It was love at first sight.
My gorgeous gray leather cuff, shown in the picture on the left, was lovingly made out of all vintage materials by Laura Allswang, the vintage upcycling guru behind Dstressed. While I was interviewing Laura in her home, she brought out these cuff bracelets she makes. The soft gray coupled with the silver leaf caught my eye. My fatal mistake was trying it on—it fit like a glove. So naturally, by the time the conversation was over, I had to have it. And now I wear it all the time! Today I am wearing it in honor of People with Panache, sharing Laura’s story. (And I thought it would be a great second-ever post on PWP’s brand-new Instagram account!)
Laura lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and kids (the ones not away at college). She met her husband when they were both in law school. Then, she practiced law for a short time before realizing she didn’t really want to be a lawyer. She decided to stay at home with her kids and as they grew up needed more. Laura let her creative juices flow and started painting furniture, which grew into a business involving decorative trays from picture frames, supple leather cuffs and more—all in her signature distressed style using only vintage and antique pieces.
People with Panache: How did you transform your hobby into a business?
Laura Allswang: I’ve always loved redoing and creating things. So I started painting furniture as a hobby about 10 years ago. I would either find things and paint them, or I had a friend who would ask me to paint her stuff. I didn’t charge her at first; it was fun! Eventually she said she wasn’t going to ask me to do another piece for her if I didn’t charge her something. I had no idea what I was doing, but that’s how I got into my business—painting furniture.
PWP: How did the trays and cuffs come into play?
LA: My nephew, who is a business person, said: You know, you really need a small product of some sort to show people. It’s hard to lug your furniture around and say, ‘Oh I paint furniture, and here’s a huge piece.’
Then I started collecting old frames and hardware and came up with my signature piece: Ottoman/vanity trays in all different sizes, made out of vintage frames and hardware with vintage-inspired fabrics under the glass.
PWP: How did you develop your style?
LA: I always loved different layers of paint sanded back to give a rustic, distressed look. That’s my signature style.
Even with my trays, when people say, oh do you do something modern? I just don’t. That’s not my thing.
Early on, I took my trays to a store I had always wanted to carry them. They tried to get me to bring them down to a lower price point so they could stock them, but the one thing that a lot of people told me when I started my business is to start higher. People will pay more for something they see as more valuable. If you can make it there, then stay there. Don’t devalue yourself. I was really proud of myself; I told them I can’t. And they said, ‘But you could do it cheaper if you got your frames from Homegoods and went to a hardware store…’ I was almost sweating. I could do that, but that’s not my business model. I can’t turn around and tell someone that’s a vintage frame. But it was like this turning point: This is who I am, and I have to stay true to myself.
PWP: That’s so important! You can’t let someone else’s business model shape how you run yours. Now how do you go about selling the trays?
LA: I started with by getting in touch with a local store that mainly carried jewelry and clothing stuff but featured some housewares, and she gave me a try. So I started slowly.
Then I began doing a summer fair here and there. A jeweler friend and I got into a networking group together, she started helping me network, and then we did One of a Kind Chicago. This winter will be my third year. She and I signed up together with booths next to each other—my first real foray into seeing how this thing was going to work. I made like 110 trays and I ended up selling 60 or 70. I was really excited. I did a couple summer shows, like a sidewalk sale, and started getting into a couple of stores. And I just took off.
The next year I did One of a Kind, it was really fun because people remembered me—and this time, they came to buy! It was really a good feeling.
PWP: What do you love about being a vendor versus having your trays in a store?
LA: I just love the personal side. I love talking to people; it’s so fun to discuss. I love the interpersonal part of being at fairs and hearing people’s ideas. From that, I do a lot of custom stuff.
PWP: How is your furniture business doing?
LA: Probably about a year ago, out of nowhere, someone saw something and asked me if I paint furniture. I said I do, that’s how my business actually started, and it’s just taken off in the last year. I’ve been painting so much furniture, which is really nice—and for people I don’t know, which is even better. I have really good, supportive friends in my community but I wanted to see if I could break out and have people who weren’t my friends use me. I want people to do it because they like my product, not because they feel like they have to buy a tray. I was really self-taught in that also, so now I’ve taken a couple classes and that’s been great.
PWP: What do you love the most?
LA: The thing I love the most is the taking old things and making them new. Don’t get rid of good, old furniture and buy some piece of garbage that’s going to fall apart. People don’t believe you, but you paint it and it comes to life!
[Photos by Kate.]
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