One Man’s Prison is Another Man’s Escape

I recently came across an article on the website, Business of Home — “Inside a Nashville prison, a hardwood flooring factory thrives” — about a gentleman named Don Finkell, CEO of American OEM Wood Floors. In 1996, Finkell began a program to employ prison inmates to make his flooring products. That article reminded me of two things.

First, it reminded me of one of my earlier posts, in which I’d mentioned a local company, Fresh Start Pallet Products, with which I’m working to design furniture and lighting. Like Finkell’s program, Fresh Start works to restore dignity, senses of self-worth, and independence to recovering addicts, former prison inmates, and the others in need of fresh starts it employs.

Second, the article reminded me of a particular piece of wisdom that says the priorities of the best businesses are people, process, product — in that specific order. Recalling that piece of wisdom compelled me to read the Business of Home article, in the context of people, process, and product. This is what I found:

  • People. “Finkell … [had] an opportunity to hire a number of hardworking men—inmates at a South Carolina prison … A workforce guaranteed to stay at the plant for several years could be taught complex skills, like crafting hand-scraped wood, which takes longer to master than the automated process used to make engineered hardwood … paying inmates to learn a trade was a viable option.”
  • Process. “Finkell [opened] a small plant within the grounds of the prison … More than 20 years later, Finkell has established six prison plants … [he] has 200 employees—and an additional 1,000 approved men on a waiting list … The men working in his factory earn an hourly fee that’s comparable to what civilians doing similar work in the area are paid … and earn a bonus based on productivity.”
  • Product. “Finkell’s wife [Emily Morrow, owner of Emily Morrow Home] … has become his best client. ‘This model that Don has created allows for so much more flexibility in the design process. Because this is a smaller operation and it’s not all automated, it allows me to create styles that are special and aren’t offered at the big companies.'”

So What?

That question is as logical as it is understandable. One guy did one thing. Big deal. Did it make a difference? Does it make a continuing difference? The answers to those questions depend on whether you believe in another piece of wisdom: You become what you count. Here’s what Don Finkell counts:

  • “The National Institute of Justice estimates that 68 percent of released prisoners are arrested again within three years. Finkell says that the recidivism rate for men in his plant hovers around just 7 percent.”
  • “A civilian plant in Indiana that Finkell owns is currently being run by a man who worked at a prison plant. ‘You could just tell he was a natural born leader and a hard worker. We’ve been pretty successful in helping these guys even after they get out.’”

Don Finkell counts people first. And he understands that one man’s prison is another man’s escape.

What do you count? Your answer will make all the difference.


Image by Tumisu, courtesy of pixabay.com.

Living in the Box

A long time ago, I came to realize and accept the fact that there are some things I’ll just never understand. I was reminded of that fact recently when I saw a promotion for this product. It got me wondering: If we’re all willing to pay lip service to thinking outside the box, why do we seem so willing and eager to live and work in it? And it also prompted me to think about the liabilities of short sight and the extent to which we routinely overlook our own human natures.

Yes. I know. The prevailing wisdom would have us believe two heads are better than one. By following that logic, though, we got a progression something like this:

  • If two heads are better, more than two must be even better.
  • If more heads are better, let’s get more people working together.
  • To maximize the number of people working together, let’s create open office spaces.
  • Oops.

Well … maybe that two heads thing wasn’t such a good idea after all.

“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”
(Jean-Paul Sartre)

What Was Plan B?

Once we’d committed to the open-office concept, we’d pretty much abandoned the long view. So, since there’s no short-term, inexpensive means of getting rid of those open spaces, we opted to bring back a latter-day version of the phone booth. Take a little bit of space, a little bit of sound-absorbing insulation, a little bit of claustrophobia, and — VOILA! — we’ve created a space in which even Harry Houdini wouldn’t have wanted to work. And we’ve managed to package it with all the trappings of a good idea.

At this point, having skipped the long view that would have precluded our falling in love with open spaces in the first place, we also have to wonder if we’re skipping the math, too: How many phone booths would we have to buy at 3,500 bucks a pop before we could have just divided our open spaces into private offices?

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” (Albert Camus)

It’s hard not to wonder what we might have been able to do with a little perspective.

Expect More

Along with everything else, it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if we all just slowed down a little. Tap the brakes. Take a few deep breaths. Think beyond tomorrow. Question everything hailed as The Next Big Idea. Think about ourselves, those around us, and what we all need.

Yes. We need camaraderie, companionship, community, and collaboration. Yes. We need each other’s creative energy and enthusiasm. But we also need privacy. We need time and space in which to take stock of ourselves, to collect our own thoughts, to experience our own periods of inspiration and wonder. After all, inspiration and wonder are the senses that make us human.

If we’re going to think outside the box, we shouldn’t have to work in one. Expect more.

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Community Is as Community Does

I grew up in a small town south of Hartford. My most prevalent aspiration, or so I thought, was, “I gotta get out of this place.” Other towns and cities seemed as if they had so much more to do, so many more places to go. But I stayed. And I never thought I’d be writing these words: “I’m happy to be where I am.” Here’s why:

Many of my family members and our friends were small-business owners. My parents owned a seafood store. Grandma owned the grocery store. Uncle Freddie owned the furniture store. Uncle Carmen owned the ice cream factory. (I liked him the best.) The books were kept and the taxes were completed by friends. We comprised a network, a community, all helping and supporting each other.

This growing sense of community is reflected in two of the projects on which I’m working:

  1. Parkville Market. With roots as deep as his childhood in Mozambique, the developer of this project, Carlos Mouta, is determined to rekindle the spirit of provincial kinship in the historic Parkville section of Hartford. His daughter, Chelsea, is joining him in the effort to create a community marketplace and opportunities for entrepreneurs to start or expand small businesses. and grow in the community.
  2. Fresh Start Pallet Products. Rich Carman, Ed Johnson, and Pastor Rick Kremer believe the best way to ensure opportunity for people to escape lives of poverty, joblessness, and dependency — and to help them achieve senses of purpose and meaning — is to create it. Working with healthcare and social-services providers, Fresh Start is, indeed, creating that opportunity, along with beautiful furniture, fixtures, and a rewarding community for its dedicated craftsmen. It’s also creating furniture for Parkville Market.

Back to the Future

I admire the passion and purpose the people at Parkville Market and Fresh Start embody. Their efforts connect me to my humble roots and to the community in which they grew. My mother inspired me to be whatever I wanted to be. Her only admonition was, “Just make sure you leave things better than the way you found them.” In working with Parkville Market and Fresh Start, I’m doing what she taught me to do. We’re working together to leave the world, some of its people, and some of its buildings better than they were when we found them. We’re doing it by recreating the sense of community we seem to have lost for a while. And we’re doing exactly what caring, constructive communities are supposed to do.

Now, if we could only get Uncle Carmen and his ice cream factory back ….


Image created by vectorpouch, courtesy of freepik.com.

You Only Live Twice

I’m of Italian descent. I was brought up in an Italian household with parents and grandparents who endured hard lives in Italy, came here to make better lives for themselves, only to have to live through the Great Depression. For them, wasting was not part of the program. Almost everything that came into their possession had a second life. Clothing was recycled, becoming material for rugs, being woven into quilts, or being cut or torn into scraps and used as cleaning and dusting rags. Paper bags from the grocery store were turned into book covers. Even the food (if any ever was left uneaten) was composted and used in the garden.

Dirty dish water was poured on lawns and in gardens, with the hope that the residual soap would kill the weeds. There were no paper towels, no plastic bags, no bottles, no cups. Someone else’s junk became our treasures.We wasted nothing and took pride in — and sustenance from — our frugality.

That’s why I’m so glad to see an upturn in the concern about waste and what to do about it. That’s why it feels so familiar, comforting, and right. It pleases me to see the design world purposely using products made from recycled or repurposed other products.

What’s Old is New

I recently listened to a podcast on NeoConversations called, “Design and the Circular Economy.” I was taken by the comments of one of the speakers, Guilio Bonazzi, CEO and Chairman of Aquafil, a company dedicated to new production models for sustainable development. Aquafil creates reused and reusable fibers and fabrics using waste materials, purposefully formulating those materials to have second lives, third lives, and more. Bonazzi refers often to the life cycle of materials. He and Aquafil respect the planet, respect the gifts to be derived from it, and learn creatively, every day, while adding beauty and reuse to everyday life.

Material produced by Aquafil is used by Interface in some of their carpeting, in Armani clothing, in H&M clothing, in the Adidas X Parley Collection, and in ever-increasing numbers of products for myriad uses.

In nature, nothing is lost. In Guilio Bonazzi’s world, nothing is lost. In my world, the philosophy by which I was raised is not lost. You’ll see it in my designs. Who knows? Maybe Bonazzi’s nonna and mine knew each other.

Maybe they didn’t. I don’t know. But Bonazzi, our nonnas, and I know this: Waste not, want not. Capisci?

Homes and Castles

One morning over coffee (one of our favorite times of the day), I was sharing some of my design thoughts with my husband, Mark. In particular, I shared with him an article from Business of Home entitled, “Is rental furniture the next big thing?” He was so taken — and conflicted — by the very idea, he wrote this story on Medium. I asked his permission to share it here.

I hope you appreciate and enjoy it as much as I do.

Size Matters

Recently, while searching through Work Design Magazine, I came across two articles that could have been about my husband and me. I don’t mean to suggest we were mentioned by name or anything. It’s just that they seemed to celebrate the differences in our working styles; although, the first one was a tad more cryptic than the second. But more on that in a moment.

I work best when I’m connected with nature, when filtered sun streams along my desk, when my eyes can take a break from my computer screen and look at my thriving plants. I need a little background noise and some occasional white space (which I define as a kind of general emptiness) to clear my artistic mind when it gets a little too cluttered.

My husband, on the other, who’s a writer, works best in seclusion, in quiet spaces with absolutely no distractions, visual or aural. His thought process is like a train in a tunnel: He runs on a single track toward the light at the end, with complete focus. As you might imagine, we have frequent philosophical discussions about the difference (if any) between concentration and obsession. I won’t tell you which of us takes which side of the discussion. 😉

Can you imagine both of us having to work in the same office? Neither can we.

That’s What Makes Horse Racing

We’re all different, with different styles, preferences, desires, and predilections. So, when it comes to work environments, why do we think one size will fit all? And that question brings me back to the two Work Design Magazine articles.

The first one, from April of last year — “World’s Top Performing Workplaces: How The Best Beat The Rest” — cited a study by Leesman that surveyed 151,770 employees across 971 workplaces worldwide that concluded:

People favor variety in their workplace [sic] … workplaces that score highly feature working areas that accommodate all sorts of tasks … greater variety comes at the expense of personalization … better manage a wider variety of workplace designs, are organizations denying their employees the opportunity to personalize space?

So, that means … well … we’re not exactly sure what it means, since it contradicts itself and ends with a question. Let’s move on to the second article, shall we?

The second article, which ran in May of this year — “Thoughtful Design Methods To Foster The Wellness-Minded Workplace” — was a little more concrete and confident in its findings (Whew!):

By integrating work choice into design, organizations can support day-to-day processes and foster individual wellbeing while encouraging social connections through design … investing in employee health and fitness can lead to unity across the workforce, emotional wellness, a sense of responsibility, increased productivity and increased employee loyalty.

Okay. Health and fitness notwithstanding, that article affirms what common sense already indicated: By accommodating the ways in which people prefer to work and interact, they’ll be happier, get more work done, and be more likely to stick around.

The moral of the story is this: If you or your people aren’t happy with your workspace, change it.

We might be birds of a feather. But we’re not pigeons.

It’s Not About the Box

Leafing through the April edition of Home Accents Today, I saw an article called, “Thinking outside the design box”. I suppose (hope) the author intended some irony in the title because the article was about thinking outside the design box by purchasing designs in a box. According to the article, the process works like this:

Decorator in a Box is exactly what it sounds like … you complete a questionnaire about your style, color preferences and what you are envisioning for the particular space you are decorating … you submit photos of the space … you submit measurements of everything … you purchase your box based on the room(s) that you are designing … The box comes wrapped with a bow and a hand-written note.

Call me crazy (or self-serving), but that describes a product. That’s a little tough to wrap my head around because the purpose of The ArtFitters isn’t to deliver a product. Our purpose is to deliver a service. And we can’t deliver it in a box. We have to — we choose to — deliver it in person, on-site, and in constant communication with our clients. Packaging a product in a box may be some kind of science. But delivering a service — our service — is an art.

What’s In the Box?

I have a cousin who’s allergic to almost everything. That makes choosing furnishings for her home daunting, to say the least. She was recently in the market for area rugs. She bought some online. The ones she bought came with removable underlinings that permitted the surfaces of the rugs to be put in the washing machine. “These will be great for my allergies,” she said. “I can pull them up and wash them whenever I want.”

Not so much. First, the company’s marketing information neglected to identify the chemicals used in its dyes (to which my cousin was allergic, of course). Second, when she washed the rugs (within the first 24 hours after pulling them out of the box), they held so much water she didn’t have the strength to pull them out of her washing machine. Third, the rugs weren’t returnable since they were ostensibly custom made for each purchaser.

Ouch.

We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should

Imagine a world in which we can find just about anything we want with a few keystrokes, buy it with a few keystrokes more, and have it delivered (in a box, of course). We did. It’s here. You know what that world did? It turned almost every product into a commodity. But a service can’t be a commodity. And it most certainly can’t come in a box.

Design is personal. Good design reflects the person — the person’s style, lifestyle, and well being. The best design comes from the heart, not from a box.

“Gesundheit.” (Sorry. My cousin just sneezed again.)

Up Close and Impersonal

We were at a home a while ago to perform a staging assessment. The home was owned by a pleasant young couple. Since they’d bought their home, they’d had two beautiful children. As a result, what they’d always intended to be their starter home was now bursting at the proverbial seams. It was time for them to move.

The walls told us what wonderful and proud parents they were, about every trip they took, when they got married, what their hobbies were, and more. The walls told of the children, too — a list of jobs well done, gold stars, and the artwork they’d created incorporating construction paper, crayons, and lots of blue clouds.

What we had to tell them was considerably less joyful: “Don’t make this personal.”

Take a Step Back

Staging your home is really visual merchandising, the unwritten way to appeal to prospective buyers. Likewise, staging your workspace is a way to appeal to prospective employees, prospects, and customers. As a marketing tool, staging has to be inviting enough to attract people. But it also has to be impersonal enough to allow people to imagine themselves in the home or the workspace.

Every personal aspect of the property says you, not them. It distracts them from imagining themselves in the space. It detracts from your ability to sell or lease the space. And it subtracts from the value you’ll get from the space.

In fact, in a recent survey, the National Association of Realtors researched the effectiveness of staging from the perspectives of sellers and buyers. From the perspective of sellers, the survey found:

  1. 85 percent of staged homes sold for six to 25 percent more than un-staged homes.
  2. 68 percent of those homes sold for at least nine percent more than their neighbors’ un-staged homes.

From the perspective of buyers, the survey found:

  • 49 percent said staging increased the value.
  • 77 percent said a staged home made it easier for buyers to see themselves in it.

Enjoy the View

The young couple whose home we assessed was also quite gracious. They took our advice … and didn’t take it personally. They packed up everything that had personal meaning to them, put the children’s toys away, removed the clutter, and prepared their home and themselves for their next chapters.

As part of our standard staging program, we sent the couple our complete assessment, along with a list of to-dos. We also sent a note of apology for the de-personalizing. Shortly thereafter, we received a thank-you note from them. In the note, they let us know the staging process had given them some insight they’d use in purchasing their new home.

That one they can make very personal.

Hold the Pickle

This post is for all of my friends, acquaintances, and connections who are residential realtors.

I read a post on Your Modern Cottage recently — “We Buy Homes the Way We Buy Hamburgers” — that presented a slightly different flavor (no pun intended) to home staging. The post said this, in part:

Most people buy (or sometimes build) their homes the way they buy their cheeseburgers.  On the whole, people base their purchasing decisions on marketing, convenience, and price point. Many agonize about the location, thanks to the famous realtor marketing slogan – “location, location, location.”  Yet, very few people spend the time and effort researching if their future home will truly work for them, their families, and their future.

Whoa! That’s one of those statements that makes you stop to see what’s in the bun.

The Secret Sauce

Here’s something that’ll flip your burger: I’ll concede right upfront my vested interest in having you hire The ArtFitters to stage the homes you sell. There. I said it.

But I’ll support the objective wisdom of that interest by citing some statistics from your peers, courtesy of the National Association of Realtor’s 2019 Profile of Home Staging:

  • 48 percent of buyers’ agents said home staging had an effect on buyers’ views of homes.
  • 83 percent of buyers’ agents said staging a home made it easier for buyers to visualize properties as future homes.
  • 28 percent of sellers’ agents said they staged all sellers’ homes prior to listing them.
  • The most common rooms staged included living rooms (93 percent), kitchens (84 percent), master bedrooms (78 percent), and dining rooms (72 percent).
  • 10 percent of respondents said buyers felt homes should look the way they were staged on TV shows.
  • 38 percent of respondents said TV shows that showed the buying process had an influence on their businesses.

At risk of mixing my meal metaphors, how do you like them apples? Staging will help you sell more homes, more quickly. And it won’t leave prospective buyers wondering, “Where’s the beef?” In that sense, it just might be the real-estate equivalent of fast(er) food.

To paraphrase the old Burger King commercials: When you’re selling, don’t forget us/Special orders don’t upset us.

Call us before you get yourself in a pickle.

Point of VIEW

This is not your grandmother’s rocking chair. That’s because it’s my grandmother’s rocking chair. Aside from the facts that (1) I’m shamelessly sentimental (2) value is subjective, and (3) the value in that chair is the familial heritage it represents, I couldn’t part with that chair because it’s simply beautiful. And its beauty notwithstanding, that elegant piece of furniture has not outlived its utility.

It’s soundly constructed. It’s been well cared for. It’s surprisingly comfortable. And, exactly as its makers intended, it manifests its utility by providing a place to sit. Much like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, all it needed was a little love.

It Depends How You Look At It

Since perspective is everything, I decided to coin a term for my perspective. Combining the first two letters of vintage and the second two letters of new, I call it VIEW. Since we apply VIEW to all of the the work we do in The ArtFitters, I decided to apply it to my grandmother’s chair by doing three very simple things:

  1. I oiled the wood to bring out its sheen and to prevent it from cracking.
  2. I purchased a new seat cushion to provide a little extra comfort.
  3. I purchased a new throw pillow to give it additional character.

I always expected my grandmother’s rocker to be usable. What I didn’t expect is that its utility would increase to the point at which it’s now the most-used prop in our residential-staging inventory.

What a Difference an Attitude Makes

It’s helpful to remember attitude has more than one meaning: It can mean your manner, your disposition, or your feeling about something. It can also denote the way you perceive or behave toward something. And that can make all the difference, especially as you determine the beauty, the value, and the utility of things.

You can call things old, or you can call them vintage. You can call things new, or you can call them un-used. It doesn’t matter. The only things that matter are your attitude toward those things and the way you use them.

It’s all in your point of VIEW.