Bringing modern design to Ottawa

By CityNews Staff

A generation ago, a precociously fashionable 23-year-old named Michael Shaikin found iconic Herman Miller chairs in Value Village for $3.

A week later, he sold it for $200.

That's all it took for Shaikin to find his calling as a purveyor of modern design and led him to open his new store The Modern Shop on Catherine Street in downtown Ottawa. 

Like that Miller chair, the new location stands out from the rough trade and construction on Catherine Street in what used to be a car rental garage. The Modern Shop curates and sells new, original furniture, decorative art and housewares made by furniture and lighting designers in Europe and Scandinavia.

“We're the next step for people who buy Ikea for their first apartment,” Shaikin, 44, says. “They move into their house and they buy furniture here. It's modern design but our product is well made and heirloom quality.”

And if his instincts are correct, Shaikin's betting that Catherine Street will transform from derelict to trendy urban village in a few years.

“Everyone says Ottawa is the place fun forgot,” Shaikin says, giggling. “It's not true. There are many designers, architects and artists working hard to remove the stigma. The scene here is changing. Ottawa is a totally different place from what it was 20 years ago. The challenge now is letting customers know we've moved.  People don't think of Catherine street as a place to shop for good design. But the streets changing. It'll be great once the condo at the bus station and the transit system's built.”

Ottawa born and raised, Shaikin opened his first store, Found Design Vintage Shop, at age 23. Ten years ago, he sold the business to a friend to create The Modern Shop.

“I was finding vintage limited because inventory is whatever you can find. If a customer wanted six chairs and you have four, that's it,” he explains. “But I became aware of European and Scandinavian brands doing authentic yet new modern design that wasn't available here and needed local representation. It was a great opportunity.”

He left Found Design and opened the first Modern Shop location on Bank Street in 2010. Business was so good, he moved to Sussex Drive in the beginning of 2013 when soaring rents and limited space made displaying furniture difficult. Shaikin moved to the new 5,000 square foot store on Catherine Street in January of 2022.

It seems odd that a business that does 80 per cent of it's sales online via it's website would bother to rent such a grand showroom as this.

Not so, says Shaikin. Furniture and houseware design have to be experienced – seen, touched, sat on, held – to appreciate. That, and the manufacturers prefer their products be shown in their best light.

“Moving here was a natural evolution of a growing business,” he says. “I needed a space for customers could see, sit and touch things.”

Shaikin inherited his penchant for the entrepreneur's life from his parents Justine, a designer who owns her own store, Justine's Studio, and his father who manufactures blinds. As much as he enjoys going to conventions in Stockholm, Paris and New York – who wouldn't? – the thing he loves most about being a shop owner is making deliveries.

“I don't have delivery people,” he says. “I deliver the pieces myself because I like to see the space the item is going to, and the client's reaction when they see their space transformed.”

He's even sold items to some familiar faces to the people of Ottawa. 

“I sold former Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson a coffee table a few years ago,” he remembers. “He said “I can't put that together,” so I assembled the coffee table on their floor while he and his wife were having their morning coffee and hung out with them for an hour. It was cool.”

It's that fear of failure that keeps Shaikin going.

“I'm still like a kid, I still feel it's fun,” he adds. “I keep things light, fun, and try not to get too wrapped up in the negative stuff.”

His advice for new entrepreneurs is go for it. Don't get discouraged. Go as far as you can til you think you'll fall off that cliff. You won't. Keep going and don't look back.

“You need that fear to keep pushing forward,” he says “It fuels your drive.”

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