As the grandson of antique dealers and the son of an auctioneer, Todd Merrill was quite literally born into the world of design and antiques. So it was only natural that he would open Todd Merrill Studio, his own antiques shop in 2000 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Since then, Merrill has established himself as a top-tier influencer, leading the collective shift away from traditional 19th Century antiques towards vintage 20th Century makers. Given the depths of his expertise, Merrill even authored a book on the subject: Modern Americana: From High Craft to High Glam published by Rizzoli in 2008 and recently republished in 2018 as an extended edition with two additional chapters.
An intrinsic curator, Todd Merrill has assembled some of the world’s most exciting contemporary design at his gallery, Todd Merrill Studio. Now with two locations, one in Manhattan and one in Southampton, it would seem Merrill already has plenty on his plate, yet that hasn’t stopped the creative eye from also helming his own design collection, known as Custom Originals. Launched in 2008, the Custom Originals collection is comprised of stunning, high-craft furniture inspired by the makers of the 1950s through 1980s. A keystone dealer on DECASO, we recently sat down with Merrill to chat about his storied career, the essential 20th Century makers everyone needs to know, and the biggest names emerging in the decorative arts today. Read on to go inside Todd Merrill’s impeccably curated world and get a preview of his summer 2019 Southampton gallery display!
A love of antiques, art, and design seems to run in your family—tell us about your background in the industry.
My grandparents, Nathan and Margaret Merrill, opened an antique business in the 1930’s in Burlington, Vermont. In 1968, my grandparents helped my father open an auction business. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I worked in both the antique business and the auction business. I later went on to become the director of public relations for Christie’s North America, and then opened my own antique and vintage furniture business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 2000.
New York City has been home to Todd Merrill Studio since 2000, how have you seen the market change over time in this undisputed capital of art and design?
When I opened the first antique store on the Lower East Side in 2000 the market was just beginning to change and awareness of late 20th century vintage design had become the cutting edge of the design trade. A new generation of collectors and buyers were turning away from a traditional look. After a year, I began to slowly change my approach as the period pieces I was carrying we’re not selling. I began to buy more and more vintage 20th century custom studio design, both American and European. By 2006 I was deeply involved in this trade, and began to write a book which was eventually published in 2008 by Rizzoli called Modern Americana: From High Craft to High Glam. In October of 2018 Rizzoli published an expanded 10th anniversary edition of the book with Rizzoli that included 60 added pages, including two additional chapters, one focusing on Women Makers and the second on showrooms of the period.
The market for the best of this period continues to grow and has been validated by collectors and museums around the world, as well as setting many record prices at auction which continue to keep coming.
The past summers have seen exciting exhibitions of contemporary art at your Southampton location—any hints on what we can expect for summer 2019?
Summer 2019 will open with a mix of the best of our lighting, furniture, and three-dimensional wall art. There will be a focus on new artists Brecht Wright Gander and Mindy Horn as well as new pieces from Sophie Coryndon, Marc Fish, Boris Gratry, and John Procario.
In addition to being a dealer, you’re also a designer yourself, launching your line Custom Originals in 2008. Tell us about the design process and where do you source inspiration?
My inspiration for Custom Originals, the upholstered furniture line that we design and produce, comes from my exposure to European and American furniture from the late 20th century. Usually, I am looking at a sofa or chair or stool anywhere from the 1950 to the 1980’s and then I rescale and reinterpret it for a contemporary setting, to the point that it has evolved into something altogether different.
Recently, I was looking at Art Deco furniture and some 1970s Kagan pieces and over many evolutions came up with two new designs, the Channel Tufted Racetrack Sofa and the Sugar Bowl Settees. While the final products look nothing like their inspiration, they could not have been developed without it. These are among my favorite designs that I have created.
Your gallery’s specialty lies in impeccable curation of 20th Century furniture and lighting. Why do you think there is such overwhelming popularity in this contemporary period of design at the moment?
20th Century post-World War II design and contemporary design are both incredibly popular right now because of a new generation of collectors. Interests in design and art are different from the last generation who connected deeply to period furniture and the history from which it came. The new generation is environmentally and artistically aware with a strong sense of forward-thinkingness. They want something unique, often made by an artist, which has intrinsic value and a timeless quality.
Throughout the year, Todd Merrill Studio has a busy schedule exhibiting at some of the most prestigious art and design fairs around the world. Do you have a favorite among these and what makes it stand out for you?
Our favorite fairs to exhibit at are Design Miami (in Miami and Switzerland) and Salon Art + Design in New York. Design Miami stands out because it is one of the best run and most forward-thinking design fairs in the world. As a dealer, you’re surrounded by the very best every other dealer in the world has to offer. It is an incredibly stimulating environment and always ahead of its time. Salon Art + Design mixes art and design at the highest level, bringing dealers from around the world to New York City to the always popular Park Avenue Armory. I think it is the most sophisticated New York show of its kind.
Todd Merrill Studio offers bespoke work from an impressive roster of active contemporary designers. Tell us about the discovery process for finding these designers.
Our contemporary designers for the most part find us. Some are highly developed with 20 or 25 year careers behind them. Others we help edit and focus the work. With a younger artist, we find the best thing that they do, and we concentrate on expanding that, helping them hone their creativity and skill to communicate clearly to our clientele.
Your book, Modern Americana, highlights the exemplary American studio design of the late 20th century. Who are some of the studio artisans that define this post-war period for you?
Modern Americana (2018) covers about 35 studio artisans of custom furniture, decorators, and furniture showrooms. We based our decision on who to include by what garners the most attention by collectors and what brings in the highest prices on the market today. The book begins with studio artisans who make with their own hand, in many different materials, such as Wendell Castle and Michael Coffey on the East Coast and Sam Maloof and Jack Rogers Hopkins on the West Coast. Women makers of the period comprise the next section including Roseanne Somerson, Kristina Madsen and Mira Nakashima. Designers and craftsmen who produced through slightly bigger factory operations are represented by Vladimir Kagan, Charles Hollis Jones, and Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. Then we delve into custom designers like James Mont and decorators like Arthur Elrod and Billy Haines. The new edition also will cover the New York showrooms and department stores that hired designers like Paul Evans and George Nakashima, which in the late 20th century encompassed the nucleus of creativity with their ever-changing displays.
You’ve mentioned contemporary trends in art intertwining with design. Who is doing that particularly well right now?
High-end design is now being shown by major contemporary art galleries. The designers that are represented by Todd Merrill Studio often exist in a gray space between art and design. While their work may be functional or historically based, it also has a fresh perspective and expresses more than just decorative influence. Artists such as Markus Haase, Sophie Coryndon, John Procario, and Marc Fish all produce work within this paradigm and have been sought after by respected museum curators.
What specifically drew you to DECASO?
What drew me to DECASO was the business model that supports the dealers and not one that competes with the dealers.
When and where is the last time a piece of furniture made you stop and stare?
I see fabulous furniture all the time that makes me stop and stare and usually I can’t afford it or it’s not for sale.