Melding art and decor

Toni Sikes connects artists and craftspeople with buyers.

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The Artful Home Show last week in New York included a display designed by Mary Douglas Drysdale around an intricately hand-carved and painted cabinet by artist Daniel Pohl.

For more than 20 years, Toni Sikes has been following her bliss, helping artists and craftspeople make a living from their work.

Along the way, she built a thriving business as the founder and chief executive officer of the Guild Inc. (www.guild.com), the Madison, Wis.-based online seller of art and fine crafts that reinvented itself four years ago with a focus on decor items and a new name, the Artful Home.

These days, Sikes is in growth mode, thanks to a $7 million investment from two venture-capital firms.

She has a new book out, also called The Artful Home (Lark, $24.95), that offers an enthusiastic guide to decorating with handcrafted furnishings. And last week in New York, she introduced an ambitious marketing strategy, the Artful Home Show, a three-day event that combined elements of an art fair, a crafts show and a retail sale, and brought in more than 3,000 advance-ticket buyers.

Making success even sweeter for Sikes is that hers is a back-from-disaster story. After launching Guild.com during the late 1990s and merging with Ashford, a luxury-goods retailer, she nearly lost everything when the dot-com bubble burst and the merger foundered. Instead, Sikes scrambled to raise the money to buy her company back.

"I come from a long line of stubborn women," she says.

With her master's degree in market research and an affinity for art and artists, Sikes, then living in New York, started the Guild as a publishing company with her husband in 1985.

The couple's first venture was The Sourcebook, aimed at connecting artists with architects, interior designers, and other design trade professionals looking to commission original work for residential and commercial projects.

As that caught on and became profitable, the couple relocated to Madison and began publishing arts and crafts books on such subjects as contemporary glass, basketry, and studio furniture.

Then the Internet came along, and Sikes had an "aha!" moment. Here was a way, finally, to get artists' work directly to consumers, even in places that had no galleries and were far from the big-city circuit of major craft fairs.

In 1998, Sikes launched Guild.com along with a catalog meant to drive business to the site. "We didn't know what we were doing," she says of that early e-commerce effort. Still, investors began throwing money at her.

"There is a blessing and a curse to having too much money," she says. "The curse is you can try anything, which we did. It was so diverting."

Michael Monroe, of the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington state, heads the advisory panel that selects the artists featured on the Web site. He remembers those early days.

"It was hard to get top artists interested," says Monroe, who served for two decades as curator and director at the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery and later was executive director of the American Craft Council. "The model then was to be affiliated with a high-level gallery. And no one believed people would really buy art on the Internet."

Sikes says her decision then to merge with Ashford was a mistake built on a misconception.

"We thought their affluent customer base was our customer base," she says. "But what we learned was that a love for this kind of work doesn't really have that much to do with socioeconomic level. Just because you have money doesn't mean you are going to use it to buy art."

Next step: Home show

It's the opening day of the Artful Home Show, and Sikes is making slow progress through the dramatic columned exhibition space of SoHo's Puck Building.

The show features 200 of the more than 1,200 artists represented in the Artful Home's catalogs and Web site, and the beaming Sikes, who stops to dispense greetings and hugs, seems to know every one of them. Wood turners, painters, furniture-makers - all greet her like the fairy godmother of American art and crafts she has become.

Along with museumlike groupings of teapots, turned-wood bowls and glass objects, and a cash-and-carry area, the show features small vignettes that suggest ways to combine the distinctive furniture, mirrors, art and lighting the company markets.

"We want to help people to live with these things," says Sikes, who lives with quite a few herself, including front doors set with art-glass panels, a handcrafted desk, and a collection of 11 teapots. "People love these vignettes. We see it in how they order."

"This is one of our best-selling artists," she says, grasping the hand of glassblower Victor Chiarizia, whose vivid "Gondola (Fiery Red)" is the signature image for the show's promotional material. Sikes says the Artful Home sells two or three of the glass vessels, whose striated effect comes from a Venetian technique called incalmo, every day.

That so many people would be willing to buy a $1,550 piece of art glass online is no longer a surprise to Sikes. But the Web site's booming sales of furniture is. (The privately held company does not disclose sales figures, but Sikes says revenue has gone up 50 percent a year in the last three years.)

Distinctive furniture

Among the pieces featured on the Artful Home site are a four-poster bed whose turned-cherry posts are topped by cast-steel birds ($3,600-$4,200), a whimsical, deep blue "wavy cabinet" of welded iron ($1,025), and an exquisitely upholstered armchair ($2,900).

The most unusual Artful Home furniture offering, though, may be an elaborately carved and painted line by artist Daniel Pohl that looks like Technicolor tramp art and starts at $3,600 for a small side table and ranges up to more than $12,000 for a remarkable buffet.

"We didn't think we'd be able to sell furniture on the Web," Sikes says. "But it's our fastest-growing category. We're the biggest seller of studio furniture in the country right now."

Rachel Fuld, president of the Furniture Society and a Philadelphia furniture-maker, says she can't confirm whether that claim is true. "But I know there are a number of makers who do very well at the Guild," Fuld says, adding that the Web site has filled a gap. "Not everyone is great at selling their own work at, say, a craft show, and there are fewer and fewer galleries devoted to studio furniture."

'The Guild made my living'

"I have heard so many artists say, 'The Guild made my living last year,' " says Sikes' old friend Ellen Kochansky, a quilt artist she tapped to create one of the room vignettes for the Artful Home Show.

Kochansky calls Sikes "a visionary with tremendous follow-through. She so believes in the value of artists, and the passion she has about bringing this work to people is so deep."

But Sikes is also a shrewd businesswoman who knows that a good marketer never rests. The move to rebrand Guild.com as the Artful Home was driven, she says, by market research showing that while customers liked the idea of artist-made goods, "what they really loved was buying beautiful things for their home."

The Artful Home Show concept is a direct response to customer queries. "We hear from people all the time. They want to know: 'Where can we go to see this work?' " says Sikes, who is considering how and where to replicate the event.

Her book, an encouraging primer aimed at those new to living with original art and those with a deficit of confidence in their own taste, is part of the marketing too.

"These are not impulse purchases. Helping people reach a certain comfort level is important," Sikes says.

"We spend so much money on so many things that don't last. Why not spend a little more on beautiful things, handmade things that are part of our daily lives?"