photographs by Jonathan Postal
Partners Lucy Woodson and Bob Berry have some fun in the store's small retail section, where flawed items are sold at discount.
Back in the early 1990s, Bob Berry was making regular road trips to Mexico in his trusty Honda and hauling back home accessories to sell at various shows. “I started out going to Ecuador and bringing back sweaters,” says Berry. “That didn’t work out but I found a great market for silver and other Mexican goods.”
Gradually Berry’s brainchild, which he launched with partner Lucy Woodson, evolved into Worlds Away, a wholesale furniture and accessories company that sparked a revival of painted tole and specializes in handcrafted lighting and hand-painted furniture. It’s come a long way from operating out of Berry’s jam-packed vehicle, which made 40-hour round trips to the border a dozen times a year. Located at various addresses since the mid-’90s, Worlds Away now occupies 75,000 square feet of warehouse and office space on South Hollywood near the Liberty Bowl stadium, convenient to Midtown, downtown, and parts of East Memphis.
"People don’t want their mother’s antiques. My children don’t want anything in my house.” Instead, she adds, they want the clean lines of mid-twentieth-century modern or 1920s art deco.
Woodson remembers the early years when a good friend and artist named Cristy Beasley began painting pieces of tin. Beasley, who has since passed away, “started with a planter, then a lamp, then a table,” says Woodson, and soon the toleware trend was on a roll. But not long afterwards, India cornered the market on tole production, although Woodson and Berry “fought like crazy” to keep some of it local and provide jobs. “But India is noted for its painted tin, so we had to adapt to the change.” Gradually the partners moved toward selling bigger pieces and more lighting and establishing Worlds Away as a furniture company.
The transition came with the creativity of Lauri Jones, who was hired about a decade ago as the company’s designer. With her focus on mirrored and lacquered case goods — sideboards, side tables, and other decorative pieces — “we keep moving forward and expanding,” says Berry. “With her help we started the antique mirror look, and selling some unusual chandeliers and lampshades.” The company sends the designer’s drawings to China, the Philippines, and other sites overseas where goods are produced. “We go there to ensure they’re following the design,” says Berry, “and eventually the pieces are shipped back here. We get two or three big trucks in every day that we unpack. A few pieces come that we don’t design or make. We mix it up.”
A stroll through the vast warehouse reveals nightstands, headboards, and four-doored consoles. You’ll see coffee tables with gold-leaf ironwork and two-tier nickel-plated tables with beveled glass tops. The most in-demand items are the mirrored chests, which range in price from $1,300 to a three-piece set for $3,700. Wall pieces also abound in starburst, bull’s-eye, and fretwork patterns with antique mirrored centers, along with chandeliers and pendants made of capiz shells and gold-leaf iron strips. Among the smaller pieces are the still-popular tole lamps, in hot pink, turquoise, powder blue, and cream.
“We still have five painters here,” says Woodson, introducing an employee named Francesca, who is surrounded by trays, baskets, and lamp stands she has painted. Nearby, an employee named Shirley sews drapes made of burlap in an area hung with fabrics, including silk from India. In Memphis, Worlds Away employs 35 people.
Despite the slow economy, the partners agree that their business has been good. “What happened [after the economic downturn] was that people started redecorating their houses instead of traveling,” says Berry, “so the decorators are hearing from clients and we’re hearing from the decorators.”
Remembering how the company struggled early on, Berry says a turning point came when Spiegel ordered 1,000 of the geometric Moravian stars that Worlds Away made popular. “That was huge,” he says. “I’d call that Spiegel girl every day for a year before she finally called me back.” Now the company’s main accounts are Neiman Marcus — “they’ve been a great part of our success,” says Woodson — and Horchow, as well as online flash websites such as One Kings Lane.
Worlds Away has showrooms in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and High Point, North Carolina. Products are shipped all over the world, with distribution centers in Germany, Australia, and Canada; Berry also has plans for a center on the West Coast.
In addition to the wholesale business, which provides the bulk of the company’s revenue, a retail section called Worlds Apart sells to the public discounted items that may be overruns or slightly damaged. Says Berry, “There are some great deals to be had.” Mixed in the colorful array of goods, some in the $35 to $50 range, are lamps with fringed shades, throw pillows, and skirted tables, along with small chests, nightstands, and mirrors.
“I think people see that we’re unique,” says Woodson, who adds that business has tripled since their move to Midtown two years ago. “I tell everybody this: People don’t want their mother’s antiques. My children don’t want anything in my house.” Instead, she adds, they want the clean lines of mid-twentieth-century modern or 1920s art deco. Glancing around at the wealth of products designed right here in Memphis, she concludes, “You might say we lucked into this, but truly we talked about it and decided this would be a good way to go. And it’s been a wonderful thing for us."
Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis magazine.