Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sacrifice, Adapt, Stay Afloat

That the economy isn't coming around anytime soon seems to be working for some people and they are the ones making it work for me. I'm drawn to unstable ground which is what attracts me to water and sailing; the constant adaptation required to maintain balance my steady state.

I am back to working some regular Saturday hours unless I'm doing a show. Business was slow last Saturday, but one person came in looking for design help for a new family-owned restaurant, and she hired me to come out to consult on the spot. Turns out it's her retired parents who are spearheading this venture, ran a restaurant in this space for 40 years, and hope to start a new version of it up again after a 15-year hiatus. What? Why? Because their last tenant failed, and they are covering a big nut and it seems like doing what they know or used to know is the best way to cover the bills while trying to sell the building which is their ultimate goal. Got that? The daughter is a stay-at-home mom of 4 under 13, she's trying to help save the nest egg by handling it all herself including cleaning the filthy huge place. The change in the direction of the wind is easy for me to negotiate and I put the design hat back in the bag, synthesize the facts, impressions of the family players as described and intuit the feelings of mother and daughter in front of me. I call in my man-of-action contractor, Dave Carlin and his son Allen. Cost reality check, ouch, I propose the minimalist low cost "perk" and style staging to get the place sold (which hasn't been vacant long), while making it easily adaptable for a restaurant, if that's what they want to do. I'm happy for the vote of confidence and to be of service.

Next up, I am sitting in on a design meeting between a couple opening a 7000 sf coffee shop/retail operation and their architect. It's in an 1880's building in a prominent historic area of Detroit. They want to remodel it while keeping the historic character intact. Budget is tight, new is necessary in places, but where to make style sacrifices and still have historic reference and the authenticity that enhances the customer's experience and the bottom line is the trick. The architect has designed what looks like a suburban, made-to-look-old, but is obviously not, not cheap solution. I take this all in and determine that what I've got to sell is salvage solutions strategically placed to balance budget and look. This means finding them on my time and getting paid only if they buy something, probably sight unseen. Not the smoothest waters, which means I gotta focus on the tack or my small craft will capsize.

Meanwhile, I'm fielding text messages from other clients trying to open a new retail concept in Birmingham before Christmas. It involves multiple tenants with my clients controlling the look of everyone's build-out. They want the industrial Heritage Co 2 stuff they've used successfully in their other two stores. They know first hand that creative use of salvage contributes positively to the customer's overall impression and in a fickle economy, being the kind of place people feel good to come to and support is key to survival. No, it's not as easy as ordering from the retail display catalogue. Some hand-holding is required on both our parts to convince tenants, some without the ability to visualize, how repurposing rough-looking stuff can be adapted to suit their taste and will meet their needs. This is ultimately a matter of trust, they are buying into what I say we can do. There are sacrifices of certainty with the unknown and when things change so can the cost. I have to convince them of the value of uniqueness, sometimes over savings, ease and instant gratification. It's worked well with these clients and making them look good motivates them to sell me. That's smooth sailing.

It's Saturday again and here I sit on another slow day with not much to show for it this time. I've sacrificed a day with my family to sell this package in a not easy time or town. It can look like fair weather when you set sail, but a seasoned sailor is always prepared for the storms that come suddenly out of nowhere. When it's sink or swim, you better be ready to swim.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Perpetual Motion Marisa Machine

I have no off switch. I don't even have a dimmer. Rick and I are invited to be guests of the chef for a 5 course fall harvest dinner at Goldner Walsh, Tim Travis' nursery in Keego Harbor, but I actually never sit down to the table. First of all I have a hard time preparing in advance for anything, so I'm forever making plans at the last minute. I am not prepared because I am perpetually overbooking myself. I think I can do everything, do it all myself and under estimate the time everything will really take. Only if it's a pressure cooker can I possibly get around to designing a table with those great fat posts that have been sitting around for 5 years for the show I'm about to do two weeks later. And, of course I have to express material for some artwork I'll have to frame in New York where that show is. What could possibly be the advantage of preparation and timely framing in your spacious, full-equipped studio at home when instead you can assemble them with someone else's tools in their New York apartment the day before the show?

We are childless and hungry, and I've been on my feet in a field all day looking at antiques at the Ann Arbor Saline Antiques Market. It's 7:00pm by the time I get home, the chef, Ross Yediak ( and his partner Libby Shaw are easy going friends of ours, so we decide we are just going to "show up." No seats at the table, big surprise. We make our way back to the kitchen to atleast say hello. Have you been in a chef's kitchen when the food is ready to be served? It's hot and harried. We aren't in the kitchen 5 minutes and I'm plating green salads with risotto cakes and a Michigan relish. And this in one of my "get-ups," because I am actually going out and want to wear something "fun" after spending all day, everyday in dirty jeans and a t-shirt. On this night it's high heels and Joel's 70's patchwork jeans I bought off him at the Chelsea Garage Flea Market. I am now running in the hateful shoes out to the beautiful table with a salad. I catch someone who looks my dad's age eyeing the tattoo shirt that really looks like my entire torso and arms are covered with tattoos..exactly the sort of wait service he should expect in this suburb. Of course someone else could have served it, but I was already prepping it so I might as well serve it right? This is own- your- own work- alone mentality...or just hard-working, hard-headed me.

I was shocked to see so many dealers I know from out-of-town set-up in Ann Arbor. We are in a very tough market and coming here is dicey in my book. It's a beautiful day and the weekend ahead looks like more of the same, the best possible scenario for a good show...once upon a time. It should only take me an hour and a half to shop this show and I have 10 other things I should be doing, but I am lingering and catching up with everybody. This is as close to relaxing as I get. Truthfully, it may be the most important thing I do all week. I want all the dealers to do well, there are really great dealers here and really good stuff at this show, but I know how the crowd was in Rhinebeck where Chelsea Clinton just got married and if they were buying carefully... In the end I don't buy any of the things I really loved, too much risk. I only buy smalls. I get all the news, strategize for the next bigger, very expensive show in New York that I'm angling to do. More importantly, I cross my fingers I can share a booth and expenses there with a dealer I just suggested it too. He seemed intrigued. I am crossing my fingers. This is really the work I do

We are eating samples of the previous course off the top of the food warmer in between spooning kale, braised carrots and positioning the roasted chicken just so. I load the plates on my arm like I've done thousands of times before when I waited tables 25 years ago. You don't forget how. In a way, I never stopped practicing. I am starting to sweat.

On the way to the Ann Arbor show, I stop and take yet more pictures of a house that I have admired for 20 years. It has been boarded up all this time, never occupied and never offered for sale to my knowledge. I have a fantasy of gutting it to the bearing walls, painting it all white. I'd put only the essentials in it: a bed, a table, a chair, good reading material. I imagine silence. Oh yeah, almost forgot, a reading light...that would require a switch... oh never mind.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Brand Detroit

I drove straight through from Rhinebeck, New York, Sunday night so I could be back in time for an underground dinner in Detroit. Don't think I don't know the risks I take. The show was no blockbuster. I was lucky to do as well as I did. Well it really isn't luck, I don't sit down. I speak to everybody and thank them for their interest. I tell them I'm from Detroit. It's not easy explaining why a 1930's photo of a dead baby in the woods is incredibly beautiful and important to share, how a medical model of a brain is an interesting thing to find in an art collection and why a set of cast iron branches from Detroit's train station are worth every penny, so fragile is our hold on this once magnificent building, on this still proud city. I can be thick-skinned, most of them will walk away and take nothing, it's cool. I'm a nighttime driver, I take naps when I get tired. I was 6 miles outside of Toledo at 7:30 am. Plenty of time to get home, sleep more, pick Wyatt up from school, throw a football, get dressed for dinner, head to an undisclosed abandoned building somewhere....The turnpike comes to a dead halt. Not a good sign, I saddle over to the closest trucker, bum a cigarette (another lousy thing that keeps you awake) get the news...Tanker caught fire, caught a second one on fire, it's gonna be an hour atleast. Oh good, I've just had breakfast, coffee and a cigarette. Sorry slave followers, you get it all, I hop the fence and head to the cornfield. I climb back over the fence, 36 hours of selling, 3 1/2 hour workout loading it all back into the truck, 10 hours on the road, 1 hour nap, makeshift cornfield facilities: figure that into the cost of goods. I'm fortunate to have prodigious energy, a low give-a-shit factor. It's not"salvage princess." I'm in bed by 10:30am.

It's worth all the hassle me getting to here, as we grab our map and find the mystery building where dinner will be served by top chefs in our city. It's a defunct automotive service center and showroom from the 20's. Still solid and cared for mostly, but windows broken or boarded up. I'm taken by windows lately, driving through our city, all the varying degrees of brokenness in windows, like lace, tattered lace, stained and torn and still beautiful but no one really wants to wear it. The sun is setting through the lace, we park inside and walk the spiral ramp up to the roof. People! all dressed for dinner and glasses of champagne. I can't stop taking pictures to say hello to the people I know, let alone speak to my guests. The sun is setting, the concertina wire sparkling, we are cradling this tattered city with sharp barbs like the most delicate fabric, that cuts you holding it gently in your bloodied hands, and the rest of the world is marvelling at our tenacity and our ability to love something so tattered and worn and harsh. They lead us down a now candlit spiral ramp...carefully across a rough surface in the dim light to some stairs, more candles. I feel like I'm descending into the catacombs. The showroom of peeling paint, long tables with white tablecloths and napkins, more candles. We can barely see each other. There is no power for lights, the chefs are cooking in a garage by generator with makeshift portable equipment. They are happy to be together, not missing their fancy kitchens too terribly. Dave Mancini, Supinos; Mark Djozlija, Wolf Gang Puck (and wearing the beautiful detroit begins with you t-shirt I gave to him); David Seals, Due Venti; Andy Hollyday, Roast; each comes out to introduce their dish, a wine pairing, a live musical accompaniment (Steve Jarosz, Clem Fortuna, Skeeter Shelton, Frank Pahl) A giant American flag flanks the corner. I am like a bee, hovering over the tasty morsels, catching up with my husband and friends, then over to my neighbor Chet and his partner Kyle (who made the view out my shop window special when they renovated old Billings), a film maker from New York is introduced to me, Heidi Ewing. John Arnold walks in late with his beautiful friend Julie Taubman. His shirt says "Defend Detroit." She is obsessively photographing every inch of the city, putting her resources behind a book she's publishing, a message she can put real authority behind. He kicks my ass saying you have to find beauty where you live or you are just lazy. We are all brand Detroit, as singular as your fingerprint, and New York wants it and Hollywood wants it and by God I say sell them a ticket! In fact, I'll even drive it there and sell it to them personally.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Salvage Slave: Building an Empire from the Empire State

Salvage Slave: Building an Empire from the Empire State

Building an Empire from the Empire State

A friend of mine from New York referred to my ever expanding and evolving business strategies as "building my empire." As I neared the border of New York yesterday with a fully loaded van for a show I've never done in Rhinebeck, New York, this week and saw that sign "Welcome to the Empire State," I smiled at the pleasure I take in actually following through on a dream I have and, a little like a kid, so proud of my bravery. I was reminded too of another girl from my hometown, Rochester, Michigan, who similarly went to New York to follow through on her idea, and look what an Empire the material girl built. Luck and bravery is surely required to negotiate the hornets nest of traffic entering the Emerald City at rush hour on a rainy Monday. So sorry if the shot of the George Washington Bridge crossing from New Jersey lacks the backdrop of the magnificent skyline, dude it was all I could do to follow the ridiculously complicated directions to my friends' place in Queens and not destruct. The white knuckles grippin the wheel after an 11-hour drive in the pouring rain with a load so heavy it made driving the van like steering a parade float earns me a girl scout badge for sure. Not that I'm looking for a badge, truthfully I could care less about the stress. I'm feelin on top of my game and having the time of my life. I got killer shit, way to much for the 8x16 booth I have, but the show costs more than my monthly mortgage payment so I will forgo the minimalist gallery look and give them Detroit salvage as it looks in the heritage company imaginarium. As usual, the paint was still wet on the table I designed and built with Richard Gage Design Studio. Then there's the last minute electrical issues with the newly made pile of lights. Of course I had to reload the already packed van because it looked like my axles might crack. What? I couldn't get excited about dealing in say postage stamps? Like the t-shirt says, Detroit hustles harder. Don't I know it.