With an exciting new line of colorful home decor, this Barrington jewelry store has become a destination for shoppers throughout Chicagoland, and the Midwest.
Lynnette Solomon loves to watch the reaction from customers when they enter the MacKenzie-Childs boutique on the second floor at M.J. Miller & Co., 123 W. Main St., in downtown Barrington.
Last fall, the jewelry store introduced the MacKenzie-Childs line of ceramics and home furnishings that include plates, planters, teapots and tureens, all handmade on a small farm in upstate New York. M.J. Miller has one of the largest collections in the country, and draws enthusiasts and collectors from miles around.
“They can’t help but smile,” says Solomon, the store’s special events coordinator and a jewelry designer. “When customers see our collection of items upstairs, it’s like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. It’s whimsical and fun. A piece or two in the house makes a big impression on people. We all need more fun and enjoyment in life.”
MacKenzie-Childs items are purchased mostly as decorative home pieces or gifts. There’s a tulip furniture collection; a baby collection that includes hooded towel sets; kitchen items like bakeware and glassware; outdoor pieces like door knockers and entrance mats; and even an assortment of pet supplies such as beds, collars and food dishes. Tea kettles in the brand’s signature Courtly Check pattern are best-sellers. “If you put one of those tea kettles on your stove, it really makes a statement,” says Solomon. “That’s the piece that will stand out and be noticed. It’s highly recognizable.”
M.J. Miller started carrying the MacKenzie-Childs line when Jay Strongwater, another popular home decor line, created the new Aurora Brand, which features MacKenzie-Childs. “The door was opened to us,” says Solomon. “Not just anyone can carry the MacKenzie-Childs line.”
M.J. Miller is already known for its custom-designed jewelry, designer-brand pieces, Jay Strongwater collection and expert services. This new home decor line adds an extra touch.
“It’s a great addition to our jewelry collection,” Solomon says. “The first thing people see is the jewelry, which is exciting in itself, and then they come upstairs to see the MacKenzie-Childs collection. They’re floored that it’s so traditional downstairs and so whimsical upstairs. It’s the best of both worlds.”
M.J. Miller renovated its second-floor space to accommodate the new collection. According to Solomon, the store has the largest MacKenzie-Childs showroom in the Midwest, much to the delight of customers. “The response has been beyond our expectations,” she says. “We’re thrilled, and so are the collectors. My goal is to become the No. 1 MacKenzie-Childs destination in the Midwest. It’s a lofty expectation, but I think we can do it.”
In the Beginning
Richard and Victoria MacKenzie-Childs were struggling young artists with master’s degrees in fine arts when they bought a worn-down 19th century farmhouse in the small town of Aurora, N.Y. They had no money to renovate or buy new furniture, so they began gathering wood doors, knobs, broken pottery and other pieces to fill their home.
They found painting to be an inexpensive way to showcase their talents. The couple used stripes, dots and checker patterns, as well as reds, purples, yellows and greens to make their home come alive. They had ample inspiration in the beautiful lakes and rolling fields outside their windows.
Victoria was selling sculptures and Richard was teaching ceramics classes at Wells College, when the couple decided to make and sell teacups. That was the start of MacKenzie-Childs.
Their new business struggled in the beginning, but things took off when Neiman Marcus placed a substantial order; the couple hired more artists. These days, MacKenzie-Childs employs more than 325 artists at the same former dairy farm where it all began. MacKenzie-Childs celebrated 30 years of production last year.
In 2001, Mackenzie-Childs sold the company to Pleasant Rowland, the creator of the American Girl brand. A Wells alumna, Rowland rescued the company from financial difficulties and even restored the inns and restaurants of Aurora. In 2008, Rowland sold MacKenzie-Childs to current owners Lee Feldman and Howard Cohen, partners of Twin Lakes Capital, Rochester, N.Y., who agreed to keep production in Aurora.
“People are curious about the history of the company,” Solomon says. “True collectors want to know what the direction of the company is. They had their struggles, like any business, but it’s an impressive story, especially if you look at the background in art and creativity. It’s a story of how someone took a small idea and it grew beyond their wildest dreams.”
MacKenzie-Childs is perhaps best known for its signature Courtly Check Collection, a fun black-and-white checkerboard pattern with touches of gold, aqua and bright yellow. “It’s a designer’s dream,” says Solomon. “Not only does the pattern work well on its own, it’s also a great “base” to jump from when beginning the design process. Everything works well with Courtly Check, from traditional to mid-century modern.”
The enamelware collection includes four additional patterns: Flower Market, Parchment Check, Aurora and the new Butterfly Garden. Patterns can be mixed together, or stand alone as separate collections.
MacKenzie-Childs is sold in nearly 90 stores across the country, as well as Harrods department store in London and Mitsukoshi in Tokyo. Just five stores in greater Chicago carry the MacKenzie-Childs line; customers come to M.J. Miller from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Recently, Solomon and a few guests traveled to the MacKenzie-Childs headquarters to meet company officials. The group toured the farmhouse and artists’ studio, and met artistic director Rebecca Proctor, who travels the world looking for fabrics and inspirations.
“It was a real treat,” Solomon says. “Seeing it up close got me more excited. Each piece of furniture is hand-painted and upholstered by a small group of artists. I was surprised by how few artists there are, compared to the quantity of quality work they supply. They are talented and dedicated people who truly seem to enjoy what they’re doing. In the upholstering area, we were shown a few pieces that were one-of-a-kind. They showed us how various patterns came to be. We learned how Parchment Check was designed and why the new Butterfly Garden pattern has an area of white in the center. We learned about the different methods of producing pieces from the raw clay, and how each piece is individually handled by artisans.”
Solomon orders her Christmas and spring collections from MacKenzie-Childs nearly a year in advance. The collection is expansive; there are more than 700 pieces, but nearly 400 are retired each year. “It’s constantly changing,” she says. “If you see something now, it probably won’t be here next year. Some staples stay, like plates and cups, but accent pieces don’t last.”
Twice a year, M.J. Miller holds special events to showcase the MacKenzie-Childs line. In addition, a company representative comes in to help set up displays. “We’re always tweaking and making changes,” says Solomon.
Jessica Young, Barrington, has been an enthusiastic collector of all things MacKenzie-Childs for eight years. A friend got her interested, and, in turn, Young got her mom, Sandie Paxton, hooked. Young, who owns an apparel store in Barrington, was thrilled to learn that M.J. Miller was offering MacKenzie-Childs, given that she had been driving nearly 40 minutes to the nearest store that carried it. “I contemplated putting the line in my store, but I’m glad M.J. Miller decided to take it on,” she says. “They’re so creative and have given me many ideas on how to display my collection.”
Young visits M.J. Miller at least once every other week. She buys MacKenzie-Childs for Christmas and birthday presents, and instead of registering for fine china for her wedding last year, Young requested a 12-piece MacKenzie-Childs decorative set. She even has a Christmas tree that she trims only with MacKenzie-Childs ornaments.
“The pieces have a classic style,” Young says. “Everything in the line goes with any house, and I never get tired of it.”