March 29, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
Eye for design

Robert Chapman
Archer
1027 33rd St. NW
202-640-2823
archermodern.com

Robert Chapman says it’s important to consider how a piece of furniture will fit into your lifestyle before committing to it. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Few things excite Robert Chapman more than clean lines and a well-tailored fit — specifically in mid- 20th century modern furniture. It wasn’t a style he grew up with, says Chapman, 32, but rather something he discovered in his 20s and fell in love with all on his own. As the owner of Archer, a mid-century-inspired design line and same-named store in Georgetown, he brings passion to his work.

Since opening in October, Archer’s expansive, high-ceilinged showroom (on 33rd Street near Cady’s Alley, a D.C. design Mecca) has emerged as a destination for lovers of 20th century design and fine art. Its white walls and pale hard wood floors serve as a neutral backdrop for groupings of sleek low couches, unfussy tables and outsized lighting features — think Rob and Laurie Petrie’s (“Dick Van Dyke Show”) iconic living room only more minimal. Offerings include modern design both new and vintage, and a selection of museum quality paintings by artists like Gene Davis from Washington’s important Color Field movement.

Admittedly, Chapman has expensive taste.

“Beautiful things do not come cheap, but the price is also commensurate with the quality,” he says. “Everything is handcrafted and built to last a lifetime. Almost everything is made to order. Nothing is click and ship.”  The upscale Archer experience belies the humble beginnings of Chapman’s career.

When Chapman was 22 (not long after he graduated from Virginia’s Longwood University with a degree in business), his grandmother died. Rather than hold a traditional estate sale, he sold her things on eBay. During the process, Chapman discovered it wasn’t his grandmother’s Greek and Asian antiques that fired his imagination, but rather the orange and teak mid-century items that other vendors were selling.

Pretty quickly he found a niche for himself facilitating eBay sales for antiques dealers in the Northern Virginia area. Eventually he opened his own showroom, Modernicus, in a funky antiques mall outside the Beltway in Alexandria. What he didn’t learn selling online, he learned here. After four years, Chapman decided to relocate and go high end, to exclusively sell the things he loves. His real estate broker suggested a move to his present location, an area popular with architects, interior designers, design stores and perhaps most importantly, customers with deep pockets.

When Archer opened last fall, Chapman had already begun designing furniture. While some people are born with an eye to design, Chapman says he wasn’t. Frequently re-arranging Modernicus’ showroom gave him a sense of proportion, scale and what works. He found inspiration in the work of mid-century industrial designer Dieter Rams and architect Mies van der Rohe; and slowly but surely developed his own aesthetic, simple and elegant. Currently, he’s into blackened metal. “My design work gives me an opportunity to be creative, but it’s very much a business too. The bohemian life of an artist isn’t for me. I like to have the money to afford the things I want.”

Chapman may have had to train his design eye, but he was born a salesman: “My mother still razzes me about how I once sold a neighborhood kid a length of garden hose as a musical instrument for five dollars.”

Since then, (we’re glad to know) his sales approach has changed. Chapman is exceedingly knowledgeable, self-possessed but not aggressive, and above all honest.

“I want my clients to be happy and to get something they can live with forever. Prior to a purchase, I like to discuss how it fits into their lives. A white chaise may not be the best thing for a house filled with kids.”

Next month, Archer (among others) sponsors the 2012 Hollin Hills House + Garden Tour (hollinhills.net) to take place on April 28. Located in Alexandria, Hollin Hills is a leafy neighborhood comprised of classic mid-century homes designed by renowned mid-century architect Charles M. Goodman. Chapman grew up in the area and still lives nearby, splitting time between his place and his partner’s condo on D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront.

As a kid in Alexandria, Chapman and a buddy regularly trolled local yard sales and canvassed the neighborhood on trash day looking for toys and cool junk that had been put out at the curb. He loved the treasure hunt. He still does. “There’s a thrill in finding something desirable that someone else didn’t want. Whether you keep it for yourself or sell it to an appreciative client makes no difference. It’s finding that beautiful thing that matters.”

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