Admit it. When you look at a piece of unfinished furniture, you’re tempted to stain it brown. You can call it mahogany or oak or maple, but it’s really all just brown.
Carol Bass would paint it low-tide green, china blue or tomato red. For her, decorating a room is like creating a big, vibrant painting. The couch and end tables are part of the palette.
“The people and the furniture are the art in the room and you all become part of the composition — you’re in a giant still life,” Bass said.
Life, decorating, couches — to Bass, it’s all art, bold in color, simple in form. As co-owner and designer at Maine Cottage furniture in Yarmouth, she paints in broad strokes — a table here, an armoire there. The lines are clean and elegant, the colors irreverent and fun.
“I grabbed Mission and Shaker and stirred them up and gave them color,” Bass said, sitting on a comfy, poppy-red couch in the showroom. “I put a lot of radiant colors out there and people respond to them.”
And the response has been, shall we say, vibrant. Since Bass and her former husband, Peter, started the business in 1988, Maine Cottage has doubled its showroom size and now has 50 employees, 100 distributors nationwide, and a loyal following of homeowners and interior decorators.
Though Maine Cottage had its busiest week to date this month, it wasn’t always this way. At first, there was some resistance to the brightly painted, whimsical designs. Some consumers thought color was just for kids, Bass said, and they didn’t take the company seriously. They thought it was more gingerbread than white-bread.
“People felt they needed to buy a cottage,” Bass said. “I wanted to get that feeling you get when you’re in a cottage. And I wanted to encourage people to bring that feeling into their home.”
At the same time, some people longed for something different. They had become tired with brown, wood-stained furniture and Maine Cottage’s colorful designs appealed to them.
“People were ready for something different,” Bass said. “You can’t get a hot-pink bureau or ochre or lupine-colored bureau anyplace else.”
Five woodshops in Maine craft the furniture, which sells for prices that are more Bar Harbor cottage than backwoods camp. While the wood, wicker and rattan pieces are bright and playful, they are also practical and sturdy. The designs are as much at home with antiques as they are with modern furnishings. Scratches can be buffed out of the paint with a gentle abrasive. Bass is working on a line of fleece slipcovers that can be tossed into the washing machine if a wet dog or an ice-cream-eating toddler happens to sit on them.
“I think that’s the way people live today,” Bass said.
Thirty years ago, when Bass first came to Maine, furniture was the last thing on her mind. After graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in painting and sculpture, she wanted to celebrate. So she and four friends planned a two-week trip to Boothbay Harbor, but it was packed with tourists, so they headed to Northeast Harbor and liked it so much that they stayed the whole summer.
Shortly after, Bass, who grew up near Charleston, S.C., moved to Maine full time.
“Once you come here, how can you leave?” she asked.
She took a job teaching art in Northeast Harbor, where she had Lizzie Hinckley as a pupil. The little, curly-haired blond girl became an inspiration to Bass years later, when she designed the “Lizzie” line of bedroom furniture.
“We name our furniture after people who inspire us — characters we know and love,” Bass said.
There’s the “Jasper” sofa, inspired by one seen at an antiques shop and named after the store’s owner. The “Ruby” cabinet gets its name from the woman who raised Bass. The “Julianna” settee is named for a woman who, at 90, practiced ballet on her lawn in a tutu. And then there’s the “Oscar” sofa, named for “a wonderful man from Nigeria who taught at Maine College of Art.”
Just as the people in her life have inspired the furniture, so has working in her studio inspired her color schemes. She hopes her palette will encourage customers, some of whom aren’t artistically inclined, to take risks with color.
“We offer people a chance to be creative,” Bass said. “It gives them a chance to approach the edge. They want to be bold and daring and they can do that with us.”
Maine Cottage can be reached at 846-1430 or online at www.mainecottage.com.