When it comes to fine woodworking, there’s a familiar, almost stereotypical model. You’ve seen it on these pages many times – the small one or two person shop struggling to balance the time-honored craft of furniture making with the more worldly arts of marketing and promotion. Sure, individual pieces can go for thousands of dollars, but you’ve got to really work to find the right customers. That’s the reality for a lot of shops.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, two women are changing that reality. Kathy DiFede and partner Gabrielle Bompadre started Woodchicks in 2001. Combining original and sometimes whimsical designs, subcontracted production, and marketing savvy, Woodchicks successfully sells a diverse line of furniture, furnishings and decorative pieces.
The company was started in 2001 when Kathy and Gabrielle met in Philadelphia. Kathy, the self-described designer chick, was born in Italy. Her mother is Italian and her father was stationed with United States Department of Defense (DOD). Kathy attended the DOD school with lots of “military brats,” but her mother had a big influence on her design sensibilities.
“My mother really inspired me.” Kathy explained, “When I was a kid, she would mix colors and textures that no one else was mixing at that time. I really didn’t realize until later in my own home that I was mimicking her textures and styles.”
She visited the United States when she was nine and again later when she was nineteen. Eventually she moved to this side of the Atlantic and began a 20-year career in television production and writing, first working for CBS news and then the Home and Garden network. Kathy lived in New York and Los Angeles and eventually Philadelphia, which brought her into contact with Gabrielle and her exceptional background in carpentry and cabinetmaking.
“From the age of nine and into my twenties, I worked at my father’s side,” Gabrielle recalled. “It was a great foundation. He did it all while remodeling kitchens and basements, so not only do I know all about joinery, but I also know how to do plumbing, and electrical work.”
Gabrielle ended up working in the wholesale florist business for 12 years, then mutual friends introduced the pair.
“When I met Kathy, she had a lot of ideas and wished she could find someone who could help her make them,” Gabrielle continued, “and I said, hey, I have a carpentry background, and I can help you make them. And BAM – here we are.”
They started putting plans together in Philadelphia, but launched the business in Los Angeles. It was a risk, but as they put it on their web site: “sometimes you have to close your eyes and jump … then build your wings on the way down.”
“Quality is very important to us.” Kathy noted, “You have to find the right people who get it, and we were able to find them in Los Angeles.”
But Los Angeles is also a tough market and an expensive place to start a business so the duo decided to take a break from big cities and build their business in Santa Fe. Based on Kathy’s designs, they started out with solid pieces of furniture, but gradually added fabrics. Eventually a separate craft line was developed for hand-painted jewelry boxes, kitchen accessories, and CD cabinets.
“That’s the creative process,” Kathy explained, “where you start with one thing and it leads to another. Our smaller accent pieces are perfect for tucking into a corner that needs something — a little pop of color that is still functional. People are less afraid to live with color today.”
Kathy creates the designs; Gabrielle then fashions three or four prototypes while working out any kinks in the plan & although they’ve gotten pretty good at anticipating problems. They then turn the prototype over to a production team that includes woodworkers, upholsterers, and even seamstresses, some back in Los Angeles and some in Santa Fe.
To build national exposure, Woodchicks has entered pieces in the Philadelphia Furniture Show and The International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. The former attracts designers, architects, and buyers for retail stores interested in furniture, while the latter is primarily a wholesale show focusing on crafts. It’s all paid off & business has been good.
“Exposure is everything.” Kathy explained, “It’s not enough to send a press release or photos. You have to spend the money, time, and energy to get your face out there. It’s about letting people touch it, sit on it, and see that your stools are not narrow like a bar stool, but wide like a chair.”
Despite their success, Kathy and Gabrielle are anticipating another move & either back to Philadelphia or even more likely Los Angeles. After so many years living in large cities, they both feel a bit like a duck out of water in Santa Fe. Plus Kathy still produces the occasional one-hour special for HGTV such as her recent “Homes in Rome,” “Homes of Paris,” and Great Outdoor Kitchens.
“I’m a city gal and coming from Philadelphia to Los Angeles was not a huge change, but Santa Fe was a totally different world,” Gabrielle explained.
“California is where our market is.” Kathy added, “We have grown enough now to take it back there.”
And about that name Woodchicks?
“The name says it all,” explained Kathy. “You have two chicks who really do work with wood.”