Apartment Therapy Design Evenings: Leigh Keno & Leslie Keno

Apartment Therapy Design Evenings: Leigh Keno & Leslie Keno

Aaron Able
Mar 16, 2011

• What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
• March Guests: Leigh & Leslie Keno — American antiques experts
• Apartment Therapy Design Evenings: Meetup
• Attendance: 180+


MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: One product designer and one interior designer: two very different sets of skills.

Steve Jensen

I am a product designer wanna be if you will. I want to present to you a light sculpture that I have created called LiteStix. Essentially it's a glass bowl on a pedestal and it has machined aluminum rods that have a light bulb in them. When you lay the rods inside the bowl they light up and when you take them out they go out.

It uses low voltage so that you don't get electrocuted and you can take rods out to dim the light and put more rods in to make it brighter. This gives it a fun, interactive element.

My inspiration was my background as an electrical engineer: I lived in Japan working there for a while and one day I was sitting contemplating my yaki-udon with the chopsticks sitting in it, the idea popped into my head to design a light based on this inspiration.

It took me several months to experiment with different materials and techniques until I was satisfied with the way it came out. Since then I've made many versions of them in different sizes, different bowls, a stick with a red bulb, etc. I haven't sold them yet, I've just been giving them away as gifts and donated a few to charity, so this is really their public debut and I hope you enjoy them.

Karen Wolf

It's an honor to be here. My company is Btween Spaces Design. I submitted photos that I felt were really relevant and reflective of my work and theories as a designer, which is a lot of design digging and design therapy.
We started with a pretty empty space in a 1950s split level and my client was going through a very demoralizing and difficult time of her life.

So, if we go to the end result in the 'After' Photos you can see that I was creating a space for her that really represented a new chapter of her life. She was looking for a refuge and a sanctuary to live in. Unlike most clients in the suburbs, who want to add, add, add, she wanted to de-layer, de-clutter and them rebuild her life, so this room was a rebuilding. The thing I am proud about in this particular situation was that she had a $1,200 budget. I had to overcome a budget. Her situation involved a lot of listening, therapy and getting involved in the emotional aspect of her life at the time. But, I also had to sell her on the big idea, which was to create a focal point in the room — which had none — and I sold her on a fireplace. Most people go to Sparks Fires — way too expensive and out of her budget. So I became a distributor for Regency Fireplaces — that's what I do, If I can't find something that's within my client's budget, I will go straight to the source in order to get them what they want within their budget.

I broke the room into two spaces: the lounge area in the front where she had her TV, and then the back area, which was by the fireplace — more for the quieter seating. The whole idea was that it could be interchangeable. She only wanted white, so that is why the color palette is mainly white and black. Now that she is getting over her break-up, we can add a bit of color! So, I started adding lavendar. We put in some custom pillows made from fabric that I found in Mood Fabrics. We're adding but we're not going to get too cluttered! Shades are from Delia Shades. They were custom and something that isn't seen that often in South Orange, New Jersey.

Leigh Keno & Leslie Keno

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: It's hard enough to give an introduction for one Keno brother let alone two Keno Brothers, so bear with me!

The Keno Brothers, who are twins, have been interested in beautiful and rare Americana for more than thirty years. Leigh and Leslie Keno are considered foremost experts on antiques. As appraisers on the PBS Emmy nominated hit, Antiques Roadshow, they have become celebrities beyond the refined world of art and Americana.

Leigh Keno currently runs Keno Auctions in New York City. Prior to Keno Auctions, Leigh owned and operated Leigh Keno American Antiques where he sold an astounding variety of American furniture, folk art and paintings. Leigh has helped to build some of the best private and institutional collections in the world.

Leslie Keno is Senior Vice President and Director of American Furniture and Decorative Arts at Sotheby's in New York. During his tenure of nearly 26 years at Sotheby's, Leslie has been directly responsible for numerous record-breaking sales of Americana, including the sale of the Nicholas Brown tea table attributed to John Goddard. Estimated at $2 million to $5 million, the table achieved a spectacular $8.4 million price — a new auction record for any table and the second-highest price for American furniture.

Leigh and Leslie have also published extensively within the antique world, in addition to popular magazines and journals. The Keno brothers also authored Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture (our giveaway tonight!!). Beginning in 2001, they wrote monthly furniture and design columns for House Beautiful and This Old House magazines and are currently Editors at Large for Traditional Home magazine for which they write a monthly column. In 2005, the President awarded both Leigh and Leslie with the National Humanities Medal.

Most recently, in 2011, the Keno brothers have unveiled their new vintage-inspired urban furniture line produced by Theodore Alexander. They have gone full circle, from studying these designs for many years to creating their own! I am delighted to present to you Leigh Keno and Leslie Keno!

KENO BROTHERS:: Thank you Maxwell for that lovely introduction.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: I know tonight is all about your new furniture line, but I want to take a few moments to discuss everything before that. We had breakfast on Tuesday and it was one of the best breakfasts I've ever had, I learned so much.

KENO BROTHERS: And you paid!

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So, you've been working with antiques from such a young age. I know you are from upstate New York, how did you become interested in antiques?

KENO BROTHERS: We grew up way upstate, about five hours away, and we had a 1810 homestead on our property, so from this old refuse pit we dug treasures up from the ground — iron blacksmith hinges, blown bottles etc. We got so fascinated by the craftsmanship side of life, we actually tried to make these pieces!

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: But other kids weren't doing this, were they?

KENO BROTHERS: We were doing regular stuff too, but we were eccentric because we were crazy about antiques.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So, your father was a collector?

KENO BROTHERS: Our mom and dad were dealers upstate, and our dad is still a dealer, he's 82 going on 35 and they really inspired us.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So you were telling me that your dad would pull up on the side of the road and tell you to look out the window — tell us about that.

KENO BROTHERS: Dad used to pull over when he'd see guys working on a house. He'd go up to someone who was working on the site — someone he'd never met — take a cigarette out of the guy's pocket, light it up and say "Tell me about the building." He'd talk about the gothic form and columns. We were 10 years old. He taught us to look and notice all the details. So, we did the same — we'd see people and knock on the door and say: "do you have any antiques?" You can get away with anything when you're a kid. When youre our age…not so much.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: And you started to not only collect but actually research things as teens…

KENO BROTHERS: We loved S-shaped stoneware, local clay mixed with Manhattan pottery, furniture lines today have the same lines. S-shaped lines lead the eye into quality. We'd hold the pottery and feel the textures after dinner, pottery made on a turn wheel in 1820, and we'd feel them.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: OK, so after the studying of S-shaped curves, you guys were terrors in college.

KENO BROTHERS: Yes! Girls are much nicer to hold!

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: You both went to different Colleges, Hamilton and Williams. After you graduated, you went to work at different places as well. Leigh you went to Doyle and Leslie you went to Sotheby's.You're generalists in terms of the breadth of things you are interested in and like to collect, but now you're specialists in the Queen Anne period. Why is it so special?

KENO BROTHERS: We always loved the S-shaped curve. It's the shape of a lady's back, we love that line. In our field, Queen Anne is the most sought after period. We love that style, asymmetry, beautiful lines that you find in the 1740s -1780s. Then it became neoclassical and rectilinear. Curvy has always taken $7-$8 million table at auctions. You want to touch these pieces because they have a soul.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Recent arrivals to colonies brought skills from Europe, small groups made remarkable products using their great craftsmanship skills.

KENO BROTHERS: Yes, they came to the new world and made furniture for the new world and for all the different groups. Each had their own style.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Queen Anne refers to all periods, if all the styles were different, Why concentrate on Queen Anne?

KENO BROTHERS: It's a slang term — it's named after the style Queen Anne employed during her reign.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Not surprisingly, you were good on a PBS TV show. They'd show you stuff ahead of time. You had an hour to figure out the history of a piece. 30 people showed up to the first show. Tell us about that.

KENO BROTHERS: We loved the show. Our first show was in Massachusetts in 1996. One person showed up with an antique piece and everyone clamored for that one person. "Come to my table! No come to my table!" We filmed all summer and it aired nationally. Next season we were in Pittsburg. I looked out my hotel window at 7am and I was shocked. I called my brother, who was staying at a neighboring room, and said "There are thousands of people outside!" 11,000 people showed up. We had 65 appraisers.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Aside from the TV element, do you think this speaks to people being more interested in design?

KENO BROTHERS: The show certainly helped. It caused people to look in their pantries to see what kind of hidden goodies they had lying around.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Do you find that most people are interested in the history of what they have — or how much the pieces are worth?

KENO BROTHERS: Some people want to know the history but not the price. They want the story because to them, the pieces are priceless sentimentally.

We were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a woman brought in an armadillo shell. We looked at it for a bit before we noticed the tail was the handle and it was shaped like a basket. Inside was pink satin with lace&heliip;it was actually a bassinette. The claws were coming over the edge, the baby was in full view of that. She said it was her grandmother's. I asked her "How is your grandmother?" and she replied: "She's kind of eccentric". We appraised it for $250.

One guy waited in line for 6 hours and showed us a bar of soap. I was a little taken aback by it so I asked: "Do you have anything else?" "Nope, just the bar of soap." So I looked it over and said: "OK, well it's rectangular, I see it's wrapped. It has a hotel's name…" The guy had a hopeful face after I told him all of this. It was a very good bar of soap. He asked me if I had any advice and I told him "Whatever you do…don't unwrap it! Right now it's worth 50 cents but if you unwrap it, it'll be less."

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: I went to Highpoint last year. I encourage you all to go. The city is fairly dormant all year but comes to life twice a year. All the buildings light up with hundreds of furniture sellers. You both went and told me you were amazed to see reproductions of really famous antiques. You were also amazed by the craftsmanship of the pieces and it gave you the idea of a furniture line.

KENO BROTHERS: Thanks to Emily, We walked into a booth and saw a Nicholas Brown tea table from Theodore Alexander's replica line. We couldn't believe it! The craftsmanship was wonderful! We saw another table at the show, and we'd seen the original in Argentina.

As much as we love what we we've studied, we'd like to make changes for today's person.

We love simple, clean lines and great quality. Harvey Dondero, (CEO of Theodore Alexander) set up a meeting with us. He said he wanted us to design this line. We think he expected a line of Chippendale furniture. We sent him sketches of our first pieces…he was shocked with a WOW!

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: You didn't design a normal collection with tables and chairs that matched.

KENO BROTHERS: Our idea was to have furniture that could stand alone and be works of art and an heirloom. In the era of disposable furniture, we wanted to make things that really last. We'd like our stuff to show up at the Antique Roadshow with a faded picture and a note saying: "these guys made it".

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: OK — let's see some photos of your line!


KENO BROTHERS: We love, love, love this chair! Our signature chair, we call this The Slope. We love furniture that's organic. We chose to make the chair that's visually integrated. It's made of hard pieces of solid wood. Our grandfather would make these wild wood canes, carved of wood. All the joints of the chair are transitions. There are no abrupt curves, it's all curves but also tubular and organic — like a growing tree. The seat bumps up so you don't slide off. The back has the rattan, for circulation. The profile has that s-curve on the arms. It feels so good to sit in. You just rub the arm you can't help yourself. I was talking to a woman at a show and telling her to sit in the chair. Her husband was starting to get jealous because she kept touching the wood. I could see the newspaper headlines "Man gets jealous of chair". We just wanted to make an organic chair that's comfortable. We spent our careers trying to decide what is good, better, best and masterpiece. We strive to make things on a scale of 10 or 11. Craftsmanship is key! It's the reason we're working with Alexander Theodore. We're very proud of the chair. It's made of mahogany.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Leigh and Leslie, we have to look at the other furniture!

KENO BROTHERS: This piece has the s-curve shown through all of our work. We wish we had a rotating platform. It looks interesting from every angle.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Is there an inspiration with this piece?

KENO BROTHERS: We love 20th century work. The studio craftsmanship is amazing. It's totally finished underneath. We believe in sculpture. We love furniture and we take it seriously.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: This coffee table up here…

KENO BROTHERS: We call this Fine Points. Everyday we look at Queen Anne and Chippendale pieces. We look at the curves. Energy and life is what the table is about. We feel like it's going to dance away. Look at these curves, it's going to hop away. The inlay and veneer on the end are like matching pinstripes on a suit. We want you to touch our furniture. The sides of the legs are concave. Touch it — it's like a contact lens. We saw it as a prototype before it was stained and said: "leave it! Don't stain it." There's also a darker version available.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: All these pieces stand alone. They don't need to match.

KENO BROTHERS: Each piece stands alone we don't like the idea of a matching room. It's obsolete.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: In a nice way, you're comfortable with someone taking an existing chair and putting it with your desk.

KENO BROTHERS: Yes, but, that said, I think this would go great with the slope chair we just saw! We love 20th century design. We collect work by Carlo Molino, racecar driver and Italian designer, we're inspired by Italian design. Rosewood on top and the base…the great thing about Molino is they have their own factory. 360 people love what they do (at the factory). The legs are cast from molds, they're wavy, a little bumpy, and each one is a little different. It's all hand done.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: You start with a drawing then you go to the factory. You say, a little more here, a little more there and you wake up and it's done?

KENO BROTHERS: The cast foot on a piece needed some changes in the arches. The next day by 3pm we had a still-warm cast in our hands from the factory. We've always seen chairs and thought: "the top is too tall" or we wish the seat were thicker. We have the same tastes and ideas. Now we can make our own versions. We both love this stuff so much! This furniture has brought us together.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: It's like the Rolling Stones got together and toured again.

KENO BROTHERS: We love S-shaped curves. We've been honored and privileged to handle Bombay furniture in Boston. We set records for $3 million and $5 million. The reason is craftsmanship. We designed Bombay chest of drawers with dovetailed joints. The sizes of some are exposed at the top. Marble Sapele is the wood. The back pane is very sturdy. We love the flair on the foot.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: When we had breakfast, I asked them if at any time during college did they get a call from the other saying: "I'm not into antiques anymore". Both said, never happened.

KENO BROTHERS: The panels rotate. You can leave them open or closed. Use it to divide space. We used peeled back sycamore so it's striped. One side is light vanilla and the other side is dark. The veneers are book matched. The quality and precision in veneers is amazing.

KENO BROTHERS: We took the idea of bending wood and designed a piece made of incredible Japanese Tamara Wood. The cabinet is the 2nd reproduction. The bottom is about 5 inches thick and the top is about ½ inch thick. The complete piece is torqued.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: How many pieces have been made?

KENO BROTHERS: About 80 pieces have been and we're launching 20 at Highpoint this year. We did a 21st century piece inspired by 18th century zigzag marketry, that was inspired by 17th century Paris. Workmanship and time spent is just as good inside the piece. The drawer is also zigzag. Cast brass handle in diamond pattern dances.

KENO BROTHERS:The screen side looks like a seagull in flight. The wood moves off like a continuous waterfall. We loved its tubular shape — another great thing about Theodore Alexander. The console table is being made in the same model.


Q: The brass that you used on the table legs, are you concerned that it may become outdated?

KENO BROTHERS: In terms of brass, metals have really toned down. That's the brightest we have. Most of our things are darkened. We thought it contrasted with the rosewood. We think it will last for centuries and could be handed down for generations.

Q: Congratulations on the amazing line. I love it! I admire your talent. You mentioned no pain, no gain. Through all the designing, what has been your biggest pain?

KENO BROTHERS: Trying to get the kids to bed. One is 9 years old, the other is 14, so that's a task, while trying to get the designs off to the design center and getting up for work the next day. We're workaholics. It's the biggest pain — but also our passion.

Q: You have started your signature furniture line. It seems like your inspiration of everything has been the past, any hopes or inspiration to grow the line into different lines? A modern line, reflective of something everyone can access? And will the line reflect the way the industry is going?

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: You mean accessibility based on price and a more modern look? OK do you guys want to answer that?

KENO BROTHERS: We don't try for any kind of look, it just happens. We don't want to do a line where everything goes together.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So the main thing is you're not interested in throwaways.

KENO BROTHERS: No. We want something of permanence, things that will be heirlooms.

Q: In the 90's in Massachusetts, I became a hobbyist. I found that at roadshows, people came without thinking their things were worth monkey. Now it's a completely different story. How did you impact the antique market or did you take it all by storm?

KENO BROTHERS: We have a new show coming out. We can't talk about it but you will be hearing a lot about it soon. But 15 years ago it was just the Roadshow. We'd talk to dealers and they'd say: "hey you're ruining my business. People can now guess how much their things are worth." They think they have a $20,000 vase and they really have something worth half that. Fast-forward to today and it's everywhere. We're helping families. Viewers now have the knowledge. They're trying to buy things with the knowledge gained from the Roadshow. It's good that they have the education.

Q: Has Theodore Alexander given you a blank slate as far as design or is it market driven? Encouraging you to design items that can be sold in a certain market place?

KENO BROTHERS: No. That's one of the great things about T.A. Our first lunch was with the CEO, Harvey and he told us our only limitation was our imagination. We could do anything we wanted to do. You name the desired material and we'll do whatever you want.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: There must have been a limit…

KENO BROTHERS: The only limit was the price.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Was there anything you couldn't do? Price points you couldn't go over? Materials you couldn't use?

KENO BROTHERS: Amazingly no. Probably if we liked fancy things, like malachite or gold, which we don't like. But to answer the question, no.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So there were no limitations.

KENO BROTHERS: We wanted the price point to be affordable.

Q: The Queen Anne period is also in the most sought after era in the UK, the most special, the most beautiful and the shortest period. You were the first Americans I've heard mention it in the 18th century. It's brilliant!

KENO BROTHERS: All of the inspirations were from England. They changed it when they got to America.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: What I liked so much about meeting you was that you told a story about meeting Ms. Whitney. She told a story about designing a room in her own home…

KENO BROTHERS: Mrs. Whitney actually designed all the rooms in her home. She had fabulous things in there. Degas, Cezanne, you name it. I told her: "you have such an amazing home". She said "Oh, thank you. I did it all myself." I said "really? What's your secret?" "She said, Leigh, the secret is to put one ugly thing in every room!" I looked back and it hit me. She had incredible things but one bad thing, for example a bad lamp, in every room!

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Everyone in the audience, you are welcome to join us on the 5th floor. The Keno brothers have their furniture line on display.Thank you so much for coming!

Thank you Leigh & Leslie!

Congratulations to the evening's winner of Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture.

• Special thanks to our volunteers Georgie Hambright, and Kortnee McClendon!

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!

Images: Herma Ryan, Theodore Alexander

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