Usually one has to travel to hip enclaves of big metropolises to find a carefully selected selection of unexpected pieces by emerging designers. But Birgit Marko has given Design Menagerie, her shop in the small town of Lenox, Berkshire, Massachusetts, that same level of cultured cool. The store she opened with her husband Dan has everything from bamboo toothbrushes to mid-century Danish chairs, and the only rule is that the products they carry must do ordinary things. We spoke to Birgit to find out how she chooses products for her brick and mortar store and online store, and how you can improve your gift game.
What made you decide to open the Design Menagerie?
I worked in a corporate environment in merchandising, product development, art and creative direction for many years before opening the Design Menagerie. Although I basically did what I do now, I wasn’t fulfilled or happy at work, and most of my co-workers weren’t happy either. I started to wonder what my life would be like in 20 years if I continued down this path. I wanted to be able to only select products that I loved, that were made by talented people that I respected, and that manifest the creative direction I had envisioned. I longed for meaningful relationships with my suppliers and customers and, above all, wanted to be part of the new business paradigm that is based on social and ecological changes.
One day an unexpected tragedy occurred in my life. Then I decided to take the plunge, leave the familiar and safe behind and go out alone, of course not without the help and encouragement of an incredibly supportive husband and family. That was four years ago and I never looked back. Life just keeps getting better and more exciting.
How do you choose the items in your shop?
I have a personal relationship with every item in our store, whether it’s a long-time favorite of mine making its way onto our shelves, a new discovery that I want for myself, or pieces from designers that I admire . The motto of our business is “Objects of Use and Beauty” – extraordinary things that enhance ordinary tasks. We work with many wonderful makers and companies from the USA, Europe, Australia and even South Africa. My husband and I both appreciate things that are handcrafted and we are always looking for new designers who share our ethics and aesthetics. When I really love a product, I’m confident that our customers will fall in love with it too. As simple as that.
Do you have a favorite item right now?
We have so many wonderful items in the store that it would be difficult to choose just one. I’m very excited every time a shipment arrives with a new product I’ve been waiting for and it becomes my new favorite until the next shipment comes in. But one of my favorite pieces in our store is the gilded wood plucked chicken from Mr. Somebody and Mr. Nobody. It’s a very special piece designed by a very dear friend of mine. It makes me smile every time I look at it!
What’s the best part of your job?
Every day in a welcoming and creative space full of beautiful objects that I love to be able to go to work, surrounded by my favorite music and my favorite scents; that’s pretty special. Our customers often comment on how much they enjoy being in business and it makes them feel calm and happy. I love to share this feeling with other people. I’ve met so many great people through this business and many of our customers have become friends. Since most of our products are from independent designers and artisans, I work very closely with lots of creative people, which is inspiring and rewarding in many ways.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Likely to find a balance between work and personal life. I love my work and I love spending my days in the beautiful space that we have created in our business. However, there are always many more tasks on my to-do list than I can realistically accomplish in a day. Knowing when to stop – when to call it a day – can be a challenge at times.
My family would probably tell you that I work too much, but the line between work and personal life often blurs when you love what you do. The time required to run a stationary company and an online shop is considerable. Finding balance is key.
What inspires you creatively?
Beauty, good design, nature, travel and good conversations with like-minded people are sources of great inspiration.
Do you have any tips for finding unusual gifts?
I tend to pick up gifts wherever I go or whenever I see something I really love, and especially when I travel. Sometimes I don’t even know who I’m going to give the item to, I just know that one day it will be a great gift. I often buy my favorite things in pairs, one for myself and one for someone special. And every time I wear or use this item, it reminds me of the person I gave to the others. Plus, having a small supply of gifts at home to draw from when you need one is far less of a hassle than finding the perfect gift at the last minute.
Design menagerie store interior