Finding Its Niche

Memphis-based furniture company Worlds Away keeps a jump on trends.



Partners Lucy Woodson and Bob Berry have some fun in the store's small retail section, where flawed items are sold at discount.

photographs by Jonathan Postal

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Back in the early 1990s, Bob Berry was making regular road trips to Mexico in his trusty Honda and hauling back home accessories to sell at various shows. “I started out going to Ecuador and bringing back sweaters,” says Berry. “That didn’t work out but I found a great market for silver and other Mexican goods.”

Gradually Berry’s brainchild, which he launched with partner Lucy Woodson, evolved into Worlds Away, a wholesale furniture and accessories company that sparked a revival of painted tole and specializes in handcrafted lighting and hand-painted furniture. It’s come a long way from operating out of Berry’s jam-packed vehicle, which made 40-hour round trips to the border a dozen times a year. Located at various addresses since the mid-’90s, Worlds Away now occupies 75,000 square feet of warehouse and office space on South Hollywood near the Liberty Bowl stadium, convenient to Midtown, downtown, and parts of East Memphis.

"People don’t want their mother’s antiques. My children don’t want anything in my house.” Instead, she adds, they want the clean lines of mid-twentieth-century modern or 1920s art deco.

Woodson remembers the early years when a good friend and artist named Cristy Beasley began painting pieces of tin. Beasley, who has since passed away, “started with a planter, then a lamp, then a table,” says Woodson, and soon the toleware trend was on a roll. But not long afterwards, India cornered the market on tole production, although Woodson and Berry “fought like crazy” to keep some of it local and provide jobs. “But India is noted for its painted tin, so we had to adapt to the change.” Gradually the partners moved toward selling bigger pieces and more lighting and establishing Worlds Away as a furniture company.

The transition came with the creativity of Lauri Jones, who was hired about a decade ago as the company’s designer. With her focus on mirrored and lacquered case goods — sideboards, side tables, and other decorative pieces — “we keep moving forward and expanding,” says Berry. “With her help we started the antique mirror look, and selling some unusual chandeliers and lampshades.” The company sends the designer’s drawings to China, the Philippines, and other sites overseas where goods are produced. “We go there to ensure they’re following the design,” says Berry, “and eventually the pieces are shipped back here. We get two or three big trucks in every day that we unpack. A few pieces come that we don’t design or make. We mix it up.”

 

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