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Russell & MacKenna Furniture: Maryland's cottage industry

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For a little over a century, starting with the end of the Revolutionary War, Maryland craftsmen were producing some of the finest home furnishings anywhere. Inlaid bellflower furniture, painted furniture, repousse silver, case clocks and other goods made in Baltimore, Annapolis, Frederick and elsewhere during this period are still admired for their design, quality and craftsmanship.

Today, furniture from all over the world is easy and often inexpensive to come by, but there remains a demand for quality furnishings made by hand. Maryland is home to dozens of businesses producing hand-crafted, often one-of-a-kind furniture, mirrors, lighting and other items for the local market and beyond.

So we're turning the spotlight on some of the Maryland companies that produce top-quality furnishings for the home. Some are small shops, consisting only of one or two people crafting custom pieces for clients with specific needs. Others have grown to become large companies with a national footprint, establishing a presence in some of the country's toniest locales.

Russell & Mackenna, a company that started small and made it big, is one of those Maryland-born businesses making an impact on the home design scene.

Known for its fun, colorful and relaxed cottage-style furniture, Russell & Mackenna is the creation of Lauren Russell and her father, Larry Strassner. The company got its start in a one-car garage in Severna Park, the spark of inspiration from newlyweds figuring out how to furnish their home.

"When my husband and I were first married, I put a photo of a bright blue beadboard bookshelf from a company called Maine Cottage on my refrigerator," says Russell. "I would look at it every day in the hope that I'd eventually save up enough pennies to buy it."

When she became pregnant with her first child, Russell needed a place to store baby books, but she hadn't saved up enough to purchase the shelf, so her husband, Kevin, built something similar for her.

Little did Russell imagine that bookshelf would launch a furniture-making business, catering to clients and furniture stores across the nation.

"The idea to start a furniture company was actually a fluke," says Russell.

While she was working as a marketing design consultant, a client stopped by her home and saw a vanity Russell had designed for her husband to build.

The client asked if Kevin could build one for her. One vanity quickly turned into five. Five vanities soon became a master bedroom suite as well as beds, dressers, and storage for all five of Russell's client's children.

"At that point, we were most definitely in business. But there was one problem: Neither my husband nor I knew anything about business, let alone manufacturing."

As fate would have it, Strassner was a recently retired corporate CEO with plans to play golf for a whole year straight. But his daughter had other ideas.

"I figured he could help us with a business plan instead," says Russell.

In 2003, Russell & Mackenna was launched, combining the family's last name along with their newborn daughter's middle name. For the first year, all of the furniture was still being manufactured in the Russells' garage. Recognizing that they needed to increase their fledgling business in order to afford a much-needed move to a proper workshop, Russell and Strassner decided to exhibit at a trade show.

"When we agreed to do it," says Strassner, "we only had a couple pieces of furniture, no marketing materials or a catalog, but the rush to prepare for the show was worth it." At the show, the company sold its line to two furniture stores, one in Palm Beach, Fla., and one in Pawleys Island, S.C.

With Russell, 38, guiding product design and marketing and Strassner, 68, managing the operations, Russell & Mackenna grew quickly, winning fans of brightly painted wood furniture all over the country, opening a flagship store in Severna Park and adding upholstered pieces to its range of offerings.

"We knew we would need upholstered furniture to support the product line and grow into a national brand that could fill an entire house with product," says Russell.

Lacking the background to build upholstered pieces, Russell & Mackenna began their search for a manufacturer.

"Kevin could build wood furniture, so we knew how to manage that, but making an upholstered sofa or chair seemed like it would a much greater challenge," says Russell, who eventually settled on a domestic manufacturer.

"Sometimes they design new pieces that work perfectly for our look, and sometimes it is more of a collaboration," says Russell.

For inspiration, Russell often looks to flea markets, taking pictures of her finds to the manufacturer to see what they might be able to reproduce. Russell & Mackenna designs all of its fabrics to ensure the upholstered pieces are unique.

From one wood shelf to dozens of product designs and an upholstery line, the Russell & Mackenna evolution came full circle this spring when the company purchased the Maine Cottage brand, maker of the bright blue beadboard bookshelf that Russell had always wanted.

"Maine Cottage fell victim to the recession," says Russell. "When we learned that it might be possible to acquire all, or part, of Maine Cottage, our largest competitor, we decided to make it happen."

So what's next for Russell & Mackenna now that Maine Cottage is part of the family?

"From Day 1, our goal has been to build furniture that lifts the spirit and holds its value over time," says Russell. "The Maine Cottage brand will help us do this more quickly and accomplish that goal on a national basis."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.

Where to buyRussell & Mackenna

A showroom is available at the Maine Cottage signature store, 8R Evergreen Road, Severna Park 21146, 410-315-9011; russellmackenna.com. The showroom is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday -Friday and 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Russell & Mackenna and Maine Cottage home furnishings are also available locally through Fern Hill in Baltimore, Urban Country in Bethesda, Bountiful in Easton and Well Built in Washington, as well as J. Conn Scott in Selbyville, Del., and Rehoboth Beach, Del. Check online for a list of other dealers.

About the ownersLauren Russell

Russell & Mackenna's founder and creative director, she is responsible for all aspects of product design and marketing. With an academic background in fine arts and professional experience as an ad agency art director and a marketing consultant specializing in consumer products, Russell created her own dream job when she launched her furniture business in 2003. "I love coming to work," says Russell. "Right now we are merging two companies and are definitely feeling some growing pains, but is exciting to see our sales volume grow."

"My favorite part of the job is managing the process of designing and marketing a new collection, and then seeing how people receive it," says Russell.

Larry Strassner

The CEO of Russell & Mackenna is also Lauren Russell's father. He relocated from Norfolk, Va., to Severna Park to help run the business. A graduate of West Point, where he received a degree in engineering, Strassner also holds an MBA in finance from Loyola University Maryland. His professional background includes military service and a career in finance and management. His passion for business balances his daughter's passion for design.

"What I like most about the job is getting to work with Lauren and to watch this team we have put together function. I spent my carreer in meetings around conference tables, and I would put our group up against any management team I have worked with. I would hate to compete against this company," says Strassner.

Kevin Russell

Lauren Russell's husband is a shareholder in the company and helped start it, but he currently works for the Severn School. He earned a bacherlor's degree from Salisbury University in 1995, and then worked as a financial service representative at T. Rowe Price in Baltimore before joining the staff of the Severn School.

Kevin and Lauren live in Severna Park with their three daughters: Sawyer, 9; Gretchen, 7; and Libby, 4.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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