A Shop Owner Drawn to the Contemporary Edge

Contemporaria owner Deborah Kalkstein at the 2005 Milan Salone del Mobile international furniture fair last month.
Contemporaria owner Deborah Kalkstein at the 2005 Milan Salone del Mobile international furniture fair last month. (By Dave Yoder -- For The Washington Post)
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

Deborah Kalkstein didn't know what she was missing.

At Contemporaria, her six-year-old Italian design shop in Bethesda, she catered to a sophisticated clientele eager to see the latest Cappellini chair by Jasper Morrison or the most far-out lighting fixture by Foscarini. She designed state-of-the-art kitchens and transformed sober brick Colonials into free-flowing spaces filled with light.

All that was lacking was a cosmopolitan energy, the sense of being part of a people-magnet style scene like those in Soho, Paris or Milan. After she opened a second store on Cady's Alley in October, she realized she had found the urban vitality she was looking for, and last month closed the old location to concentrate on the new.

"Cady's Alley has a real buzz right now, an international flavor," says Kalkstein, chilling out last week in her store on a low $6,575 sand-colored Minotti sofa she fell for at Milan's international furniture fair.

The airy 3,300-square-foot space once housed a Russian restaurant, and then an Afghani bistro closed after an electrical fire. Kalkstein stripped it down to bare concrete, a wall of windows, industrial ceilings and a Lavazza espresso machine to keep customers well fueled. Against a soundtrack of the mystic rhythms of Paris's Buddha Bar CD, shoppers browse among white glass closet systems by Molteni and giant floating white cotton lamps by Marcel Wanders. A concrete ramp from the front door into the heart of the store serves as a rollerblade track for Kalkstein's 9-year-old son, Kevin.

"I wanted my store to look raw and refined at the same time," she says.

On any given day you might find Kalkstein speaking with customers in her native Spanish or negotiating on the phone in Italian -- a language she studies on weekends, earning her bonus points with suppliers in Milan and Venice.

So far, she says, the move to the alley has been great for business. She sees a steady stream of customers, continues her design work, and meets with developers interested in her sleek Italian kitchens and closet-systems for their new loft buildings downtown. Architects wander in with lattes from Dean & DeLuca, young stylistas linger over transparent Louis Ghost chairs by Philippe Starck for Kartell. She is finding the shoppers here more receptive to design.

"Washington has come a long way," says Kalkstein, 42, looking around at pieces of the Italian manufacturers she represents, including Edra, Paola Lenti and MDF.

Growing up in Peru, Kalkstein says, she dreamed of having her own furniture store. "I studied architecture in Peru, but I was always interested in interiors." She was on her way to Italy to study industrial design when she met economist Carlos Bachrach and plans changed: She moved with him to Boston, and began working at a furniture store in Cambridge. They married, and settled in Washington in 1991. The buttoned-down traditional style of the capital was something of a shock.

"Washington was a totally different city then," says Kalkstein. "It was not into contemporary at all."

She spent the next few years designing and remodeling kitchens and living rooms but growing increasingly frustrated at the few sources for high-end modern European design. "I knew there was a market here. My customers were converting their brick Colonials into more open spaces, taking out walls and doors."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company