In an airy light industrial space in West Concord, sisters Laura Berland-Wyman and Lisa Berland renovate and transform vintage furnishings to enhance contemporary homes.
They launched Retrocraft Design studio in 2011 (www.retrocraftdesign.com) and also have online stores on the e-commerce website Etsy (www.etsy.com) and the new vintage design website Chairish (www.chairish.com).
By Jane Whitehead
On a recent sunny afternoon, the sisters sat with me around a refurbished 1960s Park dining table in their showroom and talked about their mother’s genius for creative dumpster-diving, their enthusiasm for mid-century modern design, their evolving business model, and the dynamics of being sisters in business together.
A DIY INHERITANCE “We all grew up with a strong sense of design,” says Berland-Wyman, recalling their childhood on the Chelsea/Greenwich Village border in Manhattan in the late 1950s and 1960s. Both sisters attended PS 41, “where all the bohemian kids went,” she says, laughing. Their mother, a modern dancer by training, was an intrepid DIY decorator who furnished their home with curbside trophies.
“Nothing daunted her,” says Berland-Wyman: “She was always cutting legs off things, repurposing them.” Two memorable transformations were the grafting of hairpin legs on to an antique oak pedestal table, and the conversion of a rattan chair into a giant hanging lampshade. Their father, a social worker by profession, was also a photographer who commandeered a bathroom as a darkroom and improvised sculpture out of found objects like pieces of driftwood.
Apart from a sense of design, color and the aesthetics of everyday life, the sisters also inherited their parents’ can-do attitude. “That generation came out of the Depression, and they were just used to doing whatever needed to be done,” says Berland. So whether it was upholstering a chair, making curtains or refinishing a floor: “You learned that you could just do it, you could figure it out,” she says.
A TRAINED EYE Both sisters have fine art training. While working as an editor and later, school administrator, and raising three children, Berland took many art classes at the De Cordova Museum in Lincoln. “Art was always there,” she says, “something I did in the background.” As a continuing education student at the Museum of Fine Art School in Boston, her younger sister Berland-Wyman honed skills she used for many years as a decorative painter – “faux everything” – and color consultant. “I love working with color, I like materials and I like working with my hands,” she says. Working primarily in other people’s houses had its frustrations, she admits, and part of the appeal of launching a small business was the prospect of more autonomy and creative freedom.
As they started working together on the projects that would evolve into Retrocraft, the sisters studied upholstery at the Elliot School in Jamaica Plain. “We did a very complicated chair as our project,” says Berland-Wyman, who also took wood-working classes at the school.
THE ALLURE OF MID-CENTURY MODERN The idea for Retrocraft grew organically out of the sisters’ shared DIY projects over the years. Berland lives in Lexington, Berland-Wyman in Lincoln, and they’ve always helped each other with home decorating. “When we first thought of it, we thought of taking pieces that we liked, and transforming them in some way,” says Berland. “We went out looking, and we really had no clue what we were doing,” she says. “People gave us all kinds of things, we picked up stuff on the street.”
At first, says Berland-Wyman, “we just found things that we liked, and we really weren’t looking for mid-century particularly, although we found those things and we loved them.” They found premises in the crumbling Bradford Mill in West Concord, “huge space, cheap, lots of light,” and worked a few days a week, mainly painting antique pieces in bold colors and selling them on Craigslist, reaching customers throughout the Greater Boston area. As the mill buildings were upgraded, the rent went up, the footage shrank, and in 2013 the sisters found new space at 152 Commonwealth Avenue, West Concord, near the Nashoba Bakery.
As the business gained traction, it became clear that “the mid-century stuff got so much more attention than anything else,” says Berland. Berland-Wyman thinks the current enthusiasm for mid-century modern design comes from an appreciation of its simple lines and good craftsmanship, as well as a hunger for “eclectic, different, unique pieces.”
Both sisters emphasize that they’re not restorers – they often choose to alter the look of a piece with paint or a colored stain, or add a stenciled design, or other custom element. An example is a rosewood coffee table made from a piece of wood discarded during a renovation project at a local museum where it served as a bench. The rosewood top, with subtly rounded edges and corners, carries the seal of the well known mid century Danish cabinet-maker, Ludvig Pontoppidan. The sisters commissioned welded steel legs to complement the rosewood grain and refinished the top, to create a handsome and unique piece. “We’re always thinking about what we can change up and make more interesting,” says Berland.
The downside to the boom in all things mid-century modern is increasing competition. “The problem for us is that it’s very competitive to buy this stuff now – it’s getting harder to find, harder to afford,” says Berland. To keep Retrocraft’s inventory fresh, she says, they work with a handful of dealers and businesses that specialize in cleanouts, and as the profile of the business grows they find that more and more people bring mid-century pieces to them.
A BUSINESS EVOLVES From selling a handful of pieces monthly on Craigslist, the sisters have developed a hybrid operation that relies on their constantly updated website, and online stores at Etsy, Chairish and Krrb, to bring customers into the store. They also send out a monthly email newsletter to around 600 clients, highlighting new items in stock.
“The idea is that people can go to the website and see what we have before they truck out here,” says Berland, “and mostly people come because there’s something specific they want to buy.” Recently, they have added a range of accessories including Austrian-made patterned throws by David Fusseneger Textiles, colorful mid-century cased-glass decorative pieces, and sturdy handcrafted brooms from rural Pennsylvania.
Early on, Berland and Berland-Wyman decided that shipping would not be part of their services, so clients buying directly from Retrocraft and through the Etsy store arrange their own shipping – a fact that has not deterred a growing base of fans in California, Texas and New York. Retrocraft’s latest online venture is a store on the website www.Chairish.com, which bills itself as “the first online consignment marketplace,” and handles all shipping arrangements, for a cut of 20 per cent on sales. It’s a mark of Retrocraft’s growing reputation that Chairish invited their participation on the new site.
In the growing local market for mid-century modern design, the sisters see Retrocraft as occupying a unique niche. “There are some very high end mid-century modern retailers who are doing restoration,” says Berland. “We’re not competing with those guys.” At the other end of the scale, she says Retrocraft offers much more than the average consignment store. “When we sell something we want it to be structurally sound and in good working order,” says Berland-Wyman. “We try to make people happy, and if something’s not the way they want, we try to make it right,” she says – an attitude that has garnered many enthusiastic reviews at Retrocraft’s Etsy store.
SISTER ACT Asked about how they divide up the work, and how they get on as business partners, both sisters laugh. “We get on each other’s nerves,” says Berland. “We have different obsessions.” “I’m also a perfectionist!” admits Berland-Wyman. “Yes! To the nth degree!” agrees her sister.
Retrocraft seems to thrive on the sisters’ complementary talents. “I’m the CFO – I do all the books. I’m a little compulsive about keeping things in order,” says Berland-Wyman, laughing. “I ended up doing the website and the photography,” says Berland, “and Laurie advises on colors and fabrics.” They employ one part-time assistant, and switch off working Saturdays at the showroom.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to have a small business and make it work and have an income from it,” says Berland. Trying to figure out the next move for the business is “on our brains all the time,” she says. And yet when the sisters pause to take stock of what they’ve achieved, they share a certain pride. “We didn’t start with a business plan,” says Berland, “but here we are five years later with a business that people know about, that has a profile.”
RETROCRAFT DESIGN STUDIO
152 Commonwealth Avenue, West Concord. Tel: 781-320-9749/781-710-3911; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; showroom open Thurs. 1:00 pm-7:00 pm, Fri. and Sat. 11:00 am – 4:00 pm and by appointment.