I’ve been in interior design ever since I graduated with my degree from Purdue. I did a lot of commercial contract work for 20 years of my career, mostly for architects and designers. I managed product design at Herman Miller, taught design, and then graduated from my corporate life and wanted to look at residential design work.
Eventually, I decided to work for myself because I’d worked in the three major areas I most wanted to explore: facility design (I designed retail stores for Herman Miller), professional services (also known as marketing), as well as research and development for product design. For me, the next logical frontier was to hang out my own shingle. I did this as a consultant for a while. Then I was invited to do a residential store in California and New York for Herman Miller as a consultant. That changed everything. I knew I wanted my own store after that.
But at the time, I had a design practice with an architect and interior designer who were getting ready to buy CAD equipment. I realized that our partnership would likely require me to do more CAD work than I wanted to; I knew I wanted to do more design, less architecture.
So I went home and wrote a business plan. It focused on scratching my own itch as a frustrated shopper. I researched the products, successful stores, what it took to really go to market and reviewed the numbers.
It’s interesting in retrospect; a lot of the vendors I carry now started 20 years ago. There was something going on in the furniture industry, particularly contemporary design — maybe I could feel it, maybe it was intuitive — but a lot of the designers I carry were born at the same time my store was born.
When you come to Three Chairs, Co., the assortment of furniture you see on the floor is unlike any place you’ll ever go. While the relationships drive some of what’s in store, it changes season to season based on where I can see the market is going. I use a lot of my intuition to guide the process of what’s on the floor in any given season.
For example, I go to market twice a year in New York and North Carolina (for retailers, “going to market” means previewing what manufacturers have on offer at showrooms or events and buying what they believe customers will want to purchase in stores back home). I go with an idea of what the store needs, say coffee tables, and then see something I know would be a fit for our store and shoppers. When that happens, I’ll change directions to accommodate that inclination.
What I select from the markets is based on creative instinct and an understanding of quality construction and design. It’s also based on customer needs. I try hard to listen to customers because if I work with them on designing their living room or lake cottage and don’t have the things that solve their problems, someone else will. So I’m in the stores a lot; I especially try to work on weekends because I can see and hear more customers that way.
The first store was the hardest one, because I was just making it up. I started with the equivalent of a blank piece of paper, but this is the best part. I love opening stores because I get to design the store in addition to filling it. But that first one, my husband helped — we painted it all ourselves. He stenciled the “three chairs” quotation from Thoreau on the store and it’s still there. So it was hands-on and a lot of work.
One of the early challenges happened when I decided to carry Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. I made an appointment at the fall market to talk to their representative in the spring, shortly before Three Chairs, Co. was scheduled to open. But when I got there the rep was no longer with the company and they had no record of my appointment. At the time, I thought, “This is my major upholstery vendor and they won’t let me in. How am I going to open a furniture store without any upholstery? I can’t do this.”
So I sent my business plan to the vice president of sales at Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams and told him, “You want to be in my store. You are missing an opportunity to be in my store.” I sent my resume along with my husband’s and he called me and said, “I’m so sorry we lost your appointment, would you be willing to meet me in New York?” Of course I would.
Before the store opened, I flew to New York City and we took a cab from store to store in the rain and he showed me what to buy because the main showroom in North Carolina was already closed for the season.
It was a very good lesson in tenacity for me. They told me no, but I didn’t give up and I didn’t let go. I’m still selling Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, and now one of my three stores is dedicated to this brand. That was because I stuck to my guns.
I grew up a little bit when I decided not to give up at that moment. I just knew there had to be a way forward. If I had to give my just-starting-out self some advice, it would be to be even braver. To do your homework and take the leap.
The business name, Three Chairs Co., is from this Thoreau quote: “I have 3 chairs in my house. One for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.” Being a visual person, I knew I wanted a logo, but I didn’t want my name associated with the business. I didn’t want everyone to feel like they could only ever do their business with me. My personality isn’t to be the front-woman anyway. As I was trying to come up with the logo I ran across the quote from Thoreau and it resonated; I picked it up and it stuck.
On Heartbreak and Breakthrough
Things in my professional life and personal life aren’t separate; I don’t think they are separate for most women. While things were going fine at the store, my father’s health was failing, my daughter needed a new school, I wanted to get to a bigger market, my sister was in Ann Arbor, and my husband retired.
It was then I decided it was time to open a second store.
One of the biggest challenges I faced when growing and running the business was the year my husband died and my daughter left for college. Even though the business was always mine, he was my support system and cheerleader. Losing him was one of the biggest personal challenges.
Professionally, the biggest challenge was understanding the difference between various marketplaces. Experimenting with a store in Charlevoix and then going to Indianapolis taught me a lot. They are very different than having a store in Ann Arbor, and the all of these stores are different from having a store in Holland.
One of the biggest learning curves was going from two locations to three. It required a lot more formality, structure, and written policy to make it work. With two stores, we could be more casual, but when you get to three, it’s not so easy to do that. You need more systems.
On Getting Growth Right
I’m happy with our scale now. I closed the stores in Charlevoix and Indianapolis right after the recession hit. I didn’t regret trying those, because I learned from it. The stores in Ann Arbor have always produced and it’s even easier because my staff is very stable; people stay with me for years.
The store’s anniversary is in April, and even though half of my friends are retired and half are trying to figure out when and how they can retire, I’m not going anywhere. We still like what we’re doing. I still want to see what the next thing is, and still get a kick out of helping people do their living room better than they thought they could. It’s fun to be the person that helps people through their house stuff while they’re managing a career, raising their kids, and living a life; I love making it easier for them.
What makes Three Chairs, Co. different from anywhere else is that the materials are as they appear to be — they are real. We don’t do faux anything; we specialize in things like solid wood furniture and real American leather. We believe that if you buy the best you can and take care of it, it will serve you for a long time.
We also focus on iconic design. There are timeless pieces, like Herman Miller For The Home products that are in Museum of Modern Art and selling since 1950 — those products are here. We also have products we believe will go forward for the next 50 years or more.
The way Susan seamlessly blends intuition, instinct, research, and strategy reminds us of many business book best-sellers. We’re inspired that she, like most women business owners, leveraged all four of these tools. In the process of learning as she went, she’s created brick-and-mortar stores that will continue to help generations of homeowners find their unique style.