I stepped in and out of the fray, watching and seeing all that was on display. I was waiting for that next all important realization - what type of antique dealer was I to become?
from the first morning at the New York City flea market
THE SHORT STORY
20th Century by HKFA... Designer 20th Century Furniture. American Art. Mid-Century Paintings. Antique and Modernist Picture Frames. Vintage Industrial. 19th Century Antiques. Lighting, Lamps, Chandeliers, Sconces. 20th Century Designer Works. Garden Furniture. Important American Paintings and More...
THE LONG STORY
Please provide a background on your company and the year it was founded.
It was a cold and crisp Saturday morning in February when I stepped out of my East Village sublet apartment and onto the streets of Manhattan. The club kids and delivery men shared the same sidewalks as one group made their way home and another group began their day. It was 4am and I was headed to the 26th Street flea market in Chelsea. Two nights prior I had packed up my life into a rental truck and made the ninety mile journey from Philadelphia. A short two hours but surely a world apart. It was while I was living in Philly, working as a waitress, that I had had the realization. The realization that my childhood weekends spent with my family at the local flea markets were truly the moments that were inspiring. The early mornings spent looking at Queen Anne chairs and Queen LP’s, chandeliers and ball gowns, brass side tables and ship’s models - had laid the foundation of what was to be my moment of realization. I wanted to be an antique dealer. So, in February of 2002, I packed myself up and headed to New York City.
With a six month sublet that I had paid for in full and six hundred dollars to my name, I was determined to make a place for myself in The Big Apple. That cold and crisp Saturday morning was to be the first day of my new career - only I really didn’t know what to look for or what I’d find. Arriving to the flea market shortly after 4am I found myself in the center of a parking lot near the intersection of 26th Street and 6th Avenue. A parking lot bustling with vendors and dealers, buyers holding flash lights who were pushing their way to the latest vehicle that had pulled in to their assigned space and started to unload. It was when the items were pulled from the vehicle that the excitement would begin. Anticipation and tempers ran high as buyers jockeyed for position to be closest to the fresh merchandise. But this crowd was a fickle one. As each new vehicle pulled in, the crowd of dealers would turn on their heels and dart to the latest vendor.
With a six month sublet that I had paid for in full and six hundred dollars to my name, I was determined to make a place for myself in The Big Apple.
Each seller would command their attention only until the next vendor would arrive.To me it was like watching a dance - or more like a school of fish who would ebb and flow, turn and move - all with one purpose, to find the next treasure. And I too was there for treasure - but what? I stepped in and out of the fray, watching and seeing all that was on display. I was waiting for that next all important realization - what type of antique dealer was I to become?
What was the initial spark or idea you had to start your company?
It was then that it happened. I stumbled across a pile of dusty old picture frames. They were stacked up against the wall like so many glittering relics - gold leafed, accentuated with ornament - they were it! Beautiful and useful, architectural and artistic, practical and decadent - the picture frame was to become my inspiration, my passion, my business. And just like that, Heather Karlie Fine Art was born.
But wait a minute! What did I know about picture frames? Not much. But I did know enough to follow my gut. And hold on just a sec - who exactly would be buying all these picture frames from me? Well, I knew that the Upper East Side was home to some of the best art galleries, specializing in everything from Old Masters to Contemporary works. There were sure to be a few among them who needed period picture frames. So I invested some of that six hundred dollars into a few frames that I considered to be the best of the bunch. By now, the sun had risen and all of the days offerings had either been snapped up by the early morning buyers or were being considered by the 'late morning’ arrivals. These were the folks who had strolled in well past nine with a specialty coffee drink in one hand and a French pastry in the other. It was at this time that I headed home to officially open up shop as HKFA. Spending the morning online, I emailed every Upper East Side art gallery and introduced myself as a new source for important antique and modern period picture frames. Then I sat back and waited for the requests to pour in. Hmmm. Something must have happened to my internet connection. Maybe my email server was down? So I turned off my laptop and waited. It was a very long minute. Getting it up and running again, I quickly opened my email. Success! An ‘out of office’ reply. Well at least it was something.
Spending the morning online, I emailed every Upper East Side art gallery and introduced myself as a new source for important antique and modern period picture frames.
Feeling like I needed a break, I left the world headquarters of HKFA and went out for a coffee and bagel. Seemed like a very ‘New York’ thing to do. Back at the office with a full belly and a renewed sense of confidence, I opened up my email. And there it was. An actual response from a New York City Upper East Side gallery, “Please bring a selection of your frames to the gallery at 10am on Monday”. Short, sweet and full of promise. I couldn’t wait to go to sleep just so I could wake up even earlier the next day and go back to the flea market on Sunday to see what other treasures awaited me. I mean, now I was in business.
How has your brand story changed since you started your company?
Being in business in New York City means that things can change in a New York minute - which I can tell you is quite a bit shorter, unless you’re waiting to open your email. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, months to years - but all going by in a flash. I had built a business specializing in sourcing rare and important picture frames and selling these frames to the City’s top galleries. And what did the years of being in business in New York City teach me?
That the only constant is change. The City, the art world and the frame business were changing and so was I. I had met my husband and started a family, I had lived in Rio de Janeiro, I had opened my eyes to the connection between frames and art and furniture and lighting and more! I had a new inspiration. My inspiration came from the history of picture frames. During the 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s the picture frame was considered as furniture. The frames were not tied to the artwork, but rather to the prevailing style of furniture. As tastes changed and new styles came into vogue, the frames were also changed because they needed to be in the same prevailing taste - the architecture of the frame was tied to the architecture of the room. Aha! It was time to broaden my horizons. I began to buy furniture, lighting, art, accessories and I began to see the design that connected these pieces. The common thread that wove its way through history creating a tapestry that illustrated the beauty of the individual pieces viewed as part of a larger installation. Now when I was set up and selling at top antique shows, I was showing a complete look - furniture, lighting, art and accessories - a room setting in which I could explore the historical basis of the 20th Century designs I was selling. And thus was born 20th Century by HKFA.
It was time to broaden my horizons. I began to buy furniture, lighting, art, accessories and I began to see the design that connected these pieces.
My years spent specializing in picture frames built the foundation for my business in fine and decorative furnishings. Taking a step back and seeing the whole room, but keeping a concentrated focus and perspective was my natural progression. Remember folks, the only constant is change. And if you want to stay ahead of the curve, you’re going to need a strong base to draw from.
What do you think has been the key to your success?
And I feel fortunate to have a strong base - which is a big part of building my business and my brand. You see, I’d like to show folks how contemporary interior furnishings often have a strong foundation in historical design. That the key elements in today’s interiors are oftentimes based on a design from the past century - or even farther back. For each generations contemporary style has a strong base in the previous generations history.
A key to the growth of my business is that understanding. And the understanding that each day presents an opportunity - an opportunity to explore more of our history through furniture, lighting, art and accessories. The design of our time is constantly evolving and changing. And sometimes to see the future, it’s best to look to the past. Antiques, by their very definition, are always becoming, evolving and changing. They are often defined as being something that is at least one hundred years old - and as time passes, each year brings new items into that definition. So for me, looking to the past and understanding its importance is another key to remaining relevant in the antiques business. And this is not mine alone and I was certainly not the first to see it. Diana Vreeland is quoted as saying, “There’s only one thing in life, and that’s the continual renewal of inspiration.” A huge source of my inspiration comes from those weekends spent at country flea markets as a child, from looking to the history of the object that was to spark my initial dream, from the only constant which is change. And that key is always close to me - for it is something that keeps me curious. All of those 4am adventures, early morning wake ups (and staying up really late) were another key to my business.
All of those 4am adventures, early morning wake ups (and staying up really late) were another key to my business.
Because each of those mornings I’m heading to the flea market I’m never guaranteed to find anything - but I am always guaranteed to have a continual renewal of inspiration. It’s the hunt for a treasure - something grand and significant, something delicate and simple - but having a strong base, an open mind and a curious nature are some of the best tools of my trade and keys to my business.
Did you have any naysayers when starting your company and what did they tell you?
Starting my business and telling my friends and family of my plan all those years ago in 2002 while living and working as a waitress, I was met with a cool reception. All were concerned as to whether I knew what I’d need to follow my dream and if I had the tools. But treasure hunters are generally not a practical bunch - they are dreamers, idealists and gamblers.
To say that their words fell on deaf ears is an understatement. I could hear only my own thoughts - those thoughts of taking a bite out of the Big Apple, of following a path without using a map or compass, of having the chutzpah to go with my gut. And I’m sure that my friends and family saw the determination in me - that coupled with my timing of sharing the news only a week or so before leaving was all that I needed to say. And what happened once I arrived in NYC you ask? Those ‘jaded’ New Yorkers must have considered my small town dream to be the stuff of a made for TV movie. Hardly. For I was welcomed into a group of other dreamers, idealists and gamblers. We were all betting against the house and each of us ready to hit it big. New Yorkers are like no one else. They are the inhabitants of an island, an island of monuments and history, an island of culture and freedom, an island of treasure. My colleagues and I each followed our own paths, criss-crossing the island and looking for the X that marks the spot. And what advice did we have for each other? Well, none really.
Like a jolly group of pirates on the high seas searching for treasure and regaling one another with fantastical stories of the best painting, suite of chairs or piece of jewelry that they uncovered in the most unlikely of places.
Not that we played our cards close to the vest, it’s that antique dealers encourage one another through stories and tales. Like a jolly group of pirates on the high seas searching for treasure and regaling one another with fantastical stories of the best painting, suite of chairs or piece of jewelry that they uncovered in the most unlikely of places. And it was all of those stories that inspired me to build a strong base, always keep an open mind and nurture my curiosity. So let the naysayers have their moment for you are listening to your own inspiration.
What was the biggest obstacle you had entering the market with your product/service?
And that voice must rise above the din, for there will also be people building walls to close you in. To contain you. To stifle you. Breaking through, going around, above or under - the walls must not hold you in. I, too, had my share of obstacles. And those obstacles come in so may forms - whether it was the day to day life in New York City, a run of bad luck or bad timing when searching for merchandise or the self doubt that creeps in and tries to construct another wall - I knew that my dream was bigger than all of it.
But the greatest obstacle would always be the learning curve. The becoming while building was and always will be a driving force in the entrepreneurs schooling. Or as I like to call it, trial by fire. For my business education did not include textbooks, online courses or classrooms - it was spent taking chances, searching for treasure and often times coming up with a whole new inspiration. And that in and of itself was at times an obstacle. Learning and a natural curiosity would try to divert me from my focus. Digesting the stories of my colleagues who had made tremendous scores in other areas of the business would cause an ache within me. A pang if you will. Could my gut be leading me down the wrong path? Was a specialization in antique and modern picture frames too narrow a field? The perception of success can be one of the greatest obstacles of all - but I would not let that stop me. Instead, I celebrated their successes and used them to buoy my spirits. I dug deep and planted my feet firmly on the ground. I invested in trips to some of the world’s best museums to see the best examples of frames. I invested in catalogs and books and spent hours pouring over the images and descriptions of frames. But most importantly, I welcomed the obstacles - for they were not walls but would be the building blocks that I would use to fortify my position. To build a strong foundation. To have the courage to specialize in a field. To create a business in the heart of New York City based only on my dream and six hundred dollars.
For my business education did not include textbooks, online courses or classrooms - it was spent taking chances, searching for treasure and often times coming up with a whole new inspiration.
And the obstacles will continue and they have continued. I have encountered the obstacles of growth, of expanding my scope and of building a brand. 20th Century by HKFA is an important selection of well curated 20th Century finds - this leaves the door open to history. To 100 years of design and decor. To learning something new each day while maintaining focus. To becoming while building. So I continue to see obstacles as building blocks - not walls. And I will continue to use them to build my foundation and my base.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had as your business has grown beyond the start up phase?
Because the challenges are many - and the growing pains will be sharp. Building my business from picture frames to sourcing fine and decorative furnishings for some of the design industry’s top creatives has been an adventure. One that saw me start a family and move from the City that Never Sleeps to Cidade Maravilhosa, Rio de Janeiro.
Challenges abounded. Establishing myself and my family in a new city in a new country. Learning another language. Stepping out from my comfort zone and embarking on a whole new adventure. I was ready for the challenges. I was ready to grow my brand. Returning to my roots, I discovered a new source of inspiration through focus. Buying top examples of mid Century designer Brazilian furniture was to be my focus - learning about the line, the form and the backstory became my passion. I embraced the challenges because I knew that the foundation was there. Returning to the States after some time, my brand was beginning to become. But I was still building so there would be more challenges. Creating a strong online presence was the next step. I set about creating an impactful website and developing engaging social media accounts that were to become my calling cards in a burgeoning field of creative types. And it was here where I faced another challenge - how to stand out as a professional antique dealer. How would 20th Century by HKFA face these challenges?
Building my business from picture frames to sourcing fine and decorative furnishings for some of the design industry’s top creatives has been an adventure.
By entering the home furnishings industry through one of the top trade shows. By placing my brand, my inventory, my eye and myself in front of 80,000 design industry professionals. By exhibiting and selling at High Point Furniture Market. And by understanding that collaboration is one of the keys to growth. And continue to ride the learning curve.
Give an example of a mistake you made along the way that has led to a valuable lesson.
You know, learning curves are a funny thing. The slow and steady ones allow you to push forward solidly, steadfastly - but slowly. It’s those sharp learning curves, the ones where you’re racing uphill enjoying breakthrough after breakthrough, only to stumble when you’re so close to the next peak. If you can’t hold on you’ll slide backwards down that steep slope and find yourself back where you started.
But, if you can hold on, gather yourself up and re-group - you will have learned a valuable lesson. That mistakes and missteps will happen. The proverbial zigging when you should have zagged. My career has had its fair share of mistakes. Take for example an early Saturday morning in 2003 when I was sourcing antique frames in New York City. I had been growing my vocabulary of frames and felt that my knowledge base had grown exponentially in just a short year. Feeling ready to step up to the plate, I bought a near mint example of a period Louis XIII frame dating to the mid Seventeenth Century still retaining its original finish, original size and original hand carved ornament. Worm holes and all. I couldn’t get the $750 out of my pocket fast enough. Beaming with pride I headed directly to my good friend and mentor’s frame gallery in TriBeCa. His eyes widened as he took one look at my recently purchased masterpiece. “It’s a good one”, he said “for a copy.” … What? “Yes, this is a reproduction dating from the early 20th Century. As long as you didn’t pay too much, there’s always a market for these.” Feeling myself starting to slide backwards, knees buckling, stomach lurching I managed to utter, “Ummm.” That was all he needed to hear, for he had also been there. Been in the place where you think you have it all figured out - only to see that you’ve been looking at it all wrong. I took a step back, re-grouped and saw the situation for exactly what it was. A valuable lesson.
Feeling myself starting to slide backwards, knees buckling, stomach lurching I managed to utter, “Ummm.”
For even as I was buying the frame, there was a little voice inside me saying to slow down. But I didn’t listen. Because I had been racing uphill along this learning curve, I chalked up this little voice to self doubt. Quickly pushing it away because I couldn’t be bothered - I mean, I had already learned so much about frames in the past year! Luckily this mistake and bravado cockiness was something that didn’t push me backwards. I used it to propel me further, through humility and the understanding that mentors are priceless.
Did you have a mentor early in your career and what key piece of advice did he/she give you?
Mentors are invaluable assets for they have trudged the paths, climbed up the learning curves and made the mistakes. They have been there and are willing to share their stories, successes and failures. I’d like to tell you about four different mentors that I had and that each of the four were connected to the Chelsea flea market.
The first is a dealer in important American and European Twentieth Century design - a dealer who has been and continues to be a feature in the top New York, Hamptons and Miami high end antique and design shows. This dealer taught me to appreciate the scale, form and line. To believe in the pure beauty of the object. And to buy the best that you can. I think it is Miles Redd who is quoted as saying, “Buy the best, and you only cry once.” Needless to say, I have shed a few tears when shopping through the years and will no doubt continue to do so. But I’ve always had a smile on my face afterwards. The second mentor is a team of specialists in antique and period picture frames. An expert team who devotes their lives and careers to the study, understanding, restoration and appreciation of picture frames. From this husband and wife team of specialists I learned that focus and determination are essential building blocks to creating a strong foundation. And the third mentor is a renowned New York City estate buyer who has bought and sold some of the most iconic antique and decorative furnishings to pass through the five boroughs. He taught me to always look a little deeper and to explore the backstory of each object. He taught me that more often than not, your first offer is your best offer and to always be ready for the next adventure. And the fourth mentor. Ah, the City itself. The City that welcomes so many to test themselves and to dare to dream. This mentor taught me that good things come to those who hustle.
The City that welcomes so many to test themselves and to dare to dream. This mentor taught me that good things come to those who hustle.
And hustle I did. You didn’t think that I simply showed up, opened up shop and sat back while the money rolled in? No. I worked day and night and every weekend. Days spent working for my mentors and seeing clients. Nights spent working at any one of five different night clubs, working till 4am and then heading directly to the flea market. Nights spent waiting on the City’s hottest celebrities and days spent researching and selling the City’s finest treasures. These four mentors gave me the best advice, advice that I’d like to share with you.
What advice would you give young entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?
Trust your eye. It really sounds simple enough, but it’s some of the most profound advice. Trust is one of the most sought after beliefs. It is the belief in reliability, truth, ability and strength. To trust in yourself is to declare to all that you have confidence and conviction. This trust will shine through in your work, your relationships and in your life. And your eye. The window to your soul, your vision, opinion, attitude.
Trusting in your vision, opinion and attitude will illustrate to all that you yourself are ‘one to watch’. That you are someone whose work is to be studied, whose relations are strong and whose future is bright. When you trust your eye, you believe in what you are seeing and the way in which you are seeing it. And this vision will change over time as your opinions and attitudes change. But the thing that will always remain constant is you and the way you see things. Whether you are seeing a product, a project or an entire market - your vision is exclusive to you. And you bring your experiences to that moment of seeing. How I trust my eye has to do with how I see the antiques that I am buying. I am seeing each for their individual beauty in the moment. I am seeing each as a work of art and design whose backgrounds can be traced through history. And I am seeing it as part of a larger whole - as an ingredient in the making of something special. Over the past thirteen years I have bought and sold thousands of objects, many of which I can still see in my mind’s eye. And as I look back at them, I can see how they play off one another, how they are influenced by one another and how there is a natural progression to my vision.
When you trust your eye, you believe in what you are seeing and the way in which you are seeing it.
Each day I think back to my mentors, remembering their advice, I can see their individual vision. And I can see how they each have changed over the years while becoming and building. To remain steadfast in your confidence and convictions while always having a fresh look at the world around you is a sure fire way to create success. Trust your eye and you will always be fulfilled. The future is yours.
Where do you see your company going in the future?About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things.
And what about the future? Where do you see yourself physically, mentally, financially? The variables are endless, but the path is clear. Envisioning your future is a powerful tool. By doing so, you’re creating a road map in your head that will guide you as you build and become.
When I look back, sometimes I say, “I could never have seen myself here.” - but that’s not really true. For this moment is my truth and it is the culmination of hard work, good luck and great mentors. I am where I want to be. And as I look to the future, I am envisioning 20th Century by HKFA as a brand. A brand whose products celebrate history and embrace the future. A brand that seamlessly blends antique and period furnishings with contemporary designs. Designs which pay homage to the past while serving a true purpose in the present and having longevity to remain into the future. I see 20th Century by HKFA as a curated collection of objects for the home, for the connoisseur and for generations to come. And to achieve these dreams, to build them into becoming my reality will require the constant maintenance of my foundation, the collaboration with creatives from across industries and the belief in myself that I can always trust my eye. I hope you will take part in this journey, that you will build and become your reality and that one day you will look back and see the beauty that you created, whether it was a product, a project or an entire market - you will have made your mark and left the world a more beautiful, more special, more individual place because no one sees things like you do.
For this moment is my truth and it is the culmination of hard work, good luck and great mentors.
Thank you for allowing me to share a bit of my story with you. I’m looking forward to writing, creating, envisioning and seeing many more chapters yet to come. The future is ours to see - keep an open mind, a curious nature and always trust your eye!