In a gorgeous revamped warehouse in Norwalk, Connecticut, (and here on The HighBoy), Montage Modern showcases and sells its collection of mid-century and vintage furniture and accessories. Owner Tom Roth and creative director Robin Babbin have an eye for the fine lines and handsome craftsmanship that define mid-century style. Here, the pair reveals how they got started, what they collect for their own homes—and why visiting a pig farm in upstate New York is sometimes worth the effort.
How did you first fall in love with vintage and mid-century modern pieces?
Tom: We were in the decorative fabric business for a long time. We would travel for inspiration—the flea market in Paris, markets in London—and we’d come across great pieces of furniture. We’d always buy something—or sometimes a container full—and send it back home. We’d recover the furniture with our fabrics and sell them in our retail outlet. The pieces started to sell.
Robin: Having interesting furniture pieces helped our customers understand how the fabric translated to furniture. We realized eventually that all the pieces we ended up with were mid-century because we love the lines and the quality. These little vignettes we created—people loved them, so we shifted our business model. Now we reupholster all these gorgeous frames with beautiful fabrics—many of them from small mills we’ve dealt with for years—and we sell furniture and fabrics.
It’s hard to resist the sleek, mid-mod style. What were the first pieces you bought for your own homes?
Tom: I was headed to the flea market in Paris, and my wife told me she’d love some corner cabinets in the living room. So one morning—it was early in Paris, and it was six hours earlier in New York—I called to tell her that I had found these corner cabinets I was sure she’d love. I took a bunch of measurements, and I really had to convince her that these were the pieces we needed. She agreed—maybe she just wanted to go back to sleep—but when we got them home, we realized that they would fit the room, but we couldn’t stand them up, so we had to have them cut in half! Even so, it was a great experience to find these one-of-a-kind pieces and use them in our home.
Robin: My first was a Saarinen chair. I feel like Saarienen chairs are timeless, and they fit into many different genres. It’s in my kitchen, which is all white marble with this lime green Saarinen chair. That’s the perfect way to bring some mid-century into a farmhouse.
Where do you shop for inventory? Any adventures from your buying trips?
Robin (laughing): Tom has a saying, “If I tell you, I have to kill you.” Truly, stocking our shop is so random; we find things in the most unexpected places.
Tom: For example, I found a fantastic, 30-foot-long relief map of the United States in upstate New York at a pig farm. Someone told me to go check it out. I pull up to this guy’s house, and there are enormous pigs everywhere. He’s sitting on the porch, and he says, “You’re here to see the map.” It was by a Chilean artist and had hung in a terminal at JFK. It was an amazing piece, so I bought it right there and drove it back. We sold it within a couple of hours. The last time I saw it was at the Armory Show in New York, where someone was selling it for $80,000. That was my greatest find.
That’s enough to make me want to become an antiques dealer.
Robin: Isn’t it? It takes some imagination to see the possibility in pieces like that. I think that’s what I like best about this business. It’s about finding really good quality, well-designed items, at a really good price. It amazes me daily. We find a frame we like, and the workmanship is good—and then we put a new fabric on it, and it’s like magic: It’s as wonderful as we imagined it could be. To do what we do takes a leap of faith and a lot of imagination.
What’s your best advice for new collectors?
Robin: There’s so much more quality in pieces that were made a half-century ago because they didn’t have the automation we have now, so there was a little more heart and soul put into each piece. To buy something old and used is to buy something that’s beautifully made with loving hands and really good materials.
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Photography by: Alex Broadwell