Tell us about yourself, Michael
“I have a master’s degree in architecture. But, I joined the Navy because I was having a little too much fun in school and I needed to grow up. I asked what the toughest job I could take in the Navy was, and it was a nuclear mechanic on ballistic missile submarines. So, that’s what I did. I was in the Navy for six years and did 6 tours in which we were submerged for 90 to 110 days each time. After that I went to Harvard Graduate School of Design and was given a fellowship in an intensive summer program to make sure that architecture was right for me. They only pick 30 people from all around the world for the program. I just loved it. I loved everything about architecture and design and came back invigorated. I took a job with Banana Republic to pay my way through gaining my bachelors degree in architecture, and that led to staying with Banana Republic for 23 years. My goal was to work on store design for Gap and Banana Republic. I opened 40 stores and did all kinds of merchandising across the country. One day, I asked myself “what am I doing? I’m going to be doing this the rest of my life?”. I totally freaked out. I decided to go back to school to get my PHd in mechanical engineering to become a professor.”
“My idea was to teach architecture and engineering at UB. I got a scholarship and was working at the virtual reality center at UB. I came up with this awesome idea for my PHd. But, when it came to actually having to write this computer program myself, there was no way I could do it. I just didn’t know what to do. I was really questioning everything that I was doing and I was miserable because I was 39 and this is not what I wanted to do, I can’t sit in an office. I don’t want to go start all over with architecture. That’s when I met David, who moved here from California and kind of gave up everything. He told me, “You really need to get into design and do the things that you love. How is this making any sense.” So I actually got started by getting a client from Banana Republic (Tony from Mr Pizza) and did his house. I was super exciting. I was learning, but was also having trouble finding things in Buffalo that fit with my designs. I had to design a lot of my own furniture and build things. We also did the Junior League Show House. I was the new kid on the block – everyone was looking at me like “who is this guy with the crazy ideas and paint colors?”. But we got a lot of positive feedback and reviews. We were featured on the front page of the Buffalo News, so it kind of started our careers, and we decided to open up a store. 10 years ago, we opened our little 500 square foot store at 611 Elmwood. It was phenomenal. We had so much fun opening it. We quickly went from nothing to everything. People loved the store and we decided to expand the store and bring in the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture line. We met with them, they were impressed with us, and impressed with Buffalo. They sent out representatives to check it out and we showed them the city. You really only see brands like this in big cities. They had the confidence that we were going to do great, and so we expanded to 988 Elmwood. That was 2000 square feet. We enjoyed being a part of shaping that block along with Erin Habes and JP from the Sunday Skate board shop. We did all of the renovation work ourselves. We borrowed against our own retirement accounts to do the work.”
The move to Hertel
“We stayed at 988 Elmwood for 4 years, but we were outgrowing it. We decided that we either needed to stop growing, or take the next step. David drove me out to Hertel and we stood in front of this space and I said “No Way! There’s no way we’re coming out to Hertel.” There was nothing there at the time. I didn’t think that people were going to follow us. We walked into the building and I thought that it had a lot of potential. It was nothing like it is now. We scrubbed and cleaned, tore down walls and dropped ceilings. They told us that we couldn’t save these floors. I was on my hands and knees for two months with a little palm sander. We did it all ourselves and opened up in February of 2010. We had a great party in a snowstorm – with about 1000 people here. It was amazing. They did follow us here. As time went on, we added Sprout and BABYroom. And we added the design office. The office is really the base for the store.”
“Retail really seems to be down for a lot of stores around here. I think it will come back. I think we lost of people due to the last harsh winter. People didn’t come back walking around. But you see people getting excited again. Walking around. Everyone loves fall. People also like that we aren’t a national chain, that we’re local. We work hard and we love this city. That’s why we do it. I honestly love doing this and giving people the opportunity to come into a beautiful space, and be able to do this in their homes too. I think that I have grown so much as a designer through having this store and going to all of these different places and shows to bring a different eye than some other designers in the area. Also, us being able have the opportunity to be design producers on HGTV and DIY – just the ability to have that dream client. They want you to do things that are going to wow the public, and think outside the box. Those houses are just a lot different than this store. I love to have fun. Like with adding pops of color, with neutrals. My design philosophy is to design for classic comfort and longevity. You invest in those key pieces and you layer in color and artwork and really bring a person’s personality out. I love my store. We like to do fun things like cocktails and cookies on Saturdays.”
How does the Buffalo Small Business climate compare to 10 years ago?
“Things have gotten tougher because you have so many online stores, and people have become very price conscious. The strength of this country and this city is small business. You may pay a little more at a small business, but what you’re gaining is a personal touch, and you can come touch and sit on things and see what you’re going to get. You can’t do that online. We have so many more pieces than you can see in the store too. But the way that we approach it is that we have settings in the store where people can see what the chairs and sofas sit like, and you can order from that collection. So you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’ll be like. Common perception of Buffalo is that we aren’t a wealthy city, but it’s quite the opposite. You see our inventory of architecture and inventory of design – we’re a very lucky small city with big city amenities, like professional sports teams, world-class museums, and the philharmonic. We’re just spoiled. Sometimes we think that we’re bigger than we actually are. I would love to be the city planner and change things for the better, but the reality is that we’re only so big, with so much money to do things. Because of our phenomenal cost of living, people are able to have multiple residences. We have a fashion sense. We have money. It’s just a perception in Upstate New York that we don’t. When you bring people in from out of town, they’re blown away. The Vice President of Cartel was here and said that he thinks he wants to move here and put his kids here after seeing the city, and Nichols School. He lives in Italy.”
Any predictions or vision for you and your business?
“There are fantasies in your head of what you want to do with a place, or another location. But, sometimes when you reach too far without concentrating on the now, you lose sight of what’s happening now. So, it’s hard for me to say, because if you would have asked me five years ago if we would have what we have now, there’s no way I would have thought that. Just like today when I woke up and decided that I wanted to repaint the front of the store, maybe tomorrow I will wake up and think that something else needs to change. The reality is that it’s stressful to have your own business. And it’s taxing on a marriage, especially when you have both people involved in the same store. It’s a lot. You take everything so personally, because you have to. It’s your life. If a customer has an issue, which is .5% of the time, you wear that .5% of the time on your sleeve and you can’t sleep and you feel sick to your stomach. But you never really reward yourself for the other 99.5% of the time. One of the best things I can be is a partner with my partner. They get you. They know when you are having a bad day. You know when something is bothering them and you can help alleviate that a lot faster when you’re close with that person. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m doing this to control my own destiny. So I can invent things and make people happy. I love when people come in and say “oh my, this is beautiful”. I get excited about that, and it makes me want to please and wow people more. Always keep wowwing people!”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“If you have a dream of doing something, go for it. You can always pick yourself back up again and start over. I think that if all of this were to go away, I would be OK. I could go back to Banana Republic, or work at Starbucks or something like that. People that want to open a small business always have a drive and will always be successful at something. They have a special something about them that wants to set them apart, to do their own thing, as opposed to someone who wants to be a part of corporate America. It’s a different philosophy. Sometimes I forget about what our accomplishments are. Like The Hotel at the Lafayette, and house in Seattle and a condo in St. Petersburg that I designed. I never thought that I would be standing on the great wall of China, and have a customer stand right next to me and say “Michael, from ROOM in Buffalo?”. This is all pretty amazing.”
Well, if you have seen Michael’s work, it’s pretty amazing indeed. We invite you to check out room, at 1400 Hertel Avenue. It really is a beautiful place. They also have a sale going on for the holidays, so be sure to stop in and pick up those final decorations.
- Every holiday item in the ROOM store is now 25% off through the end of the season
- Renovation Road is going to be airing at 12PM this Friday on HGTV