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Cottage Industry

A Furniture Company In Maine Banks on A Well-Loved Look

By Patricia Dane Rogers
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 4, 2004; Page H01

Three years ago, Joan Gregory fell hard for the charms of an unpretentious little beadboard cupboard: a homey style with double doors, bright green paint and pink wooden knobs. Just the sort of piece you imagine finding in a little cottage by the sea, or along a country lane.

But this one sits in a front hall in suburban Kensington, where it has since been joined by an equally cottagey scrubbed-black kitchen table and two dressers in her daughters' bedroom, one as blue as a bachelor's button, the other hot pink. All were made by a company called Maine Cottage.

At home in Kensington, Joan Gregory, her 13-month-old twins, Grady and Samantha, and her cottage dresser. (Len Spoden For The Washington Post)

Quintessential Cottage

Picket fences: Practically synonymous with simple, homey charm.

Painted furniture: Think white wicker rockers, little red benches, multicolored kitchen chairs.

Porches: A place to peel apples, carve pumpkins and chat with the neighbors. Or to imagine that you will.

Window Boxes: Brimming with flowers in summer, greenery in the snow.

Bead board: Honest architectural detailing for porch ceilings, wainscoting, swinging screen doors.

Flowered fabric: Cabbage roses on the curtains, chintz on the sofa, pretty pillows anywhere.

"I drooled over that [first] piece for a long time but I had to have it," says Gregory, landscape architect, mother of three and wife of Lenny Williams, pianist for the Capitol Steps. She first saw the line at the Blue House, a boutique in Bethesda. "I just fell in love with the simple cottage shapes and the fun colors."

In a home furnishings industry full of sleek contemporary, solid traditional and cool retro looks, Maine Cottage has been faithful to the enduring and endearing appeal of the proverbial little house on the hill: kids' twin beds with cutout moons and stars; painted wicker rockers, side tables with scallops and curlicues, beadboard hutches, cheery fabrics and, above all, saturated colors with names such as "buttercream," "blueberry," "iris" and "jam."

The look is not fancy, showy or cutting edge. It is cozy, friendly and utterly familiar. It speaks, somehow, to people in suburban split-levels and fourth-floor city walk-ups, and is reflected in a steady stream of books and magazines featuring front porches, window boxes, tea-towel curtains at a sunny kitchen window, home-made preserves cooling on the sideboard.

September marked the debut of yet another such publication, Cottage Living, a Time Inc. magazine fat with ads and devoted to the belief that cottage is as much a state of mind as a style of real estate.

"Our emphasis is on spaces that say 'welcome home' with comfort and color, not brittle perfection. We show kids' toys, dog-eared paperbacks on nightstands and well-worn pots on the stoves," says senior editor James H. Schwartz. "Readers are responding in droves . . . [They] really relate to homes that are attainable -- not to two-Palladian-window, three-chimney, four-car-garage McMansions."

New housing developments evoking this time- gone-by have sprung up coast to coast, including trailblazing Seaside, Fla., a 23-year-old community of narrow streets lined with wood-frame cottages and picket fences. Vineyard Grove, a development rising in Irvington on Virginia's Northern Neck, features board-and-batten Carpenter Gothic cottages with gingerbread trim (www.vineyardgrove.com).

For much of its 16-year history, Maine Cottage was relatively unknown beyond the Pine Tree State. A mostly word-of-mouth company, it was launched about the same time as Shabby Chic, the widely marketed brand that made its name with slouchy slipcovers, faded florals and worn, peeling, mostly white furniture.

Maine Cottage, by contrast, was crisp, glossy and all about bright. "I'd been through monochromatic phases before, but life's too short to do that Zen-like thing when you can have fabulous colors," says artist and furniture designer Carol Bass, who founded the company with her then-husband, Peter, a scion of G.H. Bass & Co. (home of the Weejun).

The family shoe empire had been sold, and the couple was looking for new direction. Both were inspired by the comfy, cottage informality so evocative of Maine summers Peter had known as a child. "I'd also been a boat builder once and liked to make things, and Carol was an artist," says Peter Bass, 53, president of Maine Cottage. "We saw a niche for fine painted furniture that was fun, wasn't brown like our parents', and bet the ranch. . . . I told Carol, 'If you can design it, I can sell it.' "

They set up shop in a former sardine cannery in Yarmouth, about 12 miles north of Portland. Starting with five pieces and three paint colors, the couple began building their privately held venture into a national brand. At last count, Maine Cottage had 200 designs and 40 colors, simple styles selling at rather steep prices: $150 for an "Unsassy Mirror" (small); $4,240 for a "Good Student Desk" with matching wall hutch.

The first big order was from Manhattan designer Carleton Varney for the owner of the posh Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island. "Mackinac is a white-picket-fence kind of place, so Maine Cottage was perfect," Varney says. "There's still nothing quite like it out there. I've used it in villas on St. Croix as well as New York apartments."

Today the company has nearly $9 million in annual sales, a $15 catalogue, a Web site (www.mainecottage.com or call 888-859-5522), a network of more than 80 retail dealers (including the River Cottage in Irvington, Va.) plus a new stand-alone store in Charleston, S.C.

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