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Always Thinking Beyond the Box

Tracy Porter Pushes Convention in a Jumbled Symphony of Color and Fabric

November 19, 1998|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although Tracy Porter has a flourishing line of home design products, her ambitions stretch beyond selling pillows and rugs and dishes.

"We want to do a lot more than design pretty things," said Porter of the business she and her husband started six years ago when they left Chicago to live in the country. "I want to send a message about taking risks, making changes and breaking out of the box."

Without benefit of either a business degree or design school, Tracy Porter, 30, has utilized her artistic talent to break out of the box in a major way. Her Tracy Porter Home Collection of rugs, pillows, dinnerware, glassware and other products is licensed by more than 14 major manufacturers and carried in 15,000 department and specialty stores. Sales exceeded an estimated $20 million in 1998 and are expected to nearly double that for 1999.

And her new coffee-table book, "Tracy Porter's Dreams From Home," (Andrews McMeel Publishing), is an exuberant blend of design, drawings, philosophy and the pastoral lifestyle that Porter wants to share with all of America.

"I'm a bona fide romantic, and I think if we could have more of that in life it would be a beautiful place," says Porter, who thinks of herself as an explorer rather than a designer. "Home is the perfect place for exploration."

"Home" for Porter is a 21-acre gentleman's farm in Princeton, Wis., that she and her husband, John Porter, bought in 1991 when they decided to leave the bustle of Chicago. "My mom and dad are there, my sister is there. I wanted to find a place where there is meaning."

And "home" for Porter is a stone farmhouse with quirky floors and low ceilings but blessed with ample closet space, a spacious dining area and an abundance of nooks and crannies. The house overflows with pillows, rugs, pictures, candles, wallpaper collages, books and art objects tossed together in a jumbled symphony of texture and fabrics. The interior colors are the same shades of Sage, Meadowlace, Cerise and Caracas that Porter picked for her first line of hand-painted furniture.

"We kind of fell into this business," explained the voluble, energetic designer in an interview last week. Needing furniture themselves, she and her husband, both artists, sketched out designs for armoires, accent tables, mirrors and other "bits and pieces," commissioned a local woodworker to build them and hand-painted them with radiant color and design.

The couple loaded about 30 pieces into her parents' van and drove for 18 hours from Wisconsin to the New York Gift Fair, where they launched their Stonehouse Farm Goods collection.

"We truly had no idea what we were doing," said Porter, who had applied to five crafts fairs and was turned down by four. "I didn't even know the difference between a retail and a wholesale show, but an artist friend told us if we did $10,000 worth of business we would make out like bandits, so that was our goal."

They wrote $79,000 worth of orders to customers including Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Ballards, and were ecstatic.

"People were thrilled to be able to find a new source," Porter said. "They said it was different--we had a ton of color all mixed up and lots of pattern--it was fairly wild."

The furniture business grew so fast that they found themselves with an 8,000-square-foot studio and 50 full-time artists painting furniture. They couldn't turn it out fast enough, Porter said. So they sat down and took stock of their strengths and weaknesses and what they really wanted for the company and themselves: Was it a life of furniture manufacturing?

They wanted to do more, Porter said.

"We could see dinner plates and rugs and wallpaper, books and cards. We wanted to reach people in another way. We were having this neat experience ourselves, on this farm in the country. It was fun, it was playful and we wanted to get this out."

They already knew from their furniture catalogs--built around farm life and their animals, family and friends--that their idyllic lifestyle had an audience.

"I think the average person can totally relate to us," Porter said. "And it also gives people hope--if we can figure it out in Wisconsin, maybe they can, too."

Karen Watkins, general manager at Vroman's in Pasadena, where Porter signed her new book last week, says that the artist is unusually prolific and adventurous. Vroman's carries everything from Tracy Porter's rugs and pillows to glassware and greeting cards.

"She uses textures and intermixes things that some of us are afraid to try, such as checks and polka dots and all sorts of colors," Watkins said. "She does it and makes it OK."

Although Porter hasn't conducted any research on her customers and what they want, several manufacturers have.

"They tell us that we absolutely reach women, and they find something in our work which touches a memory but also lets them find something which is really new," Porter said.

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