BY DESIGN : Outdoor Outfitter : Janice Feldman has designs on your back yard. And she has the perfect furniture material: recycled plastic lumber.
Janice Feldman had a successful furniture business, a devoted husband and enough money to indulge in hobbies worthy of Robin Leach-style documentation: traveling, driving race cars, drinking champagne, buying fine art and antiques.
Then, in 1987, her husband died. Murray Feldman, the former executive director of the Pacific Design Center, had been her mentor. “He was a great champion of mine. We were crazy madly in love with each other for 14 years,” she says.
Feldman went into a two-year decline after her loss, becoming so depressed that her life seemed colorless. “Everything was very white,” she says. “I felt like I had lost my competence and my emotional edge.”
A right-brain seminar, a change of business and plastic milk jugs brought her back around.
She has always been one to tweak her creative muse and scout for the next best business.
As a 9-year-old growing up in San Francisco, she ran a string of baby-sitters. At 13, she helped sell aluminum siding, working the phones after school to earn $3 for each solid sales lead. She took the job to pay for her own telephone, a blue Princess model.
Stories of Feldman’s early entrepreneurial ventures do not surprise her colleagues. “Janice is the quintessential merchant,” says Rusty La Fleur, vice president of the Pacific Design Center. “It’s in her soul.”
When she decided to open Janus et Cie, a Pacific Design Center showroom of office furniture, in 1977, she was 25 and without the collateral--real estate or cash--to get a business loan. But she did have some antiques bought during her college years. Feldman insured the furniture through Lloyd’s of London and used the policy to convince the bankers of her worth.
Among her best possessions was a Charles I highboy purchased for $750--all of her rent money--at a Los Angeles auction. To pay her landlord that month, she quickly sold some of her own serigraphs to a Melrose Avenue art gallery. In a flurry of transactions, Feldman had landed a great piece of furniture--later appraised for $30,000--at an unbelievable price, covered her rent and financed her business.
“She is not a typical showroom owner--she creates new markets,” says Andrew Wolf, president of the Pacific Design Center. “And you hear about her in other cities. She is a California-based institution. I watch her with some amazement.”
Today, Feldman lives alone in a Monterey Colonial-style house--"filled with too much stuff,” she says--in the Hollywood hills. She is contemplating buying a new place, one with a pool. “But it has to be something special. I have to find the right deal or the right piece of property.”
This month alone she has traveled to Hawaii, Utah and Milan--a typical schedule, she says. “But I’m pretty stable. I’ve only had three cars in my entire life, four houses. I’ve had my business for 17 years and I’ve never cut my hair any different.”
Feldman has always seemed to land butter-side up--or as she puts it, “I always find a parking space near the front door,” which in Los Angeles is even better than fat-slathered white bread.
But after the death of her husband, she lost her driving force. She did what many Angelenos do--checked into a spa, the Golden Door. An event there booted her out of her rut.
“It was a right-brain seminar called the ‘Inner Door’, " she says.
“This workshop was very enlightening. It made me realize that I have a syndrome called mixed-brain dominance. I have the ability to think creatively, which is the right side, and to work the left side at the same time, which is the accountant side,” she says.
Introducing her accountant self to her abstract diva resulted in dumping the contract furniture business she had spent years building.
“It was getting more difficult because of economic changes, and I was very unfulfilled,” she says. The year was 1990, and Feldman foresaw changes for the new decade. Ergonomically correct office chairs glutted the market. There was a dearth of porch swings and park benches.
Feldman bet her future on outdoor furniture.
The experts predicted we would all have more leisure time, she says. But neither she nor her friends had much of it. People who did, she figured, would spend it close to home, in their own back yards. “That was the catalyst, and it all came together,” she says.
Feldman pitched the desks, filing systems and posture-perfect office chairs, and filled her showroom with outdoor wicker chairs made with aluminum wire woven with cellulose fiber, chairs made of African hardwoods coated in weather-resistant resin and chaises with every option but an air bag.
“I wanted to become the definitive source for site, garden and casual furnishings,” she says.
As her showroom filled with benches from England and tables from France, Feldman found her next project by way of the local garbage dumps: Durawood, made of 100% recycled plastic bottles (specifically HDPE, high density polyethylene).
She had read about the recycled plastic lumber and immediately recognized its potential. Durawood looks and performs like wood and costs about as much as unfinished oak, but it won’t absorb moisture, preventing rot and mildew. Most paints will not adhere to it, making it almost graffiti-proof. In its processed form, Durawood is almost translucent; pigment injected with anti-fading ingredients are added in the manufacturing process to provide uniform color.
In addition to becoming the West Coast supplier for Durawood, Feldman designed outdoor furniture made of it to sell in her showroom. The line, Januswood, sticks to American basics: a large rocking chair suitable for front porches and watermelon seed-spitting contests, an Adirondack chair with arms wide enough to hold a tankard of ice tea, benches designed with Main Street U.S.A. in mind. Even the ubiquitous white picket fence can be made of Durawood.
The material has gone into sign posts and benches for Los Angeles International Airport and for playground equipment by the city Parks and Recreation department. Jerry’s Famous Deli has bought it for outdoor seating and fences, and Park City ski resort in Utah has benches. Its near-overnight success has necessitated a warehouse for storage and enmeshed Feldman in both the high-end furnishings trade and the raw lumber business. And it has brought the color back into her life.
“Bright colors,” she says. “Now, I see bright, brilliant, living colors.”