Two years ago, when Paul Robinson decided to retire after 50 years in the fine art business, his son Matthew assumed that would be the end of the family business. But the pandemic proved that a new way of selling art was possible, and continued client interest convinced him that the home furnishings industry was worth sticking around for.
In 1969, Paul Robinson founded Paul Robinson Fine Art, a company that sold original artwork to high-end furniture stores and designers throughout the Southeast. It operated a showroom and warehouse in Marietta, Ga., where the company stocked a regular inventory of roughly 2,000 pieces of artwork from a network of American and European artists as well as those in Asia and South America. A local frame manufacturer designed proprietary frames for the pieces.
Sales representatives would sell the artwork in person to stocking dealers and interior designers, and the company maintained a High Point showroom that could display close to 1,000 pieces of art. In the 1980s, Paul Robinson hit on a new way to sell his art inventory. He purchased a van, and later transitioned to box trucks, that he loaded with artwork, converting them into a mobile art gallery. Sales reps traveled the country, selling artwork straight from the truck.
“That was the beauty of it—it was instant gratification,” Matthew Robinson said. “The rep could bring the artwork into the store or the client’s office and it took all the guesswork out of it.”
Matthew Robinson got involved in the business as a child. He began accompanying his father on sales trips as a four-year-old, and throughout middle school, high school and college breaks, he worked in the warehouse on various tasks, like putting the canvases on stretcher bars. “It’s a business I grew up in and loved,” he said.
It was a great business, Robinson said, until 2008 when the Great Recession took a toll on the furniture retail business. Some stores went under, and other, second-generation owners were less interested in the fine art business, according to Robinson. Paul Robinson Fine Art shifted its business to be less dependent on stocking dealers. Although furniture stores still accounted for most of the company’s business, it started to widen its scope and included more work with interior designers.
In the fall of 2019, just before Americans began to focus on the coronavirus, Paul Robinson, who was by then in his early 70s, decided to retire and sell the company headquarters building in Marietta. The company planned to make its final hurrah and celebrate Paul’s retirement during High Point Market that April, but the pandemic scuttled those plans. Paul Robinson Fine Art officially closed in June 2020 and was liquidated.
“I thought I was going to move into a different industry, but customers continued to call,” said Matthew Robinson. “While I was job searching, I took orders, connecting designers to artists.”
The remote nature of pandemic work started him thinking — if he could reestablish a stable of artists and product inventory, perhaps he could sell artwork online via video appointments. He knew that when viewing artwork, potential customers like to experience the color and texture of the work in person. But so many people were purchasing sofas and chairs and mattresses online — products you would assume they would want to sit or lay on before purchasing — that, after consulting with a few of his best customers, he decided to give online selling a try.
He named the new business Designed by Art and reconnected with roughly 70 different artists, many of whom his father had worked with before. He began surveying customers to learn their preferences in terms of color, size and style, and conducted the show-and-tell process virtually, creating a “yes” pile and a “no” pile of artwork after each appointment. Sometimes he emails customers with artwork suggestions and sometimes he texts images to them. He is also able to send customers corner samples of frames.
“It’s worked well, and I’ve had some repeat orders,” he said. By working with the same artists over time, the business has developed a track record that lends clients peace of mind. But if for some reason they are not pleased with their purchase, Robinson said, they can send it back and try another.
Designed by Art can also commission artwork, and out of every 100 pieces it sells, about 15 to 20 of them are commissioned. But since interior designers often want something unique, Robinson said he expects the number of commissioned pieces to grow as he expands his designer client base. Designers can send fabric samples and paint chips from projects as part of their requests.
“That’s a more engaged process than selling a stock item, but once the designer reaches that “a-ha” moment, they make repeat orders,” he added.
Supply chain delays have not impacted most artists’ schedules, but they have caused a few headaches on the framing side of the business since lumber has been in short supply. Nonetheless, products from existing inventory can be shipped in about two weeks, and backordered items in about eight weeks. Commissioned works take about eight weeks to deliver. That’s been consistent, Robinson said. Timing also depends on the medium the artist uses. Oil paint (most of Designed by Art’s artwork is done in oil) takes a long time to dry. So do heavily textured pieces with thick layers of paint.
Designed by Art exhibited at High Point Market last October by accessorizing the walls of avant-garde Amish furniture company Abner Henry with about 54 pieces. After 23 years of working in his father’s 6,000 square-foot showroom, Robinson was not sure what to expect but he said, “It was a great experience. I was happy with the sales I did. All the folks at Abner Henry were a joy to work with.”
The past year has been about establishing a new way of doing business (with his father’s advice and counsel), getting the website (designedbyart.com) up and running and giving a face to the new company. “I thought this might be a side hustle, but nothing else really interested me,” Robinson said. Customers so far are pleased with the new model.
He is preparing for the High Point Market this spring with ramped-up inventory, including photography. He has approximately 200 pieces in inventory and is in the process of finding a new commercial location to hold it. He plans to recruit sales representatives once he can accumulate enough data on shipping and lead times and is hoping to make more connections in the interior design business. “Furniture stores are how we got our start and are our biggest customers,” he said. “But not a lot of new stores are popping up, so I’m focusing on interior design as well as hospitality opportunities.
“I want the interior design community to know me as their source for original artwork … in a modern, updated business model.”