Photo by Michael Foster
As promised ages ago (and the delay was mine, not his, I assure to you) I present to you, faithful Decorno readers, my interview with John Tusher of the influential online and storefront design showroom, Velocity Art & Design.
I am not a fan of brief profiles, so I present to you a TON of information, so if you are short of attention span, let me tell you what to look forward to:
- His thoughts on the Kelly Wearstler phenomenon
- If there is anything he has in his own home that he would edit out of his store because it's not in keeping with his store's aesthetic
- How he started his business in a unique way - - online first, and then opened a retail storefront
- His thoughts on Mayer Rus and the demise of House & Garden
All that, plus so much more.
Decorno: I vaguely recall reading somewhere that you were a teacher before you started your business... true? What inspired you to get started? What inspires your love of design?
John: You are correct. I was a public elementary school teacher for almost 10 years before starting Velocity with my wife. I had always had a bizarre passion/addiction to moving around furniture and redesigning my spaces. This started when I was quite young. My parents thought I was very odd child. I simply had to rearrange the furniture in my room as frequently as I could. I have also always loved painting, art and art history. Couple that with a desire to run the show, be in business for myself as well as to remove the barriers between the consumer and art and design and you have the recipe for Velocity. I am inspired by products that are beautiful, often humorous but not whimsical, well designed, replete with texture, colorful and patterns. I am consistently inspired by creativity and the urge to create. I wanted to be surrounded by these people, as well as the people that appreciate such creativity. I am also inspired by travel, food, music and literature. So much to learn and experience, so little time.
Decorno: How did you fund getting started? You started online only... were you selling on Ebay before you had your online store? Tell me about that evolution.
John: In the summer of 1999, my wife and I started to visit garage sales in our spare time, picking up odd items to sell on Ebay. In those days you could promote your website in your listings, so it became a perfect marketing tool. We would find products that we could sell on Ebay, listing them with direct links to our website. We used Ebay quite a bit in the first couple of years of Velocity as a selling tool for brand new merchandise. Once we saw that our sales from our website were strong enough on their own, we no longer needed to use Ebay for these types of sales.
Decorno: Were you surprised by early success, or have your sales been more gradual?
John: I don’t think that I have ever been really surprised by the success of Velocity, and part of that is due to the slow and steady growth of the company. It all felt like a very natural progression that didn’t feel forced, or before it was supposed to happen. It was only last year, with the build out and moving to our new store, redesign and launch of our new website, relocating our offices, and hiring more staff did we feel like things moved along very quickly and all at once. Now that that phase of growth has been completed, we are back on track to achieve the next level of growth.
Decorno: How long did it take you to grow your business to such a degree that opening a storefront made sense for you? Did you self-finance or get business loans?
John: We self financed the entire operation through what little money we had, and credit cards and small business lines of credit. Remember, I was a school teacher, and my wife was a nurse. If that’s not two underpaid professions, I don’t know what are. We went from having really nothing, to less than nothing when we started. We are still 100% privately owned. The storefront actually happened much faster than I thought it would. Because I had the criteria that I wouldn’t open a storefront until the website could 100% fund it, I was surprised that this happened in less than 2 years from opening, instead of 5 or 6. We had a small, upstairs location from 2001-2003,and then opened our street level retail store in 2003. We just moved to a gorgeous new store last year, and will be there for quite a while. We look forward to opening other Velocity locations in new cities in the next 5 years.
Decorno: Did you have early supporters (family, friends, vendors who were particularly encouraging?) Tell us more about that.
John: My biggest supporters, continue to be there for me every day. My wife is number one. I used to tell many people about my dream to run a company such as this, only to be met with looks like I was simply out of my mind. My wife (we were not married at the time), upon hearing me describe this dream on our 4th date (literally drawing it on a napkin at breakfast) looked across the table at me and said… do it. I guess those were the two magic words I had been waiting for. Aside from “I love you”, those words were truly life changing. I have a best friend from college, who also started his own business that year, on the east coast. We see each other maybe once a year, or once every other year, but talk weekly. He has been my other biggest supporter. We are both happily still in business for ourselves! The vendors that I chose to work with, along with some of the reps, have become great friends. We have been working together for so long, that we really do find that they are encouraging of Velocity’s success. I am always excited to see how these relationships evolve over the years, and to make new friends and relationships with new designers and artists.
Decorno: When did you really know you could be successful doing this. Was there a turning point or a moment when you just knew you could safely quit the old job?
John: It sounds like I’m bragging, but I knew that if I decided to do this, then I would be successful. My fear was when to jump in the pool. Once in the pool, I knew that I could swim like the best of them, it was just the writing down the plans and goals and taking the plunge. I knew within 6 months that this is what I wanted to do with myself, and walked into my principal’s office and told him that I would be leaving teaching at the end of the year. They were very puzzled by this decision to leave such a safe career. They also didn’t want to lose me as a teacher, but I was really excited about leaving. I knew that I was only going to teach for a certain amount of time and then do something new, I just had to wait until someone invented the internet!
Decorno: Your design point of view (as expressed through the product you carry) is pretty specific. Do you ever have moments where your own personal taste is evolving but you see yourself buying to maintain a point of view for the store? More specifically, do you have anything at home that you love but would just never make it into your store (like a really fussy old sofa or over the top mirror, or something to that effect)?
John: That’s a great question and one that I take seriously. I really have not found that the store and my taste have diverged. They have stayed quite consistent with each other. I pick lines that I personally find interesting at that moment, and that I would have in my own home. Often, I’m presented with a line that could probably bring in large sales, but that I don’t like or doesn’t fit our criteria. I will inevitably pass on this line in order to keep our vision true. My store is like my second home, so I really get to play with products and lines in that environment. If my taste evolves, or I get interested in something new, the chances are you will see that reflected in the offerings at velocity. I had a moment of excitement for Hollywood Regency about 3-4 years ago, but as you can see, we have very little of that look left on the site. My own home has constantly evolved. Lara and I used to live in a condo that was very cool, and slick, and polished. Since the birth of our son, and our move into a great 1962 mid century rambler a few years back, everything at our house has gone very natural. From colors, to textures, to materials. I have seen my love of nature and nature imagery injected into the site as soon as I found vendors that were tapping into the same aesthetic. Sometimes my vendors will help move forward a certain theme if that is what they are currently creating, but often I have this idea in mind before even seeing what they are offering, and it just clicks. As for something in my house that wouldn’t make it in to the store, at this time I can honestly say that I don’t. We have pared down our possessions over the years and try to keep items around that we truly love. Since Velocity is such a reflection on myself personally, they really do connect well together. I can’t wait to start filling my kitchen with Heath Ceramics though. We have some older dishes from our last home which just don’t fit our house. I guess the two things in my house that might not make it into the store are the pink and yellow toilets that came with the house. We have learned to work around them (and the pink tub and yellow shower) to make them cheery, but they are pretty awful. I’d love an over the top mirror though. Something like the burl slice that we carry, but huge! That would be great.
Decorno: What retailers here in Seattle and elsewhere do you admire? What do you like about what they are doing?
John: Locally, I have always enjoyed visiting The Palm Room in Ballard. Brandon is fantastic (he helped us landscape the front of our house), and he has a great eye for plants that you wouldn’t expect to see, as well as planters. His store is always different when I visit, and I always enjoy the quick visual punch of dreaming about planting those amazing plants. I love the BDDW store in Soho. That is so inspiring for the workmanship and quality that they always have on display. While in New York I can’t miss Moss. For pure design theater, Murray is the best. You simply never know what you are going to see there, and often times it’s a very limited production piece, which makes it like a gallery/store/museum all rolled into one. They have perfected their brand, and it is so very consistent upon every visit. Often times, it’s more the people that work at the store, then just the store itself. In San Francisco, I always visit Zinc Details, in Atlanta it’s Retro Modern. I really look forward to visiting the new Rare Device store because Rena and Lisa are so very nice. I tend to gravitate towards stores where I feel very welcomed and wanted. I also love the Trina Turk stores in Palm Springs or Los Angeles for the Wearstler designs.
Decorno: What's your reaction to the Kelly Wearstler worship we have seen the last few years. It's definitely a fussier design sensibility than that of Velocity.
John: That’s very very funny. I honestly hadn’t read this question when I answered the last one. I remember reading about Kelly Wearstler in Elle Décor ages ago. I don’t remember the year, but I tore out the article back then as “someone to watch” and put it in my notebook (this was long before Velocity). It was her very simple apartment that she had designed, but it was really quirky and very well done. We all know what she has done since then, and I am always surprised by what she is going to do next. She has become quite the celebrity herself, which doesn’t surprise me, but I really only care about what she’s designing at the moment, not her personality per se. I have enjoyed staying at many of her hotels. They have always been very inspiring, even in a different way than what we do. I really appreciate her use of color, scale, and historical elements in her work. She has broken so far away from her first really successful projects on the surface, but truly her approach is the same to all of her projects. Perhaps her new work is infused with a ton more cash (did you see that bathroom of hers in her last book???) , but it’s still seems very authentic. I don’t feel like she is mining designers of the past to see what to do next. She’s blazing her own trail at all times.
Decorno: What do you think is the next big trend in home furnishings and design?
John: My goodness, that’s a huge question. I have some thoughts, but am going to hold mum on that one. You will have to just wait and see what we come up with.
Decorno: What trend are you so over that you would put the bullet in its head if I gave you the gun?
John: That’s a little drastic don’t you think? I guess I don’t really follow the trends that closely in terms of shopping for our store. I simply buy what I like. I often get the opinions of our staff as well before a line is added. I was never really crazy about the skull trend that popped up over the last few years. I thought it seemed kind of silly. That said, I love that bronze skull lamp. So, really, as you see, everything has its place and time.
Decorno: What design publications are your favorites & why?
John: I have always been a magazine junkie, even as a kid. I remember that around our house, growing up, home magazines were in abundance. The earliest version of Met Home, I think it was called Apartment Living?, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful etc. One of my favorites is no longer, I’m sorry to say, and that was House and Garden. I really loved their approach to design and interiors. I looked forward to the editor’s letter and to Mayer Rus' column at the end of the issue. Lately, I’m really enjoying Sunset and Western Interiors. For some reason, they both are feeling very authentic at the moment. I have always loved Atomic Ranch, probably because we live in one, and the people who run that magazine are very kind. I’m always excited to get the latest Metropolitan Home..still..after all of these years. I have a love/indifference relationship with Dwell. Some months are spot on, and others just aren’t interesting to me. I really miss House and Garden the most though. Sigh.
Decorno: Where do you look/shop for inspiration?
John: “Everywhere” is a trite answer I guess, but it’s true. Living in Seattle, we really get to see some amazing weather patterns and nature. I am always inspired by the sky and the water that surrounds us here. I don’t really shop for inspiration, rather I filter through everything that I see and read. I’m drawn to being very much in the present moment, and to appreciating these moments. I love looking at my son, who is 19 months old, to see what he sees for the first time. When he is excited about a color, or texture, or image it’s really thrilling. I love to bring him into our store to watch his eyes light up.
Decorno: Are you a blog reader? If so, which ones are you checking out most frequently?
John: I am a blog reader. I use Google Reader, and have it set to mix and mash all of them together. When I find a new blog I simply add it to the list, and any new updates appear in the list. Many times I have no idea whose blog I’m reading at the time, and I just scroll through until something catches my eye. I really like SF Girl By Bay, Décor8, Oh Joy, and so many more..and yours of course!
Decorno: What Seattle neighborhood is on the verge?
John: South Lake Union is truly on the verge, and not just because I have a store there. (Decorno notes... SLU is a neighborhood in which Paul Allen, one of the Microsoft superrich has invested in... a new streetcar was just finished there... like Portland's Pearl District, the good money is on this neighborhood being super hot now, and for the next 20 years.) There are going to be so many places for new retail in this neighborhood in the upcoming years. With the movement of Amazon to SLU as well as other companies, I feel like it is really becoming a very well rounded neighborhood. What we really need though are some clothing boutiques to move it. That will really help.
Decorno: What else should we know about you, your story, and your store?
John: Velocity is constantly evolving, and we look forward to bringing interesting products, designers, and artists to our customers. We look forward to adding new ventures to the Velocity brand, but you will have to stay tuned to see what those turn out to be. I truly thank all of our customers and those have enjoyed visiting Velocity through the years. I am always so inspired by those that come to us and share with us their stories of their homes and how they live. Thank you as well for offering me this chance for this interview, and if anyone has any questions, I’m more than happy to field them. It’s hard to summarize an entire life of being inspired as well as 8+ years of running a business into a short interview, but it’s a start!
Decorno says: A huge thanks to John for completing what probably felt like the essay portion of the SATs. I loved reading his responses and hope you do, too. If you have questions for John not covered here, feel free to leave them in the comments section and I will be sure he sees them.
For further reading, Decornophiles, you might enjoy THIS ARTICLE from the NY Times which ponders who might be the heir apparent to Murray Moss and his groundbreaking design shop, Moss. John Tusher is quoted in the article.
Monday, March 3, 2008