Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Tiny made-in-the-USA furniture for Itsy Bitsy homes

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 1:38 PM EST, Mon December 30, 2013
Offshoring and the recession hit American furniture makers hard. But small businesses like the <a href='http://www.ibrshop.com/' target='_blank'>Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop</a> are helping to keep alive the tradition of American craftsmanship by working with domestic manufacturing partners to build customized furniture. Offshoring and the recession hit American furniture makers hard. But small businesses like the Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop are helping to keep alive the tradition of American craftsmanship by working with domestic manufacturing partners to build customized furniture.
HIDE CAPTION
What the U.S. makes: Furniture
What the U.S. makes: Airplanes
What the U.S. makes: Toys
What the U.S. makes: Pet supplies
What the U.S. makes: Food
What the U.S. makes: Spirits
What the U.S. makes: Toiletries
What the U.S. makes: Cleaning supplies
What the U.S. makes: Mattresses
What the U.S. makes: Socks
What the U.S. makes: Paint
What the U.S. makes: Apparel
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop designs custom furniture for small spaces
  • Furniture comes from a network of skilled craftspeople in Fairfield County, Connecticut
  • "They all share my dedication to quality craftsmanship," founder says of manufacturing partners

(CNN) -- When a client asked Marcia Harris to furnish his daughter's 500-square foot, one-bedroom apartment in New York, the interior designer met her match.

She struggled to find furniture scaled for a small space that served multiple purposes. Most sofas were too large to fit through the front door, let alone inhabit a hybrid living room-kitchenette. Tables, beds and ottomans lacked the storage space needed by a college student with a lot of clothing, handbags and shoes.

So Harris took matters into her own hands, designing banquettes that held pots and pans and turned into beds, a storage ottoman that doubled as a seat and coffee table and modular bedroom storage units that fit through the front door.

Working with craftsmen in Fairfield County, Connecticut -- striking distance from Harris' home office in Silvermine -- she came up with a stylish collection of upholstered furniture and hardwood storage units in less than three months.

After the apartment was finished, she began hearing from others who wanted the same small, multipurpose pieces.

"At that point, I said to my husband, 'I think there's a real opportunity and need here,'" said Harris, who has been working in interior design in New York and Connecticut for more than 30 years.

It might sound counterintuitive considering the decline of American manufacturing in the post-industrial age, especially in the furniture industry. Products that are especially labor-intensive, such as hardwood and metal furniture, were the first to go overseas. Nowadays, most household furniture sold in the United States is imported, according to the American Home Furnishings Alliance, with the exception of upholstered furniture, because most of it is custom-ordered.

Still, consumer spending on household furnishings continues to post modest year-to-year increases, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce. After all, the life events that trigger furniture purchases persist, such as births, children growing up and moves to new homes, said Pat Bowling, vice president of corporate communications for the American Home Furnishings Alliance.

Small companies have found they can compete if they produce specialty or high-quality items that sell for a premium, according to Hoovers, part of the company Dun & Bradstreet, which provides business and industry insights.

Harris was confident she had found a ripe niche market and spent the next two years developing prototypes. In 2012, she and her husband launched the Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop, a line of multipurpose modular furniture for small spaces.

The business represented a reunion for the couple, who ran an advertising agency together in the 1980s and 1990s. They shuttered the business in the online boom, and Marcia Harris pursued interior design while Dean Harris went into online marketing. As her small space prototypes took shape, she decided to draw upon her husband's expertise in marketing, brand positioning and business development. Their son, Zach Harris, joined a few months later to handle digital operations, sales and business development.

The Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop pieces are undeniably an investment -- dressers start at $1,300 and sofa beds start at $2,100. But that's the point, said Harris, to create high-quality pieces made by skilled tradespeople that can be passed down.

The Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop relies on a small network of manufacturing partners within driving distance of the Harris' home in Silver Mine. Marcia Harris found them during her years working as an interior designer. Having a close manufacturing network allows the Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop to keep its carbon footprint low and lets Harris regularly visit to keep on top of projects.

"I have very high standards and they all share my dedication to quality craftsmanship," she said. "They're great at what they do, but they're also reliable; they deliver when they say they're going to deliver, and they do a great job."

Harris pays regular visits to the Branford, Connecticut, upholstery manufacturing plant of Cerrito Furniture, which makes sofa and sleeper beds. Owner Ronald Cerrito, whose father started the company in 1943, says high-end clients like the Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop help keep his business alive. Because of offshoring and global competition, he acknowledges they're past the days when several trucks left loaded with products every day.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

"No matter how cheap we are, we're not cheap enough," he said in a phone interview. "We've maintained our quality level and that's working out for us; that's the only reason we're still here, because some people still want quality products. We're holding our own and we're going to stay that way."

Harris also visits Lee Bahamonde several times a month in her workshop on the main drag of the coastal town of Westport, Connecticut. There, Bahamonde and her son, Ed, work with a small team to construct upholstered banquettes and ottomans.

A few miles up I-95, William Cruvinel and his family build hardwood dressers and storage units in a workshop in the old Singer Sewing factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In the year since launching, the Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop has shifted its focus toward commercial work for hotels and planned communities, in the interest of maximizing operating margins. The company also entered into a deal with a luxury apartment development in New York to furnish model apartments, allowing it to offer its furniture for sale to tenants as an in-house design concierge service.

As a new business, the company is still finding its footing and enjoying each moment, Harris said.

"I'm doing what I love and I'm doing it with my family and other families who share our passion," she said. "Even on bad days, you know you're working toward something positive. How is that a bad thing?"

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
"American Journey" tells the stories of pioneering people who are rebuilding America -- its economy, its infrastructure and its youthful spirit.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Mon August 26, 2013
Do you care who made your shirt? Some brands and retailers hope consumers will pay a premium for the stories behind the labels.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon August 19, 2013
The parents of a teen with mental disorders are trying to turn his passion for drawing into a career so he can support himself.
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon October 7, 2013
Interior-design platform Houzz turns beautiful images of people's passions -- food, fashions, architecture -- into popular mobile apps.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Mon August 12, 2013
Heather von Quilich's sewing hobby has become a family business thanks to Etsy and a few industrial sewing machines.
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Mon September 2, 2013
L.T. Wright and Dan Coppins were craftsmen by trade who decided to turn a hobby making custom knives into a sharp business idea.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Thu July 18, 2013
Filmmaker Josh Miller tries to live off American-made products for 30 days and learns that a little bit of effort can go a long way.
A smaller-scale dairy farm in Vermont is trying to persuade people to think outside the pen when it comes to veal.
updated 6:43 AM EDT, Mon April 1, 2013
A generation of emerging Native American designers show there's more to Native fashion than turquoise, headdresses and buckskin.
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
The demise of American manufacturing and the trend toward outsourcing overseas has made it hard to find American-made goods, but not impossible.
We're looking to tell the stories of Americans who found clever ways to turn the hobbies they love into jobs for themselves and their communities.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT