When Mary Bauer was pregnant with her first child in 1995, she did what most new parents do--searched for the right nursery furniture. But for Mary and her husband, Stephen, that search proved futile.
"The face of juvenile furniture was very different," Mary said. "We were trying to find sophisticated, well-designed baby furniture. But it was either very high-end European or Babies "R" Us. There was nothing in between."
After finding nothing that suited their tastes, Stephen, who at the time was working as a commercial illustrator but has a background in furniture making in his native South Africa, designed a crib from scratch--a four-poster iron crib with ostrich feathers. The couple realized there were likely others parents out there that wanted the same level of sophistication and elegance for their nurseries, so the couple formed Bratt Decor. "We incorporated while I was still pregnant," Mary said.
From 1995 to 2000, Bratt Decor was focused on iron pieces, but that philosophy began to change as their two children got older. "Our kids were moving into something more fun," Mary said. That led to the Dick and Jane line, a painted distressed group in bold kid-friendly shades like red, navy and pink that proved to be a hit.
Bratt Decor's first trade show was JPMA in 1997. The Bauers currently show at the Atlanta gift and apparel shows and the ABC Expo in Las Vegas. In addition to selling only to high-end independent specialty stores, the couple runs two Bratt Decor stores--one in Baltimore and a second in Falls Church, Va., that opened in May.
The Process: The Bauers work together to create new collections--Mary keeps on eye on the market and figures out what style the new designs should have. She then talks to Stephen, who begins working on sketches. Those sketches are turned into mechanical drawings that are sent abroad for prototypes. The necessary corrections are made and then the new prototypes are photographed and the line goes into production. Mary said the whole process from idea to fruition generally takes about a year.
Mary said her favorite group is Chelsea, a collection they designed after taking a more fun, whimsical turn with Dick and Jane. The line includes a sleigh crib with relief carvings and rubbed details. "I love the Chelsea collection, especially in silver," Mary said. "It's like 1930s glam. And it's so unlike what anyone else had done."
Stephen also named the Chelsea as his favorite in the Bratt Decor product mix. "It all came together so well--it exceeded my expectations," he said. "The interpretation really took it to a new level."
Stephen said the inspiration for Chelsea and some of the other lines is borne out of his study of old world ironwork, which he describes as having a "lyrical look." Stephen's background also plays a major role--his father and brothers worked in furniture and cabinet making in South Africa. "It's a family business."
"(Bratt Decor) has a clarity of design. We're not just re-inventing something," he said. "There are no shortcuts in our design."
Mary said Bratt Decor's next collection will have a modern look that is different from what's out on the market today. The design is very clean and simple, Mary said, describing a style that seems to fit her philosophy. "I don't like trendy. I like timelessness."
The Challenges: As the company moves ahead, it isn't without challenges. "We're having some growing pains" trying to keep up with demand, Mary said. And finding bigger plants to support that growth also has its obstacles because the Bauers are adamant about quality standards. "It can take a year to train a factory on production," she added.
Stephen said it's a challenge to keep things new and exciting for retailers. "We try to stay fresh and bring out product with market appeal," he said. "(There's a challenge) in maintaining freshness and pushing forward."
He credits his wife for staying on top of happenings in the marketplace and bringing that to his attention.
"She keeps a finger on the pulse of what's going on," he said. "We're a great team."
Mary and Stephen Bauer aimed for a sophicated look with the Chelsea sleigh crib and other pieces from Bratt Decor collections.