Thirty years ago this Friday, childhood friends Steven Appel and Lee Whitehead opened the doors to Nouveau, where the pair sold fun, refinished art deco antiques and gifts. Over the next three decades, the shop’s location bounced around the region, from Savage Mill to Mount Vernon to Canton to Belvedere Square and now, finally last year, back to Mount Vernon again .
In that time, the shop’s focus shifted from antiques to carrying new furniture and home accessories and all sorts of fun gift items. Today, Nouveau – now called Nouveau Home & Interior Design – also offers interior design services, bringing their fabulous, lighthearted aesthetic into homes across the region.
On the occasion of their diamond anniversary, I caught up with Steven Appel to talk about the duo’s years in the business, favorite projects and what they love about being back in Mount Vernon.
Tell me about how Nouveau got started.
Lee and I grew up together as kids. Our parents vacationed in Rehoboth a lot and we got to see the cool stores there. We both studied art and design in college. When I got out of school, I worked at an ad agency in Northern Virginia for a year, but I had also just interned in New York for the Talking Heads, on “Stop Making Sense,” for six months. It was a really cool experience.
When Lee got out of college, we opened the store in Savage Mill, where we grew up. Then we got lured into Baltimore City. We opened in Savage Mill in 1986 and came to Charles Street in 1987.
What were the early years of the store like? How has it changed over time?
It started out with art deco antiques we’d find at auction – we’d repaint them and refinish them – and a lot of giftware. The antiques were meant to be the props, but we ended up selling them. Then we segued into new furniture, when we found out how much there was a need for that.
From 1992 on, we mostly sold new furniture. We were on Charles Street until 2004 and in 2000, we opened up a second location at the Can Company [in Canton].
Then we closed the Can Company [and the Charles Street location] and went to Belvedere Square. We were there for ten years.
We started with interior design [in addition to the shop] in 2006, when we opened a studio in the Belvedere Square store and that’s taken off.
The biggest project we did was for Marin Alsop – we did her studio and her home on Calvert Street – and we continue to do residential and commercial design.
In 2015, you moved the shop back to Mount Vernon. Why did you decide to come back to your old neighborhood?
It was really interesting. We looked around Canton, Federal Hill, Fells Point. We ended up looking in Mount Vernon, feeling like, do we really want to go back? But it’s been the most amazing year and two months, seeing all the old faces. People come in and thank us for coming back and bringing retail back.
And of course, one of the main reasons we wanted this space is that we are beside City Café. They’ve been the best neighbors.
We celebrate being here. We’re open late in the evenings and serve champagne on the weekends.
What’s new about the store in Mount Vernon? What can people expect to find there?
What Lee and I are able to do is go to shows, pick pieces, bring back vintage stuff and support local artists. It’s a living, breathing store. We have a truck out front right now with pieces- we sold 15 pieces this week and I deliver them [for free].
It changes all the time. We’ve embraced the neighborhood and sell funny, goofy things. We’ve really taken off with the funny books, dirty cards, candles.
We try to keep it really fresh. We don’t want anyone to think we’re just the basic furniture store that stocks the same nine pieces of artwork every year.
We have things like a selection of really cool crafts, like men’s cufflinks with an old steel label of a typewriter on the cuff, or goofy necklaces made out of funny things.
We’re sort of taking more risks here because we can in this neighborhood. We like the [smaller] size of the store, it’s easy to manage and we’ve been really fortunate to find a wonderful staff here. It’s been an amazing comeback.
What do you love about what you do?
Every couple days, someone will come in the store and be dumbfounded, saying they’ve never seen a place like this. This has kept me going for so many years now. It makes you feel appreciated – that people appreciate the creativity and all the crazy stuff together that works so well. It keeps us going.
To find out what’s new on a regular basis, follow Nouveau Home & Interior Design on Facebook.
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