Q&A: Dutch Small

I first came across Dutch Small’s collection of mid-century modern furniture on Fab.com. When I learned how successful the e-retailer has gown in the past few years, I wanted know how furniture—the kind of product that needs to be experienced (or so I thought)–can enjoy the successes recorded by Fab.com. So I asked the brains and power behind Forma Revivo, about the milestones that have lead to his success, his thoughts about selling excellent modern design at retail (not long ago such furnishings were available only through showrooms that cater to the design trades), his grandfather, and Elvis. With his new gallery about to open in Houston in May, I felt it was time for Dutch to share the secrets of his success.

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Susan S. Szenasy: Dutch, I read that your interest in mid-century modern furniture began when you worked as a conservator. What was the first piece you fell in love with and why?

Dutch Small: I was raised in a creative environment by skilled conservators and successful artists. My mom is an accomplished carpenter. My grandfather did masterful furniture conservation work for Elvis. My grandmother did beautiful trompe l’oeil and worked for decades to perfect her gilding skills. I didn’t realize the value of being reared in an environment with very high skill, standards, and unmatched artistic integrity until about four months after I started working in the business full time. We found a desk by James Mont on which the original, very intimidating silver leaf finish was destroyed. Fortunately we work with modern design where restoration, if done well, does not diminish the value of an important work. I launched into the restoration and meticulously recreated the finish, sent the piece to auction, and at $20k, outsold any previous Mont desk. I fell in love with the piece as I took two years of decoding and tirelessly recreating to get the finish right! Its results at auction were affirmation that the skills I brought to the table were sufficient to satisfy the most discriminating collectors at the most influential modern design auction house.

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SSS: Did you inherit this love of vintage design from your grandfather, who is best known, possibly, for restoring furniture for Elvis? What was the furniture the King wanted restored, I’m curious as a die-hard fan of both Elvis and furniture.

DS: I did! My grandfather had a passion for fine craftsmanship, a breadth of knowledge that I envy and aspire to achieve eventually, and an unflinching drive to achieve perfection through the expression of his skill. Fortunately, Elvis had an appreciation for better work and he and his mother were patrons of my grandfather’s atelier for almost two decades before it was moved to Houston in 1973. Much of his work is on display now at Graceland. It is an exciting heritage and I take the responsibility of continuing the tradition very seriously.

SSS: Your firm, Forma Revivo, seems to have had phenomenal success, starting with a $700 investment and hitting the $1 million mark in less than 3 years. To what do you attribute this success?

DS: I have never heard the word No in my life. I can’t sit still, I feel a very strong need to perform. I’m only happy when I’m working and I have a passion for what I do. I am grateful for the success of our business and a lot of what has happened was good luck and fortuitous timing but I’d like to believe that hard work and good ideas had something to do with it as well.

SSS: Is Forma Revivo completely online or do you have a shop somewhere? And when you answer this question, tell me about your retail philosophy–online vs. brick and mortar, etc.

DS: Our work is shown in some of the best showrooms in New York; we have been doing very well with gallery representation. Additionally, we have gotten a lot of excellent opportunities through our website. Since we have great word of mouth and a good reputation, fortunately many designers have been willing to trust our work ethic and buy pieces from pictures. We ship merchandise all over the world. In May, however, we will be opening our own gallery and showing modern design in Houston, an often-overlooked market that is full of potential and a sophisticated client base. The web has been great and for some people, the experience of seeing a piece in person is important. Every client is unique and we want to offer our collection to our audience via whatever channel they find most advantageous. So, a combination of web presence as well as brick and mortar has been and will continue to be our strategy.

SSS: Apparently you’re doing really well selling Mid-century Modern, Danish Modern, etc. on Fab.com. Tell me about how this relationship came about and how it has grown, and helped grow your business.

DS: Fab.com is an exciting marketplace. I’m in love with what they do; it is a smart business. Their emphasis on curating the most interesting merchandise from a dizzying universe of stuff is their strength and I wanted to be a part of it. Our timing was great, I reached out to them just as they were beginning to sign up new merchants for their vintage vertical shop and we were lucky to be a part from the start.

SSS: And finally, everyone wants to know, how do you find those great pieces you sell and how can you sell them at such reasonable prices?

DS: Although we didn’t start working in Forma Revivo on a full time basis until 2003, I actually began collecting Mid Century Modern design in 1993 when I found a set of chairs by Eero Saarinen in the storage room of a church. Back then, it was very difficult to find dealers selling modern anywhere but Manhattan, so it was possible to find the absolute best work at garage sales; pieces now selling for the tens of thousands were available practically for free. Most of the people we met back then are still in the business and we still buy from them. We have a national network of trusted and knowledgeable pickers who offer us merchandise daily. If it weren’t for our supply network, in this competitive environment, we wouldn’t be able to keep our operation stocked with enough volume to make it work. And volume is where Fab.com really shows its strength. With over three million active users, it isn’t hard to have a very successful sale if you are providing interesting merchandise. The spillover traffic to our site was phenomenal and made it a very successful event.

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