Amy Carson is something of an alchemist. While she doesnt turn lead into gold, she does transform wood from old docks and barns and rustic items from Third World countries into simple, elegant, modern furniture and light fixtures.
In a corner of the Montvale Block building at Monroe Street and First Avenue downtown, Carson designs, makes, and sells tables, chairs, benches, and lamps at a studio and small showroom for Bitters Co., which she and her sister, Katie Carson, started in Seattle seven years ago.
Amy Carson opened Bitters Spokane studio and showroom in November 1999, and Katie Carson continues to operate the companys Seattle outlet, which includes an art gallery, wine bar, and housewares store that sells the furniture Amy Carson designs, as well as a variety of imported glasses, ceramics, linens, and decorative items.
I wanted to live east of the Cascades, to have the lifestyle, the space, Amy Carson says.
Self-described as sort of a cheerleader, Carson gushes about Spokanes friendly people, great weather, and good transportation links. She says efficient ground transportation enables her to truck furniture produced here to Seattle quickly and inexpensively, and Spokanes airline connections make it easy for her to jet off to Mexico, the Philippines, and other countries on buying trips to find unique items that will be sold at the Seattle store or incorporated into her designs.
In selecting her site here, Carson wanted a downtown building with character. She was talking with Spokane developer Rob Brewster about taking space in another building he owns nearby on Monroe near the railroad viaduct, when the Montvale, which Brewster also owns, caught her eye. She settled into the West First neighborhood, which property owners and tenants envision becoming a funky arts and business district.
Since childhood, Carson, who trained as an architect, and her sister, who studied anthropology in college, had wanted to operate a gallery, shop, and caf that combined the feel of two of their favorite activities when they were growing upmuseum visits and the parties their mother, an avid hostess, gave.
Showing the work
At Bitters 800-square-foot outlet at 108 S. Monroe, a gauzy fabric made from banana fibers hangs over the east-facing windows, filtering the light and muting the colors of the street scene outside to create a world apart. Basket-like fish traps from Mexico have become unique lampshades atop sleek wooden posts. A cluster of hanging lights shaded by terra cotta orchid pots from the Philippines illuminate a polished tabletop that Carson has made from old dock planks from the Washington coast.
Carson says tables are her favorite things to make. She produces about four a month, and most are custom ordered and built to customers specifications. The tables heavy plank tops and angled steel legs draw on Japanese design, she says.
Intermountain Wood Products, a Utah company with an office in Spokane, provides Carson with much of the reclaimed wood she uses. Milling contractors plane the heavy, weathered planks from barns and docks until they are smooth.
Carson says she uses contractors for much of the execution of her designs because she doesnt have the large woodworking equipment needed to plane the hefty planks, for example, or drill holes through a big post to run wiring for a lamp. She also contracts with metal fabricators, including Rough Stock Welding & Fabrication and Carlson Sheet Metal Works Inc., both of Spokane, to build the table legs and frame that attach beneath a tabletop and to build metal chairs that she designs.
I like to work with my hands, but essentially Im a draftsperson, she says.
Carson glues the planks together, sands them, and anchors them with metal butterfly joints. She finishes the wood with Danish oil that enhances the grain and aged character of the wood.
Carson also makes benches using the same design as the tables, small folding tables that look like TV trays except for the thick, barn-wood top, and coffee tables supported on arched metal legs. At the Monroe Street studio, she assembles a variety of lighting products, including the orchid pot lights, fish-trap lamps of several sizes, and pendant lights made from blown-glass domes.
In addition to Third World artifacts and old wood, Carsons work also incorporates local objects. Steps from the Montvales former fire escape have been turned into luggage racks, and the scarred countertops from the Lewis & Clark High School chemistry and physics lab await a new life, probably as tabletops, Carson says.
Even though Bitters features items of local interest here, Carson concedes that its sales in Seattle far outpace those in Spokane, where she focuses on design and production more than sales. The Spokane outlets first customer was a Spokane woman who visited Bitters Seattle outlet and was surprised to learn the company had a store here, Carson says.
Hoping for growth
Carson, however, is enthusiastic about Bitters growth potential here. The company is preparing to launch a catalog and Web site to market its goods to retail customers and to wholesale them to interior designers and resellers, she says. Spokane would serve as Bitters distribution center for the direct marketing operation, and the company would like to secure warehouse space here for that purpose within the next year, Carson says.
In our five-year plan, I see a lot of growth in wholesaling, she says. The growth of wholesale distribution would boost employment here, but Carson says she doesnt know by how much yet. No specific plans for warehouse size have been charted yet, either, she says.
More immediately, Bitters plans to double the size of its studio and showroom here and move to the building next door next spring when the space it occupies at the Montvale is scheduled for renovation, Carson says. She also hopes to hire an assistant or two, possibly work-study students from Spokane-area colleges, she says. Carson currently is Bitters only employee here.
Carson also would like to build the Spokane studios role as a design-consulting firm. Bitters has served as a consultant in designing an overall theme for a restaurant and also made or bought the items needed to execute that design.
Carson also has developed conceptual plans for a restaurant and bar called The Catacomb that would occupy the coal cellar of the Montvale Block, if funding and a restaurant operator can be found.
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