Painting Furniture - Artistically

Working with `good cottage junk,' two entrepreneurial women artists have created a sensation producing pieces that make themselves - and a growing clientele - very happy. INTERVIEW

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S true. If you blink, you might miss Glen Arbor. Nestled in the lee of Lake Michigan's Sleeping Bear Bay, the town consists of a gas station, a post office, two grocery stores, some small shops, and the studio from which two entrepreneurial women artists have created a sensation in painted furniture. The studio is a small white house with a back deck that overlooks the woods. Its five rooms vibrate with the colors and designs of finished and unfinished dressers, tables, chairs, and picture frames. All of them spoken for.

Molly Phinny puts down her paintbrush and opens the door that leads off the deck. Then she seats herself in a canvas chair and invites some questions. Asked how this team got started painting furniture, she defers to her partner, Joanne Evans.

The tale begins one summer in the early '80s when Ms. Phinny, a northern Michigan folk artist, did a series of watercolor sketches from her garden. Around that time, Ms. Evans, a college art instructor, was vacationing in France, where she took a trip to see Monet's flowers at Giverny.

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The two women joined up at summer's end, inspired by floral images. Phinny set a wooden bench in front of Evans and invited her to paint it. Evans decorated it with loosely flowing leaves and blossoms. Later, Phinny put the bench and a number of her own similarly painted pieces in a shop. They sold quickly. She telephoned Evans, who by now had returned to her home in Illinois, and told her to ``get right back here.''

They have worked together ever since. ``Joanne arrived with a trailer filled with furniture that anybody else would have thrown away,'' says Phinny. ``We unpacked it in the back yard.''

Now they spend their days creating pieces that make themselves - and a growing clientele - very happy. Working with ``good cottage junk,'' as Phinny describes it, and some fine pieces of furniture, they turn out pieces to decorate an entire room.

. They work together on nearly every piece. ``We taught each other what we know from our different perspectives,'' explains Phinny. ``On one piece I'll put on the flowers; she'll follow with the leaves; and then she'll do ribbons. Another time it switches.'' Evans continues, ``[Another] artist might say, `Well, that's not art.' I mean, how many times do you find two artists cooperating on a piece? It just isn't done. ... [Normally] it's one person's inspiration. But we have found that the piece turns out much better'' when it's a collaboration.

As is often the case when people are doing the thing they know best and love most, the business has taken on a life and direction of its own. Since their first big show at Kasler at Home in Indianapolis, Phinny and Evans have received one invitation after another to exhibit their work.

For them, that means preparing 200 pieces or so per show, wrapping them, packing them into a truck, and driving them to Indianapolis, St. Louis, or Lake Forest - weeks of intense creative work, as well as hard physical labor.

The delighted response of customers has had a somewhat unexpected dimension. Evans says of an early show at the Mus'ee de No"el in St. Louis: ``I remember seeing customers walk by. Their mouths would open; they'd drop the kids or the husbands and come in ... salivate.''

Indeed, a roomful of Phinny-Evans furniture is enough to turn more than a few heads. The whimsical but livable designs are inspired by English chintzes, French floral fabrics, and, of course, the flower gardens that brought the two together in the first place. They've now hired a trained furniture maker, Paul de Heer, who builds reproductions of Shaker and primitive pieces. And they still hunt for antiques when they're not busy in the studio.

Phinny and Evans seem to be riding a wave of public interest in romantic furnishings and all things Victorian. ``We've just happened onto the scene where what we like is popular. Our society is affluent enough right now that furniture is something people are buying,'' says Phinny.

They are both thrilled and exhausted by the demand. On average, they complete five pieces a day - everything from armoires (with a $3,000 price tag) to bedside tables ($250).

They personally handpaint everything that carries their names. They have decided that the business will only expand as far as the two of them, working to maximum potential, can take it. Evans says, ``Our pieces are totally designed. You don't get the feel of a decal, or a little trim here and there.''

Along the way, the two may have learned more than they cared to about business, although some of it has clearly been helpful. Evans recalls the first time she was approached by a shop owner to sell some furniture: ``Well, I would have given it to her. I don't have a business sense. If somebody says they love what you do ... well, of course they can have it.''

Phinny and Evans have no shop of their own, and that's the way they want to keep it. They work by commission, provided the owners deliver and pick up the furniture. And they are represented by designers and stores in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine, and (coming soon) Hawaii.

Where will it all take them? It's hard to say. Tiles may be next - they're easier to ship than furniture. They would love to be asked to design fabrics. But there are certain directions both Phinny and Evans would prefer to avoid:

``Occasionally people come through - and here's our studio, packed with really lovely floral things, feminine and pretty - and they say, `Do you do chickens?'''

We say, ``No. But we will if you pay us enough.''

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