.
Perhaps the most important object in this room, though, is the baby grand piano. Mr. Clore, vice president of sales for Nine West Group, works in New York but lives in St. Louis. When he comes home, he says, “it takes me away from everything. Because of my travel schedule, when I come home, this is usually where I am.”
The kitchen is modern to the max. Mr. Lannom and Ms. Stewart were toying around with the idea of offering kitchen design at Centro, so Mr. Lannom offered up the couple’s condo for a test run. It’s a stunner. The elements were manufactured by Driade; Mr. Durham plotted the layout. The countertop, one massive slab of aluminum, was craned in through the front window. And there is no backsplash. Mr. Lannom says that instead of cabinetry, the couple wanted “just a really beautiful back wall.” It’s made of two pieces of striated gray marble, which picks up the blue-gray of the aluminum. Then, to warm up that coolness, Mr. Lannom added one of his father’s turned-wood pieces—an enormous, burled bowl made from walnut wood—and solid wood chairs by German company e15.
Some of Mr. Lannom’s favorite pieces in the dining room include a Flos chandelier, designed in 1958 by Gino Sarfatti (“It mimics the shape of traditional blown-glass chandeliers, but the cables normally would be in the blown-glass arms, so you kind of get the ghost of where the glass arms would have been; it’s a really great piece,” Mr. Lannom says), and classic saddle-leather chairs by Mario Bellini for Cassina, which were designed in the 1980s. “We don’t sit at the table much,” Mr. Lannom laughs. “But eventually, like a baseball glove, they’ll get great dark spots, which is why I almost just want to handle them every day.”
On the room’s side table, they’ve juxtaposed high and low: an anonymous midcentury Expressionist painting with a vintage Artemide light fixture by Gae Aulenti, Italy’s most prominent female architect. “She designed and renovated the Musée d’Orsay in Paris,” Mr. Lannom says. “The glass is blown into that metal cage, and then bubbles out. It makes an amazing pattern on the wall at night, because if you use a clear bulb, it casts these patterns as high as the concrete ceiling.”
In the adjoining living room, there’s an early Eames rocker the couple found in Cincinnati: “It’s from 1948 or ’49,” Mr. Lannom says, “when they had this fiberglass rope running along the edge. The later ones are called knife-edge, because they didn’t need the rope for structure anymore.” The elegant gray sofa is by Antonio Citterio (who designed the glass doors) for B&B Italia. And there are several pieces by Achille Castiglioni, including a light fixture made from a car headlight, chairs made from a tractor stool and a bicycle saddle, respectively, and his iconic Arco lamp for Flos.
“That design is very recognized in Europe, where they don’t have lots of places to put lights in the ceiling,” Mr. Lannom says, “because they have a really elaborate ceiling, or it’s been painted with murals. He designed this in 1962, and it’s made so the light appears to be coming from the ceiling, and the distance of the marble base from the neck allows it to go over a dining-room table and still have room for the chairs. The marble is incredibly heavy. That hole is designed so two people can put a broomstick through the center and carry it around—it’s off-center so that it stays balanced.”
That, Mr. Lannom says, is an illustration of the power of strong, brilliant design; this is what he loves so much, not just the aesthetics.
“When we were in Milan, we were able to go through his studio,” Mr. Clore says. “They left it intact so you can still see what it was like.”
“It was a religious experience,” Mr. Lannom says, laughing—though he’s entirely serious about that.
The little gridded table in front of the couch is made by Zanotta, another line Centro carries. “There were lots of Italian architectural cooperatives in the ’70s that would experiment with utopian villages and designs,” Mr. Lannom says. “And this one was called Superstudio. They loved to play with the idea of the grid—cities as a grid, buildings that conformed to a grid, windows that were a grid. There’s a whole room at the Centre Pompidou filled with lots of their prototypes with that grid. There’s a picture from when these were introduced at the Milan Fair, and all the Zanotta staff wore doctors’ smocks, all patterned with that grid, and they were sitting on the furniture. The ’70s get a bad rap, but they don’t deserve it.”
The one spot in the house where you’ll find traditional furniture is in the bedroom. Mr. Lannom inherited his parents’ solid maple Drexel bedroom set, given to them as a wedding gift in 1958. It’s juxtaposed with a substantial bench by John Pawson for When Objects Work (“It was not made by carving the tree,” Mr. Lannom notes. “The thick wood was bent. There are no supports on here—the only thing holding it up is the fact it’s curved”) and Jasper Morrison’s Sleeper Bed for Cappellini. In the hallway leading to the master bath—covered in those shiny, beautifully uniform black porcelain tiles—you’ll find one of Mr. Clore’s favorite things about the condo. “Coming from a historic building, the closets were really small,” he says. “Now we have 16 feet on both sides!”
Reprinted by permission.