In the demise of old firm, designer found a winning business idea


Almost a year ago, interior designer Barbara Miller of Columbia found herself drowning in red ink.

Her 7-year-old business, Interior Artscapes in Columbia, was being pounded by the nation's economic recession. Many of her customers -- suddenly hard hit by the slump -- lost their jobs and could not continue to pay for her services.

"My business went way down hill," said Ms. Miller, 32, addinthat she was forced to close her one-woman operation last summer $3,000 in debt. The horizon looked bleak.

When the sun didn't rise on its own, Ms. Miller gave it a push. She established Decorators' Bargains, an unusual business capitalizing on the poor economy and her designing skills.

The fate of Interior Artscapes, a residential and commercial interior designing firm, is one example of how the multibillion-dollar industry has suffered during the nation's recession, said Carl Clarke, vice president of the American Society of Interior Designers, based in Washington.

The downturn in new construction of houses and offices across the nation forced some large interior designing companies to lay off "sizable numbers" of employees, Mr. Clarke said. Many one-person designing businesses were also forced to fold.

Out of desperation to stay in the designing business, Ms. Miller began planning a comeback last summer.

"I racked my brains to decide what to do with my life," said Ms. Miller, the mother of two sons. "It was a sink or swim decision. I had to do it."

In September, using $500 for a security deposit, she opened Decorators' Bargains, a discount specialty furniture and decorating store in historic Savage Mill.

She and her partner, Kim O'Brien of Baltimore, buy floor samples and furnishings from decorator showrooms and model homes that have excess merchandise or are going out of business. The partners sell the merchandise at 30 percent to 70 percent below retail price.

Now, almost a year later, Ms. Miller is afloat again. "It's a dream come true," she said of her business.

The 1,800 square-foot store allows the partners to "capitalize on the designing industry's waste," Ms. Miller said.

Mr. Clarke, of the American Society of Interior Designers, said Ms. Miller's concept for the discount showroom is unusual and seems like a good deal for consumers.

Since opening, the store has remained in the black and sales have steadily increased, Ms. Miller said, but she declined to give specifics.

"It's a good sign that even though the business is less than a year old, we have been able to take vacations," said Ms. O'Brien, who became Ms. Miller's partner in March after closing her own designing business in Baltimore.

Sofas, chairs, estate items, antiques, designer originals, wallpaper, fabrics and accessories fill the store. There's a variety of furniture, including country, traditional and contemporary styles.

A customer, Virginia Lederman, of Laurel, said the store allows her to buy unique upscale merchandise at "reasonable prices."

"I have a champagne taste on a beer pocketbook", she said. "I just don't have the money to buy the things I really want. This gives me the opportunity to do that."

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