For more than 30 years, twins Leigh and Leslie Keno have studied and evaluated centuries of American furniture. From the materials used to the shapes and craftsmanship, they know what makes a beautiful, quality piece.
Now, they have taken their expertise and transformed it into a collection of furniture that reflects their love of antiques.
Their self-named Keno Bros. collection for Theodore Alexander debuted recently at the biannual furniture market in High Point, N.C.
“We love furniture and decorative arts of all types and all periods,” said Leslie. “The line is an opportunity for us to combine all that we love and grew up with — even hardware — with our appreciation for beautiful sculpture. “
The collection was sparked, in part, by their years of experience in the field. Through their work and appearances as expert appraisers on PBS’ “Antique Roadshow,” the brothers are constantly evaluating what is good, better or the absolute best.
“So many times over our careers we would say ‘I wish that back was a littler taller, those legs a little thicker.’ Then it would be an 11 instead of a 4,” Leslie said.
The Keno Bros. collection includes more than 40 statement pieces that take the best features of earlier periods and combines them to create furnishings with a traditional style but fresh, modern appeal.
“We’ve taken the best of what we love and made this line,” Leslie said. “It’s our dream.”
“We do love things from all periods — the lines of pieces from the ’20s, but also the ’50s and ’60s midcentury modern pieces,” Leigh said.
“The Keno Bros. collection gave Theodore Alexander an opportunity to go beyond its traditional roots. Theodore Alexander has been classically based in the 18th and 19th centuries and, while the company does have products that go to the transitional, the Kenos gave us a new look with the midcentury modern approach,” said Harvey Dondero, CEO of the High Point-based company.
Each piece was designed to stand alone and make a statement in the home, while blending in with existing furnishings of all styles.
Although having matched pieces of furniture throughout the home was popular from the 1920s to the 1950s, today’s consumers like more variety.
“It’s like having different people in the room. Different personalities make a great party. You need different pieces in a room to make a great room,” Leigh said.
According to Leigh, this idea dates back centuries. If you look at a room from the 1760s, for example, you’ll find modern pieces mixed in with those from the 1680s. “There has always been a mixture of things in a room.”
“We wanted to make a line that worked in today’s world.” Leslie added. “You need multipurpose objects, pieces that can be used for several different tasks, whether it be for writing or putting the shopping bags down. They had to be practical and usable.”
“The products fit into any interior design concept in the home and make a statement of importance, which is what today’s consumer demands. It is luxury for the home without being ostentatious,” Dondero said.
He said that while the designs are appealingly simple and elegant, they are the result of highly complicated manufacturing processes.
“It is a fantasy to have a company say ‘Do whatever you want,’ ” said Leigh. “In terms of the time they can spend on a piece, it’s amazing and rare today.”
“They gave us total creative license to make what we really wanted to make,” Leslie continued.
The brothers hope – and intentionally designed — the pieces to become heirlooms that can be passed down through the generations. Leslie said they were made to last, with features such as dovetailed drawers and highly figured woods on all surfaces.
“We believe that furniture has to be good through and through – not just beautiful, but well made. We love pieces that are simple, functional and easy to work with,” Leslie said.
“People always ask us ‘What furniture is being made today that will be collectible tomorrow?’ And we tell them, ‘It’s pieces that show true craftsmanship and quality,’ ” Leigh continued.
The brothers spent eight days in Vietnam meeting with the artisans who make the furniture and hardware, and came away impressed with craftsmanship of Theodore Alexander’s furnishings, along with the opportunity to work with a “pretty much endless supply of materials.”
Their Sampler table uses 14 different species of wood. It’s a cocktail table with a divided geometric-patterned top. “It’s an incredible smorgasbord of beautiful wood,” Leslie said.
“Beautiful woods have been used for centuries and we believe you should use the woods to bring out the grain and beauty,” Leigh continued.
The collaboration is the first time they have worked together in a business venture since they were 17. Although they often appear together on “Antiques Roadshow,” as well as on the show “Collect This! with the Keno Brothers” on MSN, Leslie is senior vice president and director of American furniture and decorative arts department at Sotheby’s in New York, where he has worked for 30 years, and Leigh owns and operates Keno Auctions in New York and ran Leigh Keno American Antiques for 23 years prior to that.
Although Leigh admits it would “make a better story” if they could say they often disagreed and had a bad case of sibling rivalry, the twins are very much alike.
“We really have the same tastes and are really supportive of each other,” Leslie continued. “This is truly a joint effort.”
In fact, the identical twins are so in tune with each other, that they often finish each other’s sentences.
The Kenos say they have been interested in antiques since they were young, starting with their love of turned pottery.
According to Leigh, when they were 12 or 13 they would spend hours with their stoneware and crocks after dinner. The S-shaped sides, sensual curves and anthropomorphic shapes of 1820s creamware captivated their attention.
“When we turned 14 we discovered something called girls. They’re better than stoneware,” he said in jest.
“Our mom and dad supported us in whatever we chose to do,” added Leslie. “Both of them really just helped kindle and flame our fires, our passion. Our weekend hobby was visiting antique dealers. We would go to flea markets, antique shows, looking for objects, and they would drive us.”
But they were quick to add that despite their unusual passion for pottery, they were normal teenage boys with long hair who wore hip huggers, had rock bands, went skiing, snowmobiling and fishing, and rode motorcycles.