What occupies ones’ space is a reflection of their stories and interests as much as their creative pursuits. Julia Johnson, the curator behind Le Centerpiece, provides her clientele with new perspectives to decorate their homes, while staying grounded to ideas of ease and comfort and individuality.
Where are you from, and how would you describe your upbringing?
I lived most of my life in a small town west of the island called St. Lazare. It’s a very family-oriented community city and more in nature. I lived there for a number of years, but I moved to BC for a year. I felt a bit out of place at the town where I grew up. I went to a boarding school, and I met a lot of people there from Montreal. So I would often take visits to the city. My parents and friends used to always make fun of me for living out of my trunk– I had a wardrobe in my car and I would be going from one friend’s house to another until I settled in the city.
What were you doing in BC?
My dad got transferred there for work and we lived in Victoria. I wish we stayed; life seems much calmer there.
Small town living. I’ve definitely been around a lot of vintage designer furniture stores in BC and the spaces are so small; I walk into here and I’m stunned.
Really? It’s so funny because three weeks ago, my boyfriend and I went to New York. There’s a lot of stores that I follow even before I started Le Centerpiece and it’s bizarre how Instagram creates this different perspective. Once you actually get there physically you see the space is tiny, or the photos of the furniture are not representative of the truth. I guess that sums up how Instagram is like for everything, though.
Something I’ve noticed in particular about Montreal is that there’s such a large community of small businesses compared to other cities. I don’t know if it’s the zoning laws or how much commercial real estate costs, or the cost of living. It just seems to have more proliferation. The only things that seem to easily exist in other cities are big chain stores.
I feel like here, there’s also the language laws and barriers that prevent bigger companies from wanting to come here. They’d have to change all their product descriptions and names to primarily French. That could also be a contributing factor. It can be both a bad or a good thing, I imagine.
Were you always interested in furniture or design when you were young?
Not at all. I was interested in fashion first. I ended up going to school in graphic design, however. I never had real interest in furniture early on. But then during COVID, I separated from a long-term boyfriend and got my own apartment. I didn’t have a huge budget to buy furniture so I started to look on Facebook Marketplace and was able to find some really great things. It gave me the same kind of high as I would get designer bags or clothing for a steal. I’d always been thrifting or looking online to find deals. So when I realized it gave me that same sort of rush, that something going for twenty dollars could resell for two thousand dollars, it became fun! But that’s not to mention I also really enjoyed the research process of finding information about a particular piece.
I can totally relate. During COVID, I did that same deep dive on Facebook Marketplace as well to furnish a new apartment. It’s interesting that you talk about how graphic design got you into furniture and physical objects– whereas graphic design is thought of now as more digital.
I don’t think I realized it then when I was going through my degree, but I found out later that skillset could be translatable. I look at structure and placement. When you make a book– within a layout, things have to align and objects have to be pleasing to the eye. I find when I’m building a collection, that all makes sense.
I got into photography for one because my memory is so poor– but also for another reason: it’s because when I’m composing a photograph, it feels like I’m trying to arrange a puzzle. I find that really enjoyable. If my math grades were better maybe I’d like to have been an architect.
I’m going to tell that to my friends the next time I take photos of them. They always yell at me like, “stop taking pictures!” But yes, I agree and I thought of taking up architecture as well. I wasn’t very good at math either. Had a tutor and everything.
On that subject, what did you envision yourself doing as an adult when you were a kid?
I wanted to be an actress. Very non-related, but I guess it was that I watched too much TV. I found it fascinating how someone could be a different character, a different persona.
Maybe there’s a bit of overlap, though. You have to surely deal with clients all the time. Being an actor definitely requires a lot of social skills.
I worked in sales for seven years which comes in handy in this domain. And my style is forever changing, and maybe that’s the actress in me, being a chameleon. The showroom always looks different every time I get new furniture. It didn’t look like this a month ago. Right now I’m more into woods and warm tones.
What was the inspiration behind starting Le Centerpiece?
The name came from when I bought this Soriana style pouf chair from Reixue, a store which sadly closed. And that was the centre of my apartment. I had to have it in the space and decided to design the interior to match the chair. That was the centrepiece of the apartment. I believe it’s easier to design a space around a single object. You have a blank canvas, and then you have one thing and you have everything else orbit around it.
Do you find it tempting to keep some things that you acquire?
When I first started, my old partner, she would explain to me “You have to get rid of this right now. You have to let go.” I would exclaim, “Oh no, you can’t sell this right now. We’ll put in the next collection.” And the next collection would come along, and she would ask to put the item in it. I’d try to refuse. I get too attached to certain objects. That wavy glass console, for example, we’ve had since the beginning and I can’t sell it. There’s also the black Togo in the front that Viktor (the dog) often sits on too. Other than that, I’ve said goodbye to everything else. And I don’t have a huge apartment, so I couldn’t say I’d just bring something home.
How do you go about curating what’s for sale?
It’s not necessarily it being a designer or brand when I look for an item. It’s just what we like, and what we’d want in our homes. If it’s unique, different. There’s a fine line between things looking tacky and cheap to being unique, though. It’s just a feeling. If I like it, I buy it. But to create the different collections, I like to mix different styles that people wouldn’t necessarily think fit well together. When pieces are put in a collection, it helps the customer see things in a different light instead of just the image of the furniture alone. A lot of people have said to me that they like how that works– if you’re not into design or you’re just starting out with a new home, it can be hard to visualize how you want your space to look.
There’s been a big trend the past few years with midcentury modern design. Keywords like “MCM” or “Danish Teak” always attract people. What do you think is so captivating about that specific time period of furniture and objects?
The simplicity. And its functionality. I find that era, the Scandy style as well, is super functional. Clean lines, classic, timeless. It goes with any style of home. I’ve been mixing lots of wood lately in the latest collection and it brings a lot of life and welcoming. We didn’t have a lot of wood pieces in the beginning. It was very sixties mod. I like how things are evolving to where there are those pieces, but other styles as well. It broadens the customer base and shows them how to mix and match, as I was saying before.
There’s a lot of items considered MCM which have become so popular and prices have risen. It’s become so hard to find them on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist as well.
It’s impossible now! There’s tons of stores in Montreal that have that style though, and they’ve been open for years. I try not to get too much into that style. I like the functional aspects of them, like teak bookshelves but I want to find some things are a bit more rare and have a bit of a twist. As I say while sitting on seven Togos. Everyone says they’re tired of them but I’m not! This is a first edition with tags.
So I guess a lot of your knowledge about furniture and design is self-taught?
Yeah, it was just finding things and doing some research on what things were. At the beginning of COVID, it was possible to find so many great things for great prices. Lots of vintage furniture stores opened during that time. People were trapped in their home and they wanted to make things to their liking, spending money on redecorating. I find in the past year and a half people research more and now really know the value of things– so it’s much more difficult. Some people call this some form of gentrification but I disagree. There’s so much that goes into the business after we go into and pick it up.
There’s also resale culture just being like that all across the board for every sort of product. You can even say to a lesser degree, ticket scalping. What are some other challenges you’ve faced with the business since the consumer base is so much more educated?
Well, we’ve grown a name and people have started to write to us about consignment. Collectors as well want to get rid of their things. Finding pieces at auctions and estate sales for fair prices, outside of online platforms. That’s where research really comes in handy. There’s also more prevalence with replicas. I remember also we went to this house in Westmount, and I realized everything was replicas. I was shocked! The plants were even fake. The replicas were being sold for the price of originals too… even though some details were off about the pieces. It was ridiculous.
Wow, that’s hard to believe. Has anything ever come through here as a replica?
Yeah. We brought it here and realized it was a replica. But we wouldn’t sell it here, we would sell it back on Facebook Marketplace for the price we bought it as.
So that really matters to you… the authenticity of it?
I would say so. We’ve had some things that were derivatives or in the style of, but direct replicas I’m not a fan of. I’d rather have the real deal. Or have something that is unique on its own that isn’t necessarily designer. We’ve had a Barcelona daybed replica, but it was so well done, the leather quality was immaculate. We had to include it in a collection, even though it wasn’t authentic. I think that is what matters more– the craftsmanship above all.
Quality and a sense of originality, then. That’s all fair, but to bring it back to something personal, what do you think is important in a sense of home?
Comfort; I like walking into a space and feeling a sense of calm. An ease. Friends and family being able to have dinner, or not afraid of stepping on eggshells trying to navigate the space. I moved recently into an apartment and the floors are a dark slate– it can seem very dark, and it’s been difficult to make it feel comfortable in my eyes but I recently had a friend compliment the space as cozy.
I recently stayed with a friend in New York, and she had recently acquired this gorgeous couch with a white boucle wool and I was so afraid to stain it. It’s just so funny how certain objects are meant to look welcoming but do the complete opposite.
Trust me, I love things that look great and there’s no other purpose to it. But to an apartment and a home, I find that functionality and comfort has to have a balance. Unless there’s a room that nobody uses and it’s just for display.
Growing up for me, with a suburban Asian immigrant experience is that there’s a living room to look at, for display, and one to actually sit in.
It was the same for me! What was the purpose of that room?
I don’t know, maybe that’s a relic of a bygone era. Maybe people can’t buy homes with that sort of space anymore. Perhaps our generation doesn’t care as much about appearances and we just want everyone to feel comfortable.
Maybe us millennials are over that whole movement of trend to seem in tune with what’s fleeting. People would rather like to show their personality through what they wear and what occupies their homes. They’d rather have something unique and true to their identity. When you buy new from big-name furniture brands, there’s also this aspect of having to wait six weeks at least to get your couch. At least with vintage, you’ll at least know you get something different and for a possible bargain. It’s also so fun to think of how much life an older item has gone through. What did the people that sat there think about. Did they have kids? What stories occupied those objects?
Furniture is definitely a privilege to have, and I think it’s really humanistic to think of what an object has been through, where it’s been.
Definitely. Even when we go to pick up pieces, it’s funny to see the pictures online and imagine. It’s always a surprise.
Going back to that idea of place in mind, a lot of books you have for sale seem to focus on architectural design. With that idea of thoughtful design in a place, are there any destinations that have inspired you?
I went to Mexico City in April. It was one of the most inspiring trips I’ve taken in a long time. The way they use natural materials for everything– a lot of design there is with that in mind. The whole ethos of the city, how things were handmade from the big to the small– like this teapot on display here that was hand-crafted. Not one looks the same even if it was fired in a batch.
Did that inspire other things that you’ve been working on for the store?
Those little wooden stools in the front there, I’ve been meaning to create for a while. The trip pushed me to actualize the idea. I found a woodworker here in Canada that uses all reclaimed wood which fits well with my principles– vintage and repurposing, reusing. That’s been around since I started making these marble cubes. My boyfriend’s family are in the tiling business, and we’d use the leftover scrap pieces to make them. That’s a big element I’d like to keep moving forward if I’m to continue making more furniture, and keep it local.
That’s really nice to consider. I have a lot of friends that have gone into fashion design and become disillusioned with in how the world doesn’t need more waste. Some of them moved onto other things, like in environmental preservation, but what you just said in using material that was meant to be waste in the first place, is very important.
Yeah, I mean how many times have I been driving and seen furniture on the side of the road, you know?
I heard there’s some great things to find in Outremont during moving days on the 1st of the summer months.
I found really great orange foam chairs at night and I threw them in the back of my boyfriends’ pickup, thinking I found some nice pieces to sell but they were ultimately unrepairable. That’s a bit of a sad story but I like that there’s a possibility that there can be new life given to old items, always.
What are some other aspirations that you’d like to move forward with, personally or professionally?
International shipping. I think it’ll open a lot of doors and opportunities with different brands and people. We have a lot of customers in Europe… it’s expensive because furniture is so bulky. I’d just like to build a broader audience. We also have non-vintage items we’d like to promote further. They fit very well with the older designer items. I have a million other ideas, especially for more original designs. I just have to take it one step at a time.
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