During the second part of my interview, Mark spoke with me about starting his own furniture line....
V&L: When did you decide to start your own furniture line?
We started Bobo about 4 1/2 years ago. We were importing 40 containers of antiques a year and we started to see patterns develop. Sometimes I would buy something and I would think "Was I drunk when I bought that?" and people would end up having fist fights over it. So I started thinking that if I had 50 of those things, I could sell 50. Unfortunately they were antiques, so I'd only have one of those things.
I decided that we should use old materials and make unique pieces as close to the original antiques as possible.
We started Bobo with 12 products based on antiques.
We had three guys from a particular town in Poland that would repair our antiques in our warehouse in Belgium. They were very good craftsmen. When we decided to make our furniture line, these three guys said that they had a bunch of family in Poland that could make it for us. So we started making furniture in their families' farm workshops.
V&L: We carry several of your pieces in our store, including the 3 drawer industrial counter. Most people who see your pieces can't believe that they aren't antiques.
Most of the people who manufacture furniture fall into two categories.
The first group are made up of people who look at magazines, put stickies on the the pieces they like, and then decide that they are going to reproduce those pieces.
The other group are the people from China and India who look at the pieces that are selling well and try to make them cheaper.
We don't fall into either of those categories. We start with the raw materials. So the Three Drawer Industrial Counter, for example, was designed because we found 4,000 of those drawers in an old factory in Germany. So those drawers are from the 1920's.
We found these old oak wine barrels from the North of France with great patina. The material was "seeped in its own juices" as they would say. It's had a life before as a different product. We took that material and designed the Wine Barrel Chandelier....
We had oyster sticks from the South of France, and we made coffee tables and lamps, chandeliers and mirrors....
We bought a lot of brick makers palettes from a stone quarry, so we made tables out of them....
We start with a cool old original raw material. We really work from the ground up. We start in the attics and the mud of the flea markets in Europe looking for the materials and make a marriage between those two. That is what gives the Bobo pieces their soul. The materials have been used somewhere before.
V&L: Until this interview I didn't know that you had a partner. How did you two meet?
Rudi is Dutch and lives in Belgium. He used to have the best antique store in Antwerp. When he and his partner had a falling out, I started using him as a picker for antiques. We had a similar eye. We started drinking beers and hanging out. Before I was married with kids, I was in Europe at least one week a month, and Rudi and I started going out to the bar every night and designing ideas on cocktail napkins. That's how it started Just drinking beer in a bar with a pile of cocktail napkins. He would change a line and I'd change a line. We'd come up with a prodct that we thought was cool. He would go to Poland with our three workers and make it.
V&L: It is unusual to find someone with the same design aesthetic as you.
It is similar but not the same. I feel that if two people think the same then one of them is not needed. Rudi will design things that are a bit crazy, fantastical, amazing. I'll look at his design and say that there is no way we can ship this. Maybe one out of 1000 people are going to find a place where this can work in their house. I'll have to reel him in a bit. Most of the things that I design are a bit more on the classical side. I don't like a lot of ornamentation. When you look at the Brick Makers table it is linear lines and a brick makers top. I strip every piece of ornamentation off of it to where it resonates. I don't like stains or varnish. No curly q's. So Rudi and I design in a different way. When we meet in the middle where we can say that this is a product that is fantastic., when we both nod our heads and say "Yes", then it seems like it is always a good product.
V&L: I love the Brick Maker's Table. It's beautiful in its simplicity, but I know that there are now similar tables being made. How do you deal with being knocked off?
We are not going for that low price point, so we are set to be ripped off.
They can try to cop us but they get to about 85% and it is the last 15% that is the soul of the piece. They can't reproduce the old materials.
They even copy our showrooms down to the color we paint our walls.
I was one of the first people to combine vintage with the Bobo look and to paint the walls of our showroom dark grey. We wanted the walls to disappear. Now every showroom does that. So, we have to shift our gears. As long as people are following you, I guess that is the position I want to be in. We live it. If you don't live it, you can't make a piece of furniture that's right. Rudi and I can come up with a thousand ideas. You just keep making things you love and move forward.
V&L:You certainly do keep moving forward. That can be seen in your new show room at Americas Mart in Atlanta. You really think big. You didn't have one or two taxidermy birds, you had a whole zoo!
That's just the way I think. If you have one or two or three of something then it's interesting. If you have 50 of something then that's amazing. It becomes an installation. I am always looking for things that I can buy in huge multiple lots, because visually it makes things more appealing.
Your eyes widen and you just say "Wow". That's the reaction I want to get in the showroom. We also do things in a much bigger scale than most people. I always make a joke about the antiques I buy. If it is big and un-sellable then I'll buy it.
V&L: When I was in the showroom I did notice that you play with scale. There were pieces that were much bigger than you would expect.
I'd rather make a table that is higher, lower, bigger because then there is an impact there. That is something I've never seen before.
V&L: I was impressed by the size of the artwork you were selling in your showroom. The walls were covered in these huge canvases!
That is a brand new product and our most successful brand new category. I went to a paint factory and everyone was doing paintings of dogs, horses, landscapes in bright colors. You see it everywhere.
I love photography, and I have been saving images. I found an image in Argentina of a prize winning bull, and I took it to the painter. I said that I wanted to paint this bull, and I want it to be oversized. I want it 4' x 6' with no color. I found old images
of old planes, old sailing ships, old race cars, an old French fencer. Things I would want in my own house. They looked at me like I was out of my mind, but these paintings really resonate with people. The price point is phenomenal. You can barely stretch a canvas for what we sell a 4' x 6' oil on canvas painting for.
If you see one of these huge paintings behind the desk of a man's library, it just takes over the room. You just think that's an amazing image. Those are the types of things we do.
V&L: They really looked great against the eggplant paint color on the walls.
Yes, that is our new color. My way of design is that you want the pieces to be the stand outs. I want the walls to drift away. The furniture should fly off of it. It is a dark velvet color. It is really dramatic when we paint the ceiling the same color. When we do photo shoots we even paint the mantel the same color. So you have a complete cube that is all one color. When you do that in the eggplant, it is very dramatic.
V&L: As if you don't have enough on your plate, I just received an e-mail from Restoration Hardware about their new Wine Barrel Chandelier designed by you, Mark Sage. Are you using the same old material for their chandelier?
Yes, same materials. Restoration came to me in October and said that they went around the world and saw everything. Bobo is what they wanted in their stores. They wanted me to design furniture for them. To date they have 14 products that my business partner, Rudi Nijssen and I have designed. Some of the products are private label that we designed just for them. Other products they took from the Bobo line.
V&L: It seems like many of the Bobo pieces are at a higher price point than the average Restoration pieces.
That is the big shift that Restoration is going through right now, and I think they are on point. Restoration is positioning itself as a higher priced, more bespoke home furnishings company that sells furniture with more character. That is why they are doing their ad campaign where you see the designers standing over the piece that they have made by their hands or in their own factories in Holland or England.
They give us full creative license and allow us to control the quality. Restoration Hardware is repositioning itself as a brand that will appeal to the higher end market. So far it has worked really well.
V&L: So what's next?
I don't know. I'm going to Belgium, France, and Argentina next week. I'll be in attics, barns, flea markets. You don't know what it is that you are going to run into next. We have a treasure trove of things in our Belgium warehouse that are in production right now. Some of them we'll be able to make, and some of them we won't.
I don't know what's next. It sounds like a crazy thing, but I like it that way.
We'll probably concentrate on more decorative items.
We haven't pigeon holed ourselves. You can out fit an entire room just from the things you can buy in Bobo. That is a bit unusual.
V&L: Thank you so much Mark for giving us this insight into your incredibly creative design world!
I'd love to hear what you think of Mark's designs.
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