Imagine a new way to sell works of art
Two years ago, when Paul Robinson decided to retire after 50 years in the fine arts business, his son Matthew assumed that would be the end of the family business. But the pandemic proved that a new way to sell art was possible, and continued customer interest convinced him the home furnishings industry was worth sticking around for.
In 1969, Paul Robinson founded Paul Robinson Fine Art, a company that sold original art to high-end furniture stores and designers in the Southeast. It operated a showroom and warehouse in Marietta, Georgia, where the company stored a regular inventory of approximately 2,000 works of art from a network of American and European artists as well as from Asia and the United States. ‘South America. A local frame maker designed exclusive frames for the pieces.
Sales representatives sold the artworks in person to storage dealers and interior designers, and the company maintained a High Point showroom that could display nearly 1,000 artworks. In the 1980s, Paul Robinson found a new way to sell his art inventory. He bought a van, then moved on to box trucks, which he loaded with artwork, converting it into a mobile art gallery. Sales reps traveled the country selling artwork straight from the truck.
“That was the beauty of it all – it was instant gratification,” said Matthew Robinson. “The rep could bring the artwork into the customer’s store or office and that took all the guesswork out.”
Matthew Robinson became involved in the business as a child. He began accompanying his father on sales trips when he was four years old, and during vacations in middle school, high school, and university, he worked in the warehouse on various tasks, such as putting the canvases on stretcher bars. “It’s a company I grew up in and loved,” he says.
It was a great business, Robinson said, until 2008 when the Great Recession impacted furniture retail. Some stores went bankrupt and other second-generation owners were less interested in the fine arts business, according to Robinson. Paul Robinson Fine Art has reoriented its business to be less dependent on stocking stockists. Although furniture stores still made up the bulk of the company’s business, it began to broaden its focus and included more work with interior designers.
In the fall of 2019, just before Americans began to focus on the coronavirus, Paul Robinson, then 70, decided to retire and sell the corporate headquarters in Marietta. The company planned to do its last hurray and celebrate Paul’s retirement at High Point Market in April, but the pandemic shattered those plans. Paul Robinson Fine Art officially closed in June 2020 and was liquidated.
“I thought I was going to switch industries, but the customers kept calling,” said Matthew Robinson. “While I was looking for a job, I took commissions, connecting designers with artists.”
The remote nature of pandemic work got him thinking — if he could reestablish a stable of artists and product inventory, he might be able to sell artwork online via video dating. He knew that when looking at artwork, potential customers liked to experience the color and texture of the work in person. But so many people were buying sofas, chairs and mattresses online – products they assumed they would want to sit or lie on before buying – only after consulting a few of its best customers. , he decided to try selling online.
He named the new business Designed by Art and reconnected with around 70 different artists, many of whom his father had previously worked with. He began surveying customers for color, size and style preferences, and led the demo process virtually, creating a ‘yes’ pile and a ‘no’ pile of artwork afterward. each appointment. Sometimes he emails clients with artwork suggestions and sometimes he texts them pictures. It is also able to send customers samples of corner frames.
“It worked well and I had a few repeat orders,” he said. By working with the same artists over time, the company has developed a track record that gives customers peace of mind. But if for some reason they’re not happy with their purchase, Robinson said, they can send it back and try another one.
Designed by Art can also order artwork, and out of 100 pieces sold, around 15-20 of them are ordered. But since interior designers often want something unique, Robinson said he expects the number of pieces ordered to increase as he expands his designer client base. Designers can send fabric swatches and paint chips from projects as part of their requests.
“It’s a more engaged process than selling an in-stock item, but once the designer hits that ‘a-ha’ moment, they place repeat orders,” he added.
Supply chain delays haven’t impacted most artists’ schedules, but they have caused some headaches on the management side of the business as lumber is scarce. However, existing stock products can ship in about two weeks and out-of-stock items in about eight weeks. Commissioned work takes approximately eight weeks to deliver. It’s been consistent, Robinson said. The timing also depends on the medium used by the artist. Oil paint (most of Designed by Art’s artwork is done in oil) takes a long time to dry. The same goes for heavily textured pieces with thick layers of paint.
Designed by Art exhibited at High Point Market last October accessorizing the walls of avant-garde Amish furniture company Abner Henry with approximately 54 pieces. After 23 years working in his father’s 6,000 square foot showroom, Robinson wasn’t sure what to expect, but he said, “It was a great experience. I was happy with the sales I made. It was a pleasure to work with everyone at Abner Henry.
The past year has been about establishing a new way of doing business (with guidance and guidance from his father), setting up the website (designedbyart.com) and putting a face to the new business . “I thought it might be a side hustle, but nothing else really interested me,” Robinson said. So far, customers are satisfied with the new model.
He’s gearing up for the High Point Market this spring with soaring inventory, including photography. He has about 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 delivery times and hopes to build more relationships in the home decor industry. “Furniture stores are how we started and are our biggest customers,” he said. “But few new stores are popping up, so I’m focusing on home decor 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.”