BY CYNDY TANNER
STYLING AND INTERIOR DESIGN BY SUSAN M. STELLA
LARRY KELLER of Design Warehouse gets real about interior design
As the world adapts to the pandemic, “shelter in place” has assumed new meaning for all of us. Whether we live in a studio apartment in Brooklyn or a pitched-roof adobe farmhouse in New Mexico, we’ve all been home more than ever. One might assume that such circumstances would curb the enthusiasms of a self-described “extreme, pathetic extrovert,” but such is not the case for Larry Keller, owner of Design Warehouse, a contemporary home furnishing store in Santa Fe. A visual combination of Albert Einstein, Christo, and Pee-wee Herman in a Thom Browne suit, Keller is on the cusp of celebrating 40 years in business, but due to the coronavirus, his shop has been shuttered. Instead, he’s been fielding calls from home, spending high desert mornings thick with the fragrance of lilacs chatting with customers from Palo Alto to Europe, as well as with his colleagues now working remotely. So how did a guy whose passions include art, food, film, and fashion come to own a furniture store? “I love art so much,” Keller says, “but I’m also passionate about the democracy of good design and the accessibility of utilitarian objects that bring people pleasure.” He further muses, “I like to think of a chair as art that you can sit on. And I love the practicality of a French jelly jar glass or the beauty of a perfect kettle. I’m never driven by how many I could sell of something. I’m motivated by the thrill of the hunt for things I love and would have in my own home.” As our own homes have become more lived-in and worked-in than ever, Keller’s mission couldn’t be more important. In the surreal context of this unprecedented communal experience, Keller shares his thoughts.
Q: You had stints working for the Palace of the Governors and New Mexico Magazine. What motivated you to open a housewares store in Santa Fe in 1981?
A: When I was in my 20s, I always equated entrepreneurs with losers—they couldn’t get hired in corporate America, so they had to start something on their own. I soon realized that by owning my own thing I could work hard and vacation hard too. I’m a wanderer and I live to travel—with one carry-on, a fave T-shirt, jeans, and the one book I’m reading.
Q: What drives your creative spirit and continues to inspire you?
A: I’m obsessed by things French and have visited Paris nine times—also Mexico, Japan, Bali, Thailand, England, Spain, Italy, and over one hundred trips to the Big Apple, my favorite place on the planet. Travel inspires me. I’m a good detective and I’m always on the hunt for the cool object.
Q: To quote artist Donald Judd, “It’s hard to find a good lamp.” How would you describe the Design Warehouse aesthetic?
A: I’ve always considered Design Warehouse a design store. Actually, I’m a furniture merchant who doesn’t like furniture stores. Furniture is so important for the business—but so are the smaller items, which I’ve always thought of as low-hanging fruit. Not everyone is in the market for a sofa, but it is lovely when a customer leaves with a bag, or maybe a great bar of soap or a kettle or a cool Noguchi lamp.
Q: Four decades later, what do you still love about your business?
A: I’m probably an extreme extrovert, and every day at Design Warehouse I get to talk about things I’m passionate about, what I call the three Fs: food, film, and fashion. And when my customers insist, furniture. I’m a minimalist at heart. I don’t care for rooms where the furniture overpowers the space and the people. My colleagues in other markets would never touch the brands of Knoll or Herman Miller. They laugh at their thin profit margins for any retailer. But I couldn’t bear not having them in my portfolio. When I go to market in North Carolina and New York, I try to focus on what I’d enjoy and value in my own living room rather than trying to guess what’s going to be a big seller. It’s worked.
Q: What’s the Design Warehouse mantra?
A: Witty windows, cool chairs, great tunes. We want the store to be like singer Sophie Tucker! Sexy, warm, cool, clean. There’s no chrome, no black except for an iconic office chair or two. How does a room give a person pleasure? That’s the question I ask when I source product for the store.
Q: What else might you love to do?
A: I wish I were a painter. I wish I could have been Frank Stella or Marlene Dumas. I love paint on canvas. Oh well, next life.