- David Roman
- He Knows: Roger Levine, of Who New?
Who New? Retro-Mod Décor
5156 Butler St., Lawrenceville
412-781-0588 or www.who-new.com
Visiting Who New? can instill euphoria, as you wander the shop's strange landscape: forests of Danish teak furniture, globules of colorful glass and plastic, abstract mobiles drifting slowly overhead. Perhaps you were enticed by the Art Deco pieces placed outside, along Butler Street. Perhaps you're looking for authentic Mad Men accessories; some good copper pans; a comfy Eames chair. Or maybe you're just seeking kicks from another era.
On a recent Saturday, a couple is deciding on the day's purchases: a vintage chair, some dishes, a shoe-tree. They chat like old friends with one of the owners, Roger Levine, casually attired in jeans and brown sweater. Laughter rings out frequently over the shop's soft-rock soundtrack -- The Moody Blues, America, Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat."
Levine opened the shop in 2002 with partner Jeff Gordon, as a sideline to their regular jobs. Or, at least their less-irregular jobs: Levine teaches in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh's culinary program, and is active with several local nonprofits, including Lawrenceville Corp. Gordon, a professional clown, has served with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. With Gordon out of town on clown business, his mother is helping out.
Spanning several decades, styles and continents, the array of items in Who New? raise the question: How do Levine and Gordon know what to collect?
Levine says it's hard to define, but they'll buy something "if it speaks to us -- if there's whimsy, if there's design to it."
What speaks to them most, apparently, is mid-century modern design, a sleek, optimistic style born of the atomic age. But it's hard to generalize: Levine shows me a couple of newly acquired items that include a large ceramic rooster, and a small African-inspired sculpture that fits in the palm of his hand.
This kind of taste skips a generation, Levine says: If people grew up with it as kids, they avoid it as adults. But the next generation often finds the funky looks alluring -- which may explain the flood of similar retro-inspired, cheaper goods available from manufacturers like IKEA.
While many items at Who New? appear exotic, plenty were made in the Pittsburgh region, notes Levine -- especially those made from aluminum and glass. A table display features an extensive setting of Canonsburg-made Temporama china, with a lovely pattern of brown and pale blue. And plenty of the aluminum housewares are "Kensington Aluminum," manufactured here by Alcoa (and still gleaming).
In addition to furniture and housewares, Levine and Gordon carry vintage toys, jewelry and clothing, some quite affordable. (A vintage beaded handbag, for example, can be had for less than $20.) They also carry old consumer electronics. We're so accustomed to disposing of old electronics, it's odd to see a 50-year-old desk lamp (still functional), or a stunning 1970 Electrohome turntable and speakers -- a series of three clear plastic globes (still works).
But can that old, impossibly cool TV set still be functioning? What about those rotary phones?
The store makes no guarantees: "We tell people we're selling the style," Levine says, rather than the circuits inside. Most of the electronics still work, he says, but who knows?
Or rather, who new?