Usually you have to travel to hip enclaves of major metropolitan cities to find a carefully chosen selection of unexpected pieces from emerging designers. But Birgit Marko has brought the same level of cultivated cool to Design Menagerie, her shop in the small Berkshire town of Lenox, Massachusetts. The store, which she opened with her husband Dan, carries everything from bamboo toothbrushes to midcentury Danish chairs, and the only rule is that is the products they carry have to elevate ordinary tasks. We chatted with Birgit to find out how she chooses products for her brick-and-mortar shop and online store, and how to step up your gift-giving game.
What prompted you to open Design Menagerie?
I had been working in a corporate setting for many years in merchandising, product development, art and creative direction before opening Design Menagerie. Although I was doing basically what I do now, I wasn’t fulfilled or happy at work, and most of my colleagues weren’t happy either. I started to wonder what my life would look like in 20 years if I kept going down that path. I wanted to be able to choose only products I loved, made by talented people I respected, and manifest the creative direction I envisioned. I craved meaningful relationships with my vendors and customers, and most of all I wanted to be part of the new business paradigm that roots for social and environmental change.
One day an unexpected tragedy happened in my life. That’s when I decided to take the plunge, to leave behind what was familiar and safe and to go out on my own, not without the help and encouragement of an incredibly supportive husband and family, of course. That was four years ago and I never looked back. Life just keeps getting better and more exciting.
How do you choose the items in your shop?
I have a personal connection to every item in our store, whether it is a long time favorite of mine that finds its way on to our shelves, a new discovery I want for myself, or pieces made by designers I admire. Our store’s motto is “Objects of Utility and Beauty”—extraordinary things that elevate ordinary tasks. We are working with many wonderful makers and companies, both emerging and established, from the U.S., Europe, Australia and even South Africa. My husband and I both prize things that are crafted by hand and we always look for new designers who share our ethics and aesthetic. If I truly love a product, I feel confident that our customers will fall in love with it as well. It’s as simple as that.
Do you have a favorite item right now?
We have so many wonderful items in the store it would be difficult to pick just one. I tend to get very excited every time a shipment with a new product I have been waiting for arrives, and it becomes my new favorite until the next delivery comes in. But one of my all-time favorite items in our store is the gilded wooden plucked chicken by Mr. Somebody and Mr. Nobody. It is a very special piece designed by a very dear friend of mine. It makes me smile every time I look at it!
What’s the best part of your job?
Being able to go to work every day in a welcoming and creative space full of beautiful objects that I love, surrounded by my favorite music and scents; that is pretty special. Our customers often comment on how much they enjoy being in the store, that it makes them feel calm and happy. I love sharing that feeling with other people. I have met so many amazing people through this business, and many of our customers have become friends. Because the majority of our products come from independent designers and artisans, I get to work very closely with a lot of creative people, which is inspiring and rewarding in so many ways.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Probably finding balance between work and my personal life. I love my work and I love spending my days at the beautiful space we have created at our store. Yet there are always way more items on my to-do list than I realistically can accomplish in a day. Knowing when to stop–when to call it a day, can be challenging at times.
My family would probably tell you that I work too much, but the line between work and personal life often blurs when you love your work. The time commitment involved with running a brick and mortar, and an online store is significant. Finding balance is key.
What inspires you creatively?
Beauty, good design, nature, travel, and good conversations with like-minded people are all sources of great inspiration.
Do you have any tips for finding unusual gifts?
I tend to pick up gifts wherever I go or whenever I see something I really love, and especially while traveling. Sometimes I don’t even know to whom I will give the item, I just know it will make a great gift one day. I often buy my favorite things in twos, one for me and one to give to somebody special. And every time I wear or use that item, it reminds me of the person I gave the other one to. Also, it is far less stressful to have a little stockpile of gifts at home to draw from when you need one than having to go out and find the perfect gift at the last second.