When furniture designer Steven Athea moved to the U.S. from his native France in the late ‘90s, he planned to spend a year exploring the design scene in Miami. But everything changed when he opened a small architectural firm that became an overnight success. Suddenly, the notion of taking up permanent residence in the United States was a no-brainer.
Athea’s unique aesthetic—one that fused a classic French background with contemporary sensibilities—was something that Miami restaurants, boutiques and nightclubs were immediately drawn to. Athea split his time running the company and traveling back and forth to Europe, where he’d personally visit factories in France, Germany and Italy to source fine materials for his projects. He’d found his niche designing commercial spaces and business was booming. Until it wasn’t.
The financial crisis hit in 2007 and, in an instant, the idea of extravagantly decorated commercial interiors was a thing of the past. Rather than allowing the recession to swallow his business whole, Athea was determined to use it to his advantage. “I was at a dinner party and met [my now partners] Yonel Fellous and Nathan Cohen. They were very successful real estate agents, selling super high-end condos in Miami,” says Athea. “They were actually looking for a new project, because the real estate business was down. They had so many clients with luxury apartments who didn’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on furniture anymore. So we came up with an idea.”
Athea would use his contacts in Europe and China to source the materials for a line of high-quality, modern furniture. By going directly to the factories—rather than buying from wholesalers—they could offer a significantly lower price point to residents. “Great sourcing cuts out all the middlemen,” explains Athea. “For example, we go and find the best leather from Italy and the best hardware from Germany, then ship it to our factories to be built.” Their method would require a bit more legwork, but they were confident in the strategy.
Alongside Fellous and Cohen, Athea opened a 2,000-square-foot showroom in Miami Beach and called the brand Modani. “Shortly after we launched the company, we’d sold 16 times more than our initial goal,” he says. “We all understood there was something big here.”
And they were right. Eight years later, and with the recession behind them, Modani boasts 10 showrooms in the United States and Canada. They have plans to open 15 more over the next two years. Modani’s latest opening—in Aventura, Florida—is a sprawling 60,000-square-foot space. The state-of-the-art showroom incorporates cutting-edge technology that enables buyers to digitally insert furniture into 3D models of their spaces.
The brand has quietly amassed an A-list following, with clients like LeBron James, Lady Gaga, P. Diddy and Kevin Durant. Says Athea, “We have a great location on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, so people notice us when they’re driving by.” And in the case of Lady Gaga? “Her designer used some of our furniture for backstage when she performed in Miami,” he says. “Lady Gaga ended up buying all of the pieces—and more—to decorate her home.”
Click through the gallery to check out some of Modani’s celebrity-approved pieces.