Quitter to Winner

Thursday, September 16, 2010

INTERVIEW: How to turn passion into profit with Travis Smith

Collector, designer and author Travis Smith tells us how he turned his passion for mid-century modern design into a 20-year-long career.

I guess I'll start with the obvious: how did you turn your passion for mid-century design into a job?

I began collecting vintage modern back in the early 80s when it was still called "junk." Then it went to being called "retro," and now "mid century modern." Back then I did not know what it was or why I even was drawn to it. I just knew I instinctively loved the design aesthetic from the period of the 50s through the 70s.

In the early days this stuff was filling up the local thrift stores for pennies! Nobody knew what it was or that it had any value. All of the office buildings in town were updating their look and donating their "old" furniture to the Good Will and Salvation Army stores. What I eventually would discover is that this "old" furniture was in fact iconic designs by some of our most famous 20th Century designers.

So it was not uncommon back then to walk into a thrift store and find furniture designed by Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, George Nelson, and others. I remember finding a thrift store in South Phoenix that had a back yard with stuff piled up. There was this huge heap of Diamond Chairs by Bertoia, plus dozens of his dining chairs and tables. I bought the entire lot for $100!

And while I did not quite know it at the time, that was my introduction to becoming a "vintage modern dealer." As my "collection" grew so did my need for storage. Soon I was renting two large storage units to house all of this stuff. At the time I was working at an interior design showroom as their visual merchandiser and doing sales. I liked my job, but I was becoming increasingly passionate about my newfound love for "retro junk."

And then one weekend I visited L.A. with some buddies. It was there that I discovered the hipster area called Melrose. I remember seeing my first retro furniture store and looking into the window display with all of the same kinds of stuff I had been collecting - and then I looked at the price tags. Oh my God, there was a market for this stuff?!! I walked in and introduced myself to the owner and asked him if he would be interested in buying from me on a "wholesale" basis. He did indeed. And right then and there I became what’s known in the vintage industry as a "Picker." And I never looked back.

What were you doing before you started your own thing?

Well like most things, my career in mid-century modern evolved in stages. When I first became a "picker" I had a full-time job at the interior design showroom.

Did you have to work a "real job" while you got your own business up and running? If so, how long did you have to juggle both?

I kept my job for a few months but I was frustrated and wanted to be picking/selling vintage full time. I finally quit that job and devoted myself to mid-century full time. I did that for about a year while living in Phoenix, and then I visited a buddy in Washington DC for a vacation. While there, I met two guys who were about to open one of the first retro furniture stores in DC called Retrospective. They ended up hiring me as the store manager, and without hesitation I moved to DC and waved goodbye to my life in Phoenix where I had grown up.

After moving to DC in 88, and opening Retrospective, I would embark on one of the most rewarding and exciting times of my life. This period was the beginning of the "Mid-Century Modern" movement - and we were on the cutting edge of it all. It felt so validating to be finally working in an environment that suited all of my loves and talents - and the store was immediately successful. We really were some of the first "pioneers" of that retail concept and it was quite gratifying to become so successful so quickly. I would end up working there for four years before I would strike out on my own again.

I then opened my own store called Good Eye, which I ran with my partner at that time for ten years. Hard work and many hours but it was very rewarding to own my own store and be doing what I loved and believed in.

Did you have any regrets in the beginning?

Nope. I listened to my heart and followed it - when you do that you will ultimately be successful whatever you end up doing in life. Very simple: Do what you love.

You've parlayed your interest and expertise in modern design into a varied career. What else have you done besides open a store?

I continued to freelance as a visual merchandiser on the side and for a while, had about a dozen retail stores as my accounts where I did their window displays, etc. I also parlayed this into interior design, and eventually designed 12 nightclubs around the country as well as residences - all of my passions continued to feed off of each other and kept creating new career opportunities for me.

Designed nightclubs?!

Yes, while living in D.C. I was working at Retrospective when this guy literally jogged into the shop. He asked me about a 1940s sofa and chair grouping we had for sale - he wanted to know if we could find six of these sets for him? I said yes, that was possible - was he working on some kind of commercial design project?

He told me about his plans to open a themed billiards club, which would be part bar, part coffee house. I thought the concept was brilliant and started giving him design ideas. He told me that he was impressed with my ideas and asked me if I would be interested in designing the club for him. YES!!! Of course I was interested!

I ended up designing about a dozen clubs for him - all with different themes - Buffalo Billiards, Car Pool, Havana Lounge, Continental Pool Lounge, etc. including locations in Philly, Nashville, and Austin: http://bedrockbars.com/ Very rewarding and fun work. And you are probably seeing a pattern emerge here - by following my initial dream, I put myself out there to receive other opportunities to come my way - that continue to expand that dream and help it grow in other directions.

You also wrote a book - "Kitschmasland!" - how did that come about?

I had a dealer booth at a Modernism show in NYC - an Editor from Schiffer Books stopped by and out of the blue asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book. I told him, as a matter of fact I had. He asked me what kind of book. The first thing that popped out of my mouth was a Christmas book. I think he was quite surprised as he thought I would want to do something on vintage modern. But one of my collecting passions has always been holiday decor from the 50s through the 70s, so it seemed like a natural for me.

My former partner, Skip Przywara did all the photography on the book and it turned out really beautiful. It is a coffee table book with over 400 photos and descriptions of all the vintage Holiday stuff I love and collect - ornaments, trees, Santas, etc. Plus we shot mid-century modern homes decorated for the holidays with all vintage d├ęcor. I think it turned out super cool. It is still in print and available on Amazon:

Do you have any other books in the works?

Yes, I am working on one right now but it is top-secret. Stay tuned.

What advice would you give someone thinking about turning their passion into profit?

I'll just repeat my mantra: Do what you love. I'm not saying there won't be any obstacles or hard work, but it will be completely rewarding because you are following your heart and dreams and the payoff will be huge.

What's next for you?

My best friend and new business partner, Chris Bale, and I just launched a niche Facebook page called Modern Bear - devoted to the gay bear community (and the people who love them). It combines my love of modern design with bear lifestyle tips, pop culture, and a little beefcake thrown in haha. We are also working on a book based on this same concept. And hope to eventually offer a line of Modern Bear products! This time of my life reminds me of the late 80s - very exciting and feeling like we are on the "cutting edge." I'm in my zone again and I can't stop smiling.

1 comment:

  1. Great article Travis, and so true to follow your dream. Tho some dreams make more money than others...