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The MacKenzie-Childs experience


In MacKenzie-Childs Land, afternoons are always sun-dappled, children pick wild raspberries to pay for their school uniforms and the tuffet is an important design statement.

You may have seen MacKenzie-Childs' whimsical pottery in exclusive shops -- beautiful majolica plates with fluted rims and fancifully shaped teapots hand-painted in luscious pastels.

While their tableware is what artists Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs are best known for, they also have lines of table linens, painted furniture, glasses and lamps. All of it is handmade and all is pricey. (A majolica mug retails for as much as$75.) In spite of the cost, the select few stores that carry it -- locally only the Kellogg Collection -- can't keep it in stock. Collectors love it, and it's functional as well.

As of this fall, though, MacKenzie-Childs Ltd.'s first line of enamel ware will be available to the masses -- at least the masses that shop at Macy's and other upscale department stores. It was introduced in August at the New York International Gift Fair, and should be in stores by November at the latest.

"The enamel ware is great," says Victoria MacKenzie-Childs, who with husband Richard founded the hugely successful home furnishings business 12 years ago. "It's like being in the car industry!" In other words, MacKenzie-Childs should be able to keep up with the demand -- something the company hasn't been able to do with its individually crafted pieces. The enamel ware's steel base with ceramic glaze is mass-produced overseas (although it is hand-painted and has such detailing as hand-carved teak handles).

Like all MacKenzie-Childs' decorative accessories, the enamel ware is subtly sophisticated and overtly perky, playful and prettily patterned or satisfyingly solid in sage, celadon, sky blue and banana. Some of the solid colors are decorated with antique flowers. The pieces come with sweet little names like Marshmallow and Do-Si-Do that hearken back to a child's summer camp.

Hot ticket

"Marshmallow is going to be the hot ticket" in the line, says Pat Larsen, manager of the Kellogg Condition. "It's magnificent: black-and-white check with green and yam incorporated into it."

Buyers are betting that the enamel ware will be a success because everything else that's come out of the couple's Aurora, N.Y., design studio has been.

The story is that Richard and Victoria (no one calls them by their last names) started selling their plates and teacups to send their 10-year-old daughter, Heather, to ballet school in England. It may be somewhat apocryphal. The direction their lives -- and their business -- took was inevitable, saysVictoria, "every step unfolding like the petals of a flower."

Heather did, however, earn the money for her second-hand school uniform by picking wild raspberries and selling them in the village.

Victoria MacKenzie and Richard Childs met at the Massachusetts College of Art, where he was a student and she was teaching. After working as clothing designers, they moved to England and in the late '70s got jobs in a small pottery factory there. Eventually they made their way back to the States, where Richard became an art professor at Wells College in upstate New York.

They established Mackenzie-Childs, Ltd., in 1983 with an exclusive formula for majolica that was dishwasher-, oven- and microwave-safe. (Majolica ware is made of terra-cotta clay with a white tin glaze. Most of it, like the traditional Victorian cabbage ware, is fragile and chips easily.)

When Victoria and Richard showed their majolica at a New York trade show the next year, Neiman Marcus and other specialty stores fell in love with it.

"They offer something unique," says Jeanie Galvin, an executive vice president at Neiman Marcus, which has carried MacKenzie-Childs home furnishings for more than a decade. "That's very hard to do these days. Customers' first instinct when they see it is, 'This is something special.' "

Victoria believes their furnishings never go out of style "for the same reasons that homemade bread and fresh flowers and children don't go out of style."

For whatever reasons, the business has grown two- and threefold each year. Now there is a flagship store on Madison Avenue, where customers are greeted by a doorman and a family of pheasants. (Yes, you have to enjoy whimsy to partake of the complete MacKenzie-Childs experience.) More stores are planned in Chicago and San Francisco.

Today the MacKenzie-Childs studio and showroom, a converted dairy farm in Aurora, has over 300 employees -- plus exotic birds wandering the grounds, red brick roads and fabulous gardens.

Closer to home you can see the most complete line of their furnishings on display at the Winding Beam in Rehoboth, which is one of the company's "focus stores." MacKenzie-Childs accessories are 75 percent of the shop's business, according to owner Helen O'Connor, partly because their casual sophistication, pastel colors and playful detailing make them ideal for beach houses.

Forget clean lines and simplicity of detail. As a friend once said to Victoria, "Your motto is 'Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.' "

Here are tuffets and tassels, rattan chaises and egg cozies with antique gold fringe. Furniture with names like the freckle fish chair and tureens shaped like turtles with glass bead knobs. A bombe chest with bunny-rabbit feet. Less isn't more. More is more.

Smidgen of joy

And if you can't do that much MacKenzie-Childs but would like a touch of color and a bit of imagination and just a smidgen of joy in your life, consider the painted knobs. You could get them for your kitchen drawers or your bureau.

None of them match, some of them are round and some come in the shape of little fish. The colors are pastel, only brighter somehow.

"I have MacKenzie-Childs knobs on my drawers," Winding Beam owner Helen O'Connor says when asked if she furnishes her own home with the line.

L "They just make you happy. And I never tire of the designs."

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