Chilton’s Portland concept store serves as a showcase for its original designs.
It’s there that guests of the small hotel can experience firsthand what Chilton’s owners see as the furniture retailer’s future: collections developed by its independent designer and produced by Maine artisans.
The Acadia Live Edge Collection, which takes its inspiration from mid-century designer George Nakashima, is one of two options offered for guests to try out through a collaboration between Chilton’s owners and the local innkeeper.
In Room 240 is the MS1 Bedroom Collection, a nod to Shaker and Scandinavian design. In both rooms, guests can relax in Chilton’s 2020 Good Design Award-winning Nautilus lounge chair. And soon, Chilton will be outfitting the inn’s tea room as well.
Putting the company’s beds, dressers, mirrors, benches, tables and chairs to use at the inn and on display at other retail locations nearby “has been a great benefit to us,” reinforcing the Maine-made brand image, said Jennifer Levin, who co-owns Chilton with her husband, Jared.
One of Chilton’s three retail stores is just blocks from the inn, in a town often crowded with tourists making the pilgrimage to iconic outdoor retailer L.L. Bean and a host of outlet stores. The company has also placed its furniture at clothing retailer Toad & Co. in Freeport and its Nautilus chair is in the Portland Art Gallery and Evangeline Linens, both in Portland.
Upping the originality
Chilton, which traces its roots to 1885 as a paint and varnish maker before entering the wood furniture business in the 1970s, is in the midst of a rebranding under the Levins, who purchased the company in 2014. “We’re focused on building up our original designs and increasing our ability to build in Maine,” said Jen Levin.
All of the furniture sold by Chilton is under its own brand and its home accents — pottery, textiles, hand-turned wooden bowls, candles, even sheepskins — are sourced locally. One exception is lighting, which comes from Barcelona-based Marset.
Earlier this year, Chilton Furniture, which reported 2021 sales between $5 million and $10 million, was recognized as one of Home Accents Today’s 50 Retail Stars.
Speaking about the retailer’s evolving design aesthetic, Levin said, “We want to make it more about practical designs interpreted for contemporary lifestyles,” although some pieces will continue to have a traditional flavor.
Another part of this process is “a celebration of the wood,” which she said means no longer using stains but offering more variety beyond cherry such as white oak, maple and walnut, and allowing the natural wood grain and texture to be emphasized.
In 2017, the company brought on a Maine-based independent contractor to steer their design process. The concept store in Portland, which opened in late 2020, now serves as the showcase for the company’s original work. Chilton’s third store is in Scarborough, Maine.
About 20% of the company’s total offerings are originals and they’ve accounted for about 13% of sales thus far in 2022, said Levin. “This figure has grown significantly in the past few years,” she said, as Chilton focuses more efforts on that segment.
Currently, said Levin, nearly 70% of the furniture offered is made in Maine by three builders — including the contract designer’s own shop — with the rest produced by furnituremakers in Ohio, Indiana and the newest addition, Vermont. Could it get to 100% Maine-made? That’s the goal, Levin said.
There still exists right now the need to diversify suppliers to shorten lead times on orders, which had grown to 25 weeks or more because of high demand during COVID-19, said Levin. It was during that period, she added, that sales outside of Maine grew to represent 60% of the business.
“We have worked with some local workshops for decades,” she said, “while others are newer partnerships.” Some pieces, “come straight from a workshop’s catalog,” and others are adapted to meet Chilton’s standards.
“We often work with workshops to modify new furniture by tweaking proportions, streamlining and simplifying the lines and adding improvements to the structural integrity of pieces,” she said.
During Chilton’s transition, Levin expects the relationships with non-Maine vendors to resolve themselves naturally. “We’ve had three instances where shops have come to us, and we’ve mutually decided to move in different directions,” she explained. “It’s always just worked out when our relationships have ended.” Meanwhile, the Maine-made ratio keeps increasing.
Repositioning the retailer as a purveyor of its own designs does offer some challenges. “We do have a wider variety and price range right now by having different builders,” said Levin. “And we have a broader customer base.”
The plan, however, isn’t to pare down the categories of furniture offered, but rather to streamline the styles.
“As we create more original designs, we are looking for holes in our product lines to increase the number of options in certain categories,” she explained. Levin said they’ll continue to offer pieces that identify as Shaker style, but “you will see fewer tangential styles like Mission in our collection in the coming years.”
Regarding retail shoppers, Levin said the returning customer rate stands at 70%—something they aren’t going to ignore. “Our plan is to pull our customer base along with us,” she said. “Our solution is in the design. We can offer simpler designs but that are of a higher baseline quality.”