Michele VarianDesigner Michele Varian opened her first store in SoHo very shortly after 9/11 when she had money burning in her pocket from the sale of her gorgeous pillows to big name stores like Barneys and Neiman Marcus. Ultimately, she says, it was because she wanted complete control of the product—“I wanted something I could be proud of.” She can also be proud of the fact that she’s still holding on in this current climate of retail oddness. Originally trained as a fashion designer, she sold only her pillows but as eventually expanded into the jewelry, accent pieces and ceramics that can be found at her current store on Howard Street. It’s still a treat, and an affordable one too, but much of our discussion centered on the strange future of retail in our new digital world and her own involvement with keeping small businesses such as her own alive. She credits her civic activism towards a childhood spent in Detroit, raised by socially conscious parents who put her and her sisters (they are triplets) through the Detroit public school system because, as she puts it, they wanted them “to have a robust social experience.” It seems to have stood her in good stead.
I was reading up on you and someone described your store as a “modern curiosity shop” and I can see here in your own home you have Victorian-influenced objects and photos—what is about that era that appeals to you?
Well I was lucky enough to grow up in a historical home in a landmarked neighborhood in Detroit, called Indian Village. It’s now become a very desirable neighborhood because it is these old, beautiful turn-of-the-century homes where the lumber and auto barons moved to in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But it is the inner city, sort of about how far the Financial District is from 14th Street in New York.
The front door of Michele and her husband Brad's Soho loft is an old metal loft door, which they use as a magnet board with sketches mainly by Brad. "Besides hanging things that we need to remember to pop in the mail, it ends up being where we put things that we don't want to forget — like Brad's upcoming shows (Brad Roberts is the lead singer for the Canadian folk-rock band Crash Test Dummies — playing in NYC this Saturday, December 9th).
Leaning on top of the electrical box is a small painting that was a gift from and by Penine Hart. The loft has multiple roosters sprinkled around. "When Brad and I eloped in Reno, there was a stuffed rooster in the 'Southwestern' room where we sealed the deal. When asked what we wanted as a wedding gift, we said, "a stuffed rooster." Well, we got everything but!" explains Michele.
Before Michele started designing her own wallpaper, she sold Neisha Crosland's wallpaper at her shop. "I still love it. And, yes, I covered the electrical pipes and utility boxes with it too."
The dining nook next to the kitchen. The copper, hanging fixture was designed by Michele and is sold in her shop.
That’s not really how people see Detroit now, is it? They think of the broken city and poverty.
Yes, the blight, and it is very real. My sisters and I—I am one of triplets—while we grew up, the city decayed and slowly atrophied. My parents chose to stay. They wanted my sisters and I to have a robust social experience. They didn’t want us to have a homogenized experience. We stayed in the city and we went through the Detroit public school system. By the third grade, we were the only white kids in our school. And within that year, we were the only kids not on welfare.
So how would you say that informed the rest of your life?
Hugely. My Dad grew up in Larchmont in Westchester, so he was part of swim team, the club life and that kind of thing and he felt that it was extremely important for us to have a team experience. We lived near Belle Isle, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead who designed Central Park, and they have two private clubs, a yacht club and a boat club. We were members of the boat club and all of the members were white and from the suburbs. So we had access and exposure to radically different social circles. It made us super sensitive to both sides and made us realize how lucky we were relative to the kids we went to school with and again how lucky we were relative to the suburbanites who weren’t as socially sophisticated.
The main seating area is a mix of furnishings and objects found or bought over the years. Michele and Brad's casual approach to living means sometimes leaving decorations in place. "I didn't realize we left stuff (the red pompom) we hung for a Day of the Dead party that we had ..."
On the left is "Brad's Chair." "We tried to get rid of it, because it has stuffing coming out of it. The replacement wasn't as comfy, so had to call the delivery guys to bring this one back!"
Whenever Michele finds a good frame, she drags it home and often hangs them to frame the other frames. The paintings and antlers have been found at flea markets and vintage shops and during travels.
A leather sofa is covered with a mix of Michele's pillows and an Indonesian Ikat throw. The walls are covered in Neisha Crosland wallpaper. "I have no fear of mixing patterns."
Michele's "party shoes."
Did you maintain the friendships you made at school?
Absolutely. Very long, strong friendships from both sides.
It is relatively unusual to have life-long friendships across what I can only call a race barrier.
Yes, it’s super-unusual. But that’s what Detroit breeds.
Did you feel any racism directed towards you at school?
Well ... yes but it wasn’t an issue until the third grade when all the kids’ home lives were devastated because their parents lost their jobs. It really drove home that circumstances are a more of a driving force than race.
The kitchen is separated visually from the "den" and "dining" room by a hanging pot rack, some glass fly-catchers and a wooden bar door. "We are lucky enough to have a wood burning stove in our kitchen."
Showing the pot rack as divider between kitchen and den. The kitchen peninsula is an old concrete top lab table Michele bought when there was still an outdoor flea market in Soho