Romancing the design world Two couples have found their niche with free-spirited, whimsical objects for the home

Focus on design.

December 27, 1998|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

It has been a wild ride for Victoria Mackenzie and Richard Childs, and Tracy and John Porter. The couples have never met, but they share similar lifestyles and passions about their work. They never dreamed of creating a style for the American home that also is a commercial success, but people are buying a lot of the romance and fantasy they've packaged - nearly $50 million in sales collectively.

On the surface, the designs of Mackenzie-Childs and Tracy Porter the Home Collection appear to be clones. Color is uninhibited. Patterns are layered. Checks are teamed with plaids, stripes, harlequins and florals, reminiscent of Victorian crazy quilts.

Exaggerated shapes such as squiggly ceramic legs on a table (Mackenzie-Childs) or a painted dragonfly on the bottom drawer of a bureau edged with a striped apron (Tracy Porter) exhibit a free-spirited giddiness.

But the sophistication of execution - whether it's furniture, glassware, majolica, porcelain and enamelware, wooden accessories, needlepoint pillows, or needlepoint and hooked rugs - shows a highly evolved craft that has paid off handsomely.

Appreciation for the artistry seems to justify prices. A Mackenzie-Childs majolica plate might cost $60; a Tracy Porter 5-by-7-inch painted picture frame, $90. Furniture for both is high-end, ranging from $1,500 to $20,000.

It was 15 years ago that Mackenzie-Childs began to experiment with clays and glazes. In 1984, they revolutionized the tabletop industry with dishwasher-, oven- and microwave-safe majolica designed to mix and not necessarily match.

In 1991, Tracy Porter began to dabble on wood. Her hand-painted nature themes (mostly florals accented with occasional wildlife) on candlesticks, bowls, trays and tables took off quickly. With Tracy as the creator and John as the business partner, their first visit to a New York trade show resulted in $73,000 in orders.

Neiman Marcus was an early supporter of both businesses and still carries both lines, side by side in some stores.

Mackenzie-Childs is available locally at the Kellogg Collection in Baltimore and Manor House in Annapolis. Tracy Porter's work is at Urban Country in Bethesda.

Telling them apart is difficult. Both decorate stemware with plaids, harlequins, dots, stripes and crosses, some in combinations on a single stem.

A black-and-white checkerboard pattern often surfaces in Mackenzie-Childs' work. On an octagonal dinner plate, it's a border to a landscape decal.

Mackenzie-Childs recently introduced a glass chandelier. Tracy just started to do sinks - and a $7,000 claw-foot tub for Kallista, decorated with one of her signature patterns, a rose floral overlay on a yellow and white stripe.

Stonehouse Farm Goods is Tracy and John's original label, but the two are moving away from production, except on a limited basis. In 1995, Tracy began to license products. Besides Kallista (sinks, tubs and vanities), there's Imperial (wall coverings), Goodwin Weavers (rugs, pillows and throws) and the

Willow Creek Collection (painted mirrors), among others. Tracy's first book, "Tracy Porter's Dreams From Home," came out this fall.

Mackenzie-Childs continues to produce all of its goods (except for paper) in-house.

Victoria and Richard met, married and both received master of fine arts degrees from Alfred University in New York. After graduate school, they moved to Devon, England, where they worked for a small pottery firm.

Eventually, they bought a 19th-century dairy farm on 55 acres with a lake in upstate New York, which they renovated into design studios and showrooms, later adding a staff of 350.

Tracy and John met as models during a catalog photo shoot in Chicago. It was love at first sight. They now live on a 21-acre farm with a stone house (hence, the company name) in Wisconsin.

"There's always something very familiar about our work," Tracy says. "First, people might see butterflies; then they're taken aback with all the pattern."

There's an element of the exotic in some Mackenzie-Childs work. A wooden bench they call Ridiculous features applied gold leaf, hand-marbling, glass thistle fringe and ceramic feet in different patterns. Its cushion is covered with a tufted stripe reversible to a floral Jacquard.

"We really stir things up, to give people the robust, playful confidence in color and pattern that a child has," Victoria says. "We don't want to be fashion dictators. We want to be catalysts."

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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