Ergonomic Aristocracy

Designer explains the essence of European Modern

THE DESIGN “DOCTOR” IS IN
Mimi Lemieux’s background in psychology helps her connect with clients.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Mimi Lemieux’s deliciously French name may conjure images of a Regency commode adorned with marquetry and gilt or a dignified, high-backed Louis XVI chair, but she reigns over a different realm: modern European furniture. The skilled designer and savvy sales pro at Asheville’s Ambiente Modern Furniture, Lemieux is more versed in leather — which covers many pieces in the store’s collections — than lace. She offers in-store and home consultations.

Like most women, you’ve led many lives.

Absolutely. Over the course of marrying, being a stay-at-home-mom, and divorcing, I wore many hats. I helped buy pieces for the rug stores I co-owned with my husband and another business partner, first in Florida and then Blowing Rock, where we raised our kids; redecorated and sold four homes; and earned a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology. 

How did you arrive in Asheville?

I was in Charlotte before, but remembered Asheville’s laidback vibe from when we’d take day trips here with the kids. I ended up buying a condo in Hendersonville a few years ago, and then I needed to find a job. 

You walked into Ambiente “cold call” style and asked for a job, correct?

Yes, and they hired me! I’ve worked here about a year now and absolutely love our furniture lines, helping customers choose and customize their furniture, and creating beautiful, functional spaces. 

Did you inherit your design talent?

I’m the family maverick. My dad didn’t work in design, but he definitely had a flair. I can also attribute it to any French aesthetes in my lineage (laughs). I started appreciating gorgeous things first through fashion, when I worked at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bal Harbour, Florida, soon after graduating high school. I must have had a unique style sense, because in high school, kids often copied my outfits. 

At what moment did you think, I’m good at interior design?

When it came time to sell each of the houses we’d redecorated, the buyers always wanted all of our furniture and lighting, and we sold it to them. Then I felt my aesthetic resonated with others. 

What drew you to Ambiente?

Several things. Ambiente started out 30 years ago as a Scandinavian furniture store in Raleigh, but is now our area’s biggest act in terms of European contemporary furniture. I also enjoy working with our owner Jasper Haugaard and his parents. They carry only established, top-quality lines which aren’t only beautiful and well made, the pieces actually improve your health.

How so?

My two favorite lines, Stressless furniture and Magniflex mattresses, alleviate pain and benefit your spine. They’re my favorites to sell and educate people about. … I’ve experienced curvature of the spine and fibromyalgia. When I sat in any recliner, I usually felt pain. When I first sat in a Stressless recliner, my pain was gone within minutes. The pieces are available in multiple sizes and styles, and we match your body shape to the appropriate piece. The recliners are endorsed by the American Chair Association and some of our local surgeons even insist on recovery for their patients in these chairs. 

When you work with a client, what do you want to know?

I want to learn nuts-and-bolts things like the size of their living space and about subjective things, like what their priorities are. It might be living with pets, raising a family, or establishing a home in retirement. 

Design projects can really stress a marriage.

That’s why my background in counseling comes in handy. It’s important to hear each partner out, be encouraging, give them tools to bring their project to life, and know when to walk away and give them time to think. 

What makes a furniture piece high quality?

[Besides being] beautiful and durable, much of a piece’s quality lies in what you can’t see, its interior construction. 

How has Ambiente adapted to the pandemic?

All customers and staff wear masks, and we require proper social distancing in Ambiente. We’re also offering early private appointments to customers who need them. 

Are you observing any COVID-driven design trends?

People are using their homes more as places of comfort and utility, a far cry from the days where you didn’t walk on the living room rug or covered the couch in plastic. Especially now, I’m helping customers transform their homes to meet their needs. They might ask “Can I use my dining room as an office?” I try to empower them and say, “Why not?” 

Ambiente Modern Furniture, 9 Reed St., Asheville. For more information, call 828-412-5505 or see ambientefurniture.com.