Sibling duo sells stylish, functional childrens furniture
Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Stephen, left, and Susan Johnson, owners of Blue Bench in Tribeca, sell childrens furniture and offer a range of other services.
By Kaitlen Jay Exum
After spending 25 years working in the fashion industry, siblings Susan and Stephen Johnson were both ready for a change. Interior design, Susan said, seemed like a natural progression from fashion. She had recently helped a pregnant friend decorate her babys nursery and, in the process, discovered a unique line of childrens furniture called Little Folk Art and developed a relationship with the designer, Susan Salzman. As both Johnson siblings are crazy about childrenStephen has two boys and Susan adores her one niece and seven nephewsworking in the field of interior design for childrens rooms seemed like a logical move.
In August 2000, the Johnsons opened a kids furniture and accessories shop at 159 Duane Street in Tribeca. Initially, they named their store Little Folk Art as they primarily carried Salzmans designs, but they soon realized that their store needed an identity apart from the furniture line. (Salzmans furniture is widely known on the West Coast, but has a much lower profile here on the East Coast.) The Johnsons rechristened the shop Blue Bench, after a blue metal glider bench that they had stationed on the sidewalk in front of the store when they first opened. They had become known for the bench, a popular play-spot for the neighborhood kids, and the name Blue Bench appealed to them.
The atmosphere in the shop is comfortable and relaxed; not only is the store itself, full of pastel furniture and featuring a wide, open storefront window, a tranquil setting, but the Johnsons display a natural camaraderie that immediately puts both children and parents at ease. The siblings worked together in the fashion field for about 10 years and, knowing how well they collaborated, had no qualms about setting up shop with one another. Theres nothing better, really, than when you have full trust in your partner, Susan explained. Adding to the overall coziness is Layla, Susans ever-present cockapoo. Shes friendly, great with kids, and can spot a belly-rubbing sucker like me in record time.
Blue Bench carries not only Salzmans Little Folk Art line of furniture, but also Pea Notes stationery, Jane Keltner furniture, vibrant paintings by local artist Matthew Brzostoski, and a variety of accessories, both decorative and wearable, ranging from bibs and baby blankets to mobiles and lamps. One of their best-selling items is an inventive baby changing table, which consists of a dresser with a removable platform on top; at approximately $2,600, its not cheap, but it is sturdy and an example of good design that retains its functionality as kids age. Another popular piece is the tiered bucket bookshelf, which features graduated shelves that taper toward the wall. As the lower shelves jut out farther than higher shelves, children can use them as stairs and climb up to reach books on the top shelves. Again, the shelves are a pricey $985, but they are attractive, solid, and weighted properly so that climbing youngsters wont cause the unit to tip over. Were really into function as well as style, said Stephen. They also carry useful books, such as City Baby: The Ultimate Guide for New York City Parents from Pregnancy to Preschool and Salzmans book, Rooms to Grown In: Little Folk Arts Great Rooms for Babies, Kids, and Teens.
Not only does Blue Bench boast a selection of well-made and attractive furniture for children, but the Johnsons also offer services above and beyond what many other shops provide. They will help customers pick out stationery for the baby announcements and fabrics or paint colors for furniture. From 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Tuesday morning from the fall through the end of May, they present free Storytime events, in which Susan reads to a crowd of 30-40 children. (In the future, they hope to host book signings by childrens authors, too.) After the events of September 11, 2001 forced the store to remain shuttered for over a week, the Johnsons forwarded calls to their mobile phones and went to customers rather than the other way around. And, as was mentioned in recent articles in both New York magazine and the New York Times, the Johnsons have even helped expectant parents choose two separate nursery sets, one for a boy and another for a girl, and then found out directly from the mothers doctor which sex the baby would be, all the while keeping it a secret from the parents. While Stephen suspects that this trend of surprised-yet-prepared parents might be just a fad, he and Susan are only too happy to accommodate them.
Although the Johnsons would like to open more Blue Bench locations, perhaps in Westchester or Connecticut, for the time being, were learning what it takes to run a small store, Susan said. And its a lot of work.