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Capital Assets

DC design pioneer Deborah Kalkstein is refining the tastes of Washingtonians with her contemporary approach to interiors.

Story. Jacqueline Khiu
Photography. Anton+Prehn

"When I moved to Washington 17 years ago, there was hardly anything here.  It seemed so mediocre," says Deborah Kalkstein, owner of DC showroom Contemporaria.  "You had to go to New York to shop or dine."  After she moved from Peru, where she had trained as an architect, Kalkstein started an interior architecture business in DC; the lack of cutting edge interior and furniture design was immediately apparent.  "If you drive around the suburbs you'll see that it's 90 percent colonial," she says.  "But there is some amazing contemporary architecture in the city, so there's always been a demand for contemporary design, however slight."

In 1999, Kalkstein decided to open her own showroom, Contemporaria, taking advantage of the relationships she had formed with furniture manufacturers through her interiors business.  "When I opened the store, I knew which companies I wanted to work with," she says.  "I visited practically every factory, not only to see product, but also to get a sense of the philosophy behind it."  Carrying names like Edra, Minotti and Paola Lenti, Contemporaria's stable reads like a who's who of luxury design.  A few young American names notwithstanding (Angela Adams and Jonathan Adler to name two), the majority of her collection is made up of established Italian brands.  "I like the Italian sensibility," says Kalkstein.  "One of the most beautiful things that Italian design has to offer is how the companies are passed down from generation to generation.  They have so much history and it's fascinating to study them to see how they have evolved."

Seven years after she first opened Contemporaria, Kalkstein finds herself in good company.  In 2004, she moved the showroom to Cady's Alley, a zone that has flourished under developer Anthony Lainer, who transformed a derelict part of Georgetown into a consolidated design district.  It is the perfect place for consumers and trade alike to visit both large companies like Waterworks and small owner-operated boutiques like Contemporaria.

In Kalkstein's raw, industrial-looking concrete showroom, a sweeping, twisting ramp inspired by her son's love of skateboarding connects the two levels, providing a dynamic entry point.  Reflecting the space itself, which is simultaneously austere and amusing, her collection contains both playful and restrained pieces that possess an element of timelessness.  "Really high end furniture is not something you change from year to year," she says.  "I really try to avoid things that are trendy.  Instead, I prefer design that you'll want to keep for a long time - pieces that will be as inspirational as when you first saw them." JK

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