Furniture Designer Opens First Outlet Store in Memphis

By Tom Wilemon

ELEGANT FURNISHINGS: Memphis-based furniture designer Amy Howard specializes in “reclaiming the elegance of the 19th and 20th centuries” by doing updated adaptations of classic pieces. Howard, whose work is featured in top home fashion magazines, has just opened her first outlet store. -- PHOTO BY TOM WILEMON

Mid-South shoppers can now buy at discount prices the intricately crafted furniture Amy Howard creates for dignitaries, celebrities and five-star hotels.

The furniture designer has opened her first outlet, the Amy Howard Collection at 420 S. Perkins Road Ext. across the street from the Laurelwood Shopping Center.

“Up until this time when this outlet opened, if you wanted to order an Amy Howard piece, you had to speak with an interior designer who would have a custom piece made for you,” said Madeleine Crump, the store’s sales manager.

Howard’s work is frequently featured in magazines such as HouseBeautiful, Elle DÉCOR and Town&Country.

“I know she’s done pieces for Hillary Clinton’s state office,” Crump said. “She’s done pieces for the Kennedys. She did a bed for the country singer Taylor Swift. I think that one is actually in progress. We did a bed for Paris Hilton. We’ve done some pieces for Martin Scorsese.”

A chance for Everyman

Other pieces include furniture designed for five star hotels, such as a bed that was in the Memphis showroom decorated with a blackberry pattern. Howard created the bed for Blackberry Farm – a luxury hotel in East Tennessee that is ranked among the best in the United States.

The pieces end up in the outlet store for a variety of reasons, besides the usual nicks and scratches.

“With a lot of people, their first question is ‘What’s wrong with it? It’s an outlet,’” Crump said. “There’s not necessarily anything wrong with it.”

She pointed to a dining table with a dark, elegant finish.

“This is what is called a Jappaned finish,” Crump said. “It is probably 20 to 25 layers of lacquer. There’s nothing wrong with the table, except it should have an extra leaf. The leaf was damaged. Because this is all hand-lacquered, the table would have to be made all over again. It’s here. It’s a beautiful table if you have a smaller dining room.”

The store policy is to point out any flaws, Crump said. Other pieces, which may be discontinued items, have absolutely nothing wrong with them.

“We just sold a table right over there that was a brand-new design,” Crump said. “Instead of Amy making a dozen of them to go around the country to different showrooms, she made one. She brings it here, and we see what kind of response she has to it.”

Attention to detail

Howard returned to her hometown of Memphis in 1984 after studying decorative arts and mural painting in New York and San Francisco. The furniture line can be traced back to 1991, when Howard and her husband, Gene Howard, began creating room dividers in the garage of their home.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ABO MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS

Today, her line is sold by more than 400 retailers nationwide, including interior designers.

Howard said prices at the outlet store are lower than people may expect.

“Many of our customers are pleasantly surprised that they can get our quality pieces, many times at prices lower than a standard furniture store,” Howard said. “With the savings customers will receive on these custom items, traveling here will be well worth the trip.”

Howard is confident about the store’s prospects.

“Regardless of the economy, people will continue to exhibit pride in their biggest investment, their home,” she said. “For that reason, we’re proud to be able to offer our caliber of designs and furnishings to the public at a price they can afford.”

New pieces appear in the showroom every Thursday, which is opening day each week.

“We never know what we’re going to get,” Crump said. “We come in on Thursday, and it’s a big surprise. Our customers aren’t sure what they’re going to see, but it’s exciting for them.”

Many of the creations are named after friends, including the Madeleine chair. When Crump explains the process by which Howard creates the finish, she takes you on a virtual European tour.

“It’s a copy of a French chair,” Crump said. “Amy starts by taking walnuts. This whole chair frame starts off brown. Then the next step is she takes gesso from Italy and it becomes white. It is sanded down to almost be like baby powder-fine. Then whatever color she wants it to be – this is a kind of creamy taupe color – that will be next step.

“Then she starts the gilding by hand. She takes little bitty paintbrushes and applies the gilding by hand. See these little dots of red. That is called boulle. Boulle is Armenian clay.”

However fancy the finish may be, the chair is sturdy and solid. Howard’s goal is to reclaim the elegance of the 19th and 20th centuries in furniture updated for today’s lifestyles. The furniture is made in America.