Eddy Whitely loads a blanket-wrapped item of furniture into his the van on a chilly weekday morning, but the co-owner of Orions Objects, a furniture dealer that specializes in midcentury modern design, isn't taking the piece for delivery.
He's taking it to the oven.
"We're the only place in Baltimore that sells baked furniture," Whitely says, followed by a laugh. He explains that he and his business partner, Stacey Greer, turn to the Baltimore Body Shop, an automotive repair and maintenance garage in Remington, to apply the lacquers to restoration projects that require it, a process that involves curing the finish in an oven.
"We do the prep work — the woodwork, the hardware — but then they finish it off," he says. "They have a big oven and they bake our furniture.
"And when it comes back — that's my favorite, favorite part of this business," Whitely says. "Witnessing the transformation of a piece."
The results of that transformative process fill Orions Objects' gallery showroom and workshop on Union Avenue just north of the Woodberry light rail stop in Clipper Mill. Inside, a string of credenzas, sideboards, chairs, tables and sofas run from the front door through the first floor of a large warehouse showroom and into the second.
Every one of the items is immaculately restored and lovingly finished. A pair of Milo Baughman chairs in a dark chocolate brown with white piping look more like decadent patisserie confections than objects made for sitting. The finish on a wood-and-chrome Baughman sideboard is basketball court-shiny. A reupholstered George Mulhauser "Mr. Chair" lounge seat is preposterously cool, the sort of chair that would make a man believe he could be a handsome and rich power player on television's "Scandal."
Whitely and Greer have a combined 30 years in the furniture restoration and sales business, and they joined to form Orions Objects in 2011. Their curatorial eye for items and high-quality restoration have helped them forge strong relationships with their primary customers, designers across the country and around the world who are decorating homes for their clients.
Greer estimates that between 60 percent and 70 percent of Orions' business is to professional interior design firms; the remaining clientele are retail customers from the area and region. She says the shop has even started being contacted by set decorators, noting that a table was rented for use in the Spider-Man movie sequel, "The Amazing Spider-Man: London Calling," and a few chairs were rented but not used for a New York commercial shoot featuring Tina Fey.
Earlier in each of their careers, Whitely and Greer spent more time searching for items personally, attending auctions on the Eastern Shore, scrolling through furniture online or responding to calls where somebody was looking to unload family pieces or an estate. Over time, they developed relationships with buyers who know what they're looking for.
Whitely says he's constantly on calls with somebody wanting to know if he's interested in something.
"You just heard me on the phone with one," Whitely says. "That guy is standing at an auction somewhere right now, and he's standing in front of an [Danish designer] Ib Kofod Larsen sideboard. The phone call before that was about a 1940s telephone booth with an operating telephone in it. It'll probably be here next week. We have a whole network of people like that, and we're very fair with people. If somebody we work with comes to us and wants $1,000 for a pair of chairs, we don't say, 'Would you take $600?' We know they work as hard as we do."
The fairness sensibility runs through the business. Greer points out that if there's an environmentally friendly product that can be used in the restoration process, they use it. And they both immediately bring up the many local skilled artisans they use when working on a project — woodworker Bill Hergenroeder when they need a wooden part fabricated; upholsterer Joseph Loiero; Ann Lauer, who does caning for chairs; faux finisher Kelly Walker; Cray Merrill's Brassworks in Fells Point for brass polishing; and Baltimore Body Shop for lacquering.
Any combination of these artisans may come into play when Greer or Whitely first encounter a piece of furniture. Sometimes items just need to be stripped and refinished. Sometimes there's surface damage that needs to be repaired or parts that need to be replaced. Sometimes they need to have new metal hardware. And sometimes the piece needs to be rethought completely: perhaps what was once a sideboard in the 1950s might work better as a showpiece shelving unit today.
Greer and Whitely make as many creative design decisions as they do functional restoration decisions. Their knowledge of 20th-century designers isn't just impressive but fearsome, as discussions with them move from popular Scandinavian designers quickly into lesser known European and South American designers that they're exploring.
The two also recently started talking with local woodworking firm Gutierrez Studios about developing their own furniture items, an opportunity to take what they've learned and develop unique pieces to add to their gallery.
They move items quickly — they rattled off pieces that they had recently sold to interior designers working with clients in Egypt, Dubai, and the Virgin Islands — and estimate that they introduce between 10 and 20 showroom-ready items to the floor every week, after they and their workshop team have restored them.
It's a labor-intensive, collaborative process, and sometimes Greer and Whitely's personal tastes differ, but they share the same high standards for quality — and, they discovered, a similar background with the celestial configuration invoked by their company's name.
When he was a kid, Whitely says, his father, an amateur astronomer, taught him the constellations, including Orion, which is so prominent in the night sky. "We both agreed on Orion, that we had in common," Greer says. "It's the first [constellation] my father taught me. It's big and really visible and just cool."
"And how perfect is that — the great hunter, that's what this is," Whitely says of the furniture restoration business. "This is like an adult Easter egg hunt. Ooh, look what I found."
Orions Objects, Clipper Mill Industrial Park, 1750 Union Ave., Unit E, Baltimore 21211Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun