Designer Janice Feldman on what it took to build her successful empire over the last 40 years
Janus et Cie founder Janice Feldman has always strived for perfection. “I was the Girl Scout who had to have every badge,” she says while driving to Los Angeles from her Carpinteria beach house.
Over the past four decades, since her humble start as one of the first showrooms at the Pacific Design Center, Feldman has built a wildly successful empire.
The luxury contemporary outdoor furnishings company, which was acquired by Poltrona Frau Group in 2016, has grown from a single showroom at the PDC to an international brand consisting of 19 showrooms, from Singapore (where she has a home), Sydney and Dubai to, most recently, Milan.
Feldman’s name may not be known outside the design community, but people all over the world have felt her impact. Janus et Cie benches, tables and chaises can be found in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles, Four Season Hotels around the world, Stanford, even LAX. She says the secret behind her success is simple: “I was focused. I worked hard. I forged ahead. People should accelerate to their highest potential.”
So don’t ask her if it was hard to launch her own business, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, as a woman. “I don’t feel like I had a tougher time as a woman,” Feldman says. “It didn’t seem like a stretch at the time. It just seemed like the thing to do. When I went to borrow money, I wrote a business plan. No one would give me a loan, but I didn’t give up. I was persistent.”
Even as a young girl growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Feldman pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable for girls. When she grew bored with “cooking” cinnamon toast in home-economics class at Grant High in Van Nuys, she asked to take woodshop instead. “I was making soufflés when I was 10,” she says. “I was not interested in making cinnamon toast. I wanted to learn how to build things.” When she was told that woodshop was not open to girls, her mother insisted she be admitted, making Feldman the first girl to take the class. “I loved it,” she says. “Why would anyone limit girls?”
Feldman describes the San Fernando Valley of her youth as an idyllic locale where no one ever thought to lock their doors and time was spent transitioning between indoors and out. “There were orange groves, strawberry farms, a small race track,” she says. “There were wild monkeys and giant tortoises. It was fantastic.” This bucolic lifestyle would later inspire her to develop her own line of outdoor furnishings. “I had a wonderful outdoor life,” Feldman says. “The climate was good, and it was an easy life. It’s how I got into outdoor furniture.”
After attending Art Center College of Design, Feldman traveled to Europe and supported herself by painting portraits of tourists. “I bought a brand-new VW and drove 19,000 miles all by myself,” she says. She credits her parents for encouraging her creative instincts. “They were amazing,” she says. “They knew they could trust me because I was very mature. My mother used to tell me that when I was born, I was six years old.”
I try to make trends, not follow them.
When she returned from Europe, she rented a stall at the Rose Bowl flea market for $25 a month and sold antiques. “I didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a lot of beautiful things,” she says. “I was a good hunter.” In an entrepreneurial ascent that is now legendary, Feldman contacted Lloyds of London to appraise her antiques when she couldn’t get a business loan. “They gave me the collateral to get a loan after I had a chest of drawers appraised for $35,000.” She signed a lease at the Pacific Design Center in 1978 without knowing what she was going to sell. “It was not the Harvard Business School way of doing things,” she says with a laugh.
But Los Angeles was booming during the 1970s, she says, and there wasn’t a huge market for outdoor furnishings. “The Pacific Design Center, which was founded by my late husband, changed how people bought things at a higher level,” she says. “People didn’t use designers then. There were a few designer showrooms on Beverly and Robertson, but most people went to places like May Company or Robinsons.”
As the interior design trade grew as a profession, Feldman started selling textiles, some furniture and wallpaper. Not only did she write the orders, she made the sales. She also represented other designers and began importing industrial furnishings from Italy. “A lot of the furniture at the time was very provincial,” she says. “People would buy sets of furniture then — the bureau with the matching side tables. In my house, we had Richard Schultz furniture, which was like modern art.”
When set decorator Ruby Levitt (The Sound of Music, Chinatown) came into the showroom and wanted to buy everything for a movie, Feldman knew she was on to something. “I told her, ‘I can’t sell you everything. It took me five months to get everything!’” Before long Feldman was designing her own furnishings and collaborating with designers, some of whom moved on to great success themselves. Noted architects and designers who have collaborated with Feldman include Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Paola Navone and Gabellini Sheppard.
The Janus et Cie aesthetic is formed by both elegance and function. “People don’t want to worry about their furniture like our parents did,” Feldman says. “So we designed furnishings to withstand tough climates, temperature, children and dogs.” Feldman was also an early proponent of using sustainable materials to extend the lifecycle of her products, 30 percent of which are purchased for indoors.
Now that Janus et Cie has launched in Europe, Feldman shows no signs of slowing down. And while she admits she doesn’t like to travel as much as she used to, her role as an arbiter of California cool has not diminished. “I try to make trends, not follow them,” she adds.
In April, Janus et Cie previewed Sophia-L, a new collection by Italian designer Piero Lissoni, at Milan Design Week. As someone who has remained fascinated with how things are made since she took woodshop, Feldman takes great pride in the shapely Sophia Loren-inspired collection. “I like to make things that are challenging, because not everyone can figure out how to do it,” she says. “Most designers know very little about how to make a product into reality.”