Steven Ortego is no stranger to Charleston, but he is celebrating a new chapter in the Lowcountry. He and his team have launched a 4,000-square-foot showroom on West Montague Avenue full of modern furniture sourced from American-made and European brands. At Iola Modern, shoppers can choose from a wide assortment of high-end modern furniture for every room inside and outside the home.
Iola Modern previously lived in a much smaller, 800-square-foot shop on the opposite end of Montague Avenue. With the new, much larger space, Iola stocks a full range of indoor and outdoor furniture for customers to try out in real time. “We served more as a design shop in our smaller store but grew the business and the space as our customers’ needs grew,” Ortego says. “In such a large showroom, it’s easier to see and touch a lot more products and not rely on the internet, catalogs and samples.”
Iola Modern serves customers in three ways: as a showroom selling globally sourced modern furniture brands, as a trade resource for interior designers and architects, and as a full-service design firm for homeowners and businesses.
While Charleston historically leans traditional because of its rich historic heritage, in recent years, buyer tastes have shifted to a more clean-lined aesthetic. Iola meets the increased interest in modern design home furnishings with an expansive resource to shop, touch, try and experience its livability.
Iola Modern changes the furniture landscape in the Lowcountry with its extensive showroom. While there are plenty of pieces ready to go to a new home straight off the showroom floor, Iola Modern also offers custom and semi-custom options. Customers choose the fabric or leather, wood species, finish and color to customize the piece for their homes.
The ability to customize furniture is particularly exciting for interior designers. The showroom’s to-the-trade program provides invitation-only learning events promoted to those registered with the store’s trade program; sign-up is on its website. A recent event, for example, brought in the CEO of Italian furniture manufacturer Kartell.
Ortego’s background plays an instrumental role in Iola Modern’s success. His great-grandmother, Iola, who is the store’s namesake, introduced him to the mid-century modern aesthetic with her home. Future generations of the family produced interior designers and an architect. Ortego studied interior design in New Orleans and managed showrooms for modern retailer Design Within Reach and managed sales for Italian housewares brand Alessi before opening Iola Modern. At Iola, he assembled a team of experts who specialize in design for multifamily developments; hospitality businesses, such as restaurants; offices; custom cabinetry and closets; and single-family homes. “Together we make a well-rounded team, representing a range of ages, specializations and design ideas,” Ortego says.
Ortego establishes and cultivates relationships with modern furniture manufacturers to ensure the showroom is well stocked. His vetted suppliers each have a unique story to tell through their furniture creations. American Leather, headquartered in Dallas, provides a lifetime warranty on the frames and suspensions of its custom-built furniture, which it makes to order in just 30 days. This speedy process (most custom orders take about three months to make) differentiates the brand from other makers.
Copeland Furniture manufactures heirloom-quality wooden furniture from its factory in Vermont. It crafts transitional furniture from sustainable Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood that can be traced back to its original source.
Minnesota-based Loll Designs manufactures all-weather outdoor furniture built from partially recycled milk cartons. Its furniture is laser-cut from large sheets, with every piece numbered so parts can be replaced without purchasing an entirely new piece of furniture.
“We send staff to these facilities to spend time on the manufacturing floor making furniture. It’s an education that makes us better designers,” says Ortego. “We travel the world visiting international furniture fairs and trade shows to stay current in design, and we have forged relationships with the best design manufacturers globally to bring their products and knowledge back to the Lowcountry.”
In addition to American manufacturers, Iola Modern carries modern furniture from Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain and Denmark. The showroom features shops within a shop, one of which showcases Kartell, an Italian brand with a long heritage in original furniture design that uses advanced technology. Homeowners may equate the high-end brand with its most famous acrylic chair, the Louis Ghost chair, which Iola Modern stocks in the showroom. “We hang our hat on the quality and originality of our manufacturing partners,” says Ortego.
A second shop within a shop highlights Blu Dot, a design-manufacturer of accessibly priced modern furniture typically sold through Blu Dot retail stores in larger metropolitan areas. As a “Dot Spot,” Iola Modern introduces an array of furniture options to Charleston, the only location in South Carolina where shoppers can find Blu Dot’s products.
Authentic Danish modern design pulls together the best of both worlds in form and functionality. Iola Modern includes two Scandinavian brands that are particularly exciting: Gubi and Normann Copenhagen. Gubi is a global design house that pulls from historical archives to bring authentic, original and iconic designs back into production by purchasing rights to those designs from family foundations and institutions. It then charges its designers with producing new and original designs fitting for today’s homes. Normann Copenhagen works in the “resimercial” space, building products durable enough to stand up to high-traffic commercial spaces, such as hotel lobbies and airport lounges, but designed with a residential aesthetic.
Walking through the showroom, shoppers can visualize the furniture in their homes by seeing vignettes and themes set up to make the shopping experience easier and more interesting. Whether a homeowner’s taste is urban modern or coastal contemporary, Iola Modern’s user-friendly showroom brings design concepts to life.
Although the showroom specializes in carrying modern furniture, Iola Modern’s designers are well versed in blending traditional and modern styles for a more transitional look. “It’s easy for us to add a modern piece or two into a traditionally styled home,” says Ortego. “A well-balanced home doesn’t have to go in one design direction. We help our customers shape their homes to reflect their own personalities.” *
Dana W. Todd is a professional writer specializing in interior design, real estate, luxury homebuilding, landscape design, architecture and art.