Chilton’s concept store in Portland serves as a showcase for its original creations.
This is where guests of the small hotel can experience first-hand what Chilton owners see as the furniture retailer’s future: collections developed by its independent designer and produced by Maine artisans.
The Acadia Live Edge Collection, inspired by mid-century designer George Nakashima, is one of two options available to guests through a collaboration between Chilton owners and the local innkeeper.
In room 240 is the MS1 Bedroom collection, a nod to Shaker and Scandinavian design. In both bedrooms you can relax in Chilton’s 2020 Good Design Awardwinning Nautilus lounge chair. And soon, Chilton will also equip the hostel’s tea room.
Putting the company’s beds, dressers, mirrors, benches, tables and chairs for use at the hostel and on display at other nearby outlets “has been a big plus for us”, boosting the brand image Maine-made, said Jennifer Levin, who co-owns Chilton with her husband, Jared.
One of Chilton’s three retail outlets is a few blocks from the hostel, in a town often crowded with tourists making the pilgrimage to iconic outdoor retailer LL Bean and a host of factory outlets . The company has also placed its furniture at clothing retailer Toad & Co. in Freeport and its Nautilus chair can be found at the Portland Art Gallery and Evangeline Linens, both in Portland.
Chilton, which dates back to 1885 as a paint and varnish manufacturer before entering the wooden furniture business in the 1970s, is in the process of rebranding under the Levins, who bought the business in 2014 “We are focused on building our original designs and increasing our ability to build in Maine,” said Jen Levin.
All of the furniture Chilton sells is under its own brand, and its house accents – pottery, textiles, hand-turned wooden bowls, candles, even sheepskins – are sourced locally. One exception is the lighting, which comes from Barcelona-based Marset.
Earlier this year, Chilton Furniture, which had 2021 sales of 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 more of them 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 wood,” which she says means no longer using stains, but offering more variety beyond cherry like white oak, maple, and walnut, and to bring out the natural grain and texture of the wood.
In 2017, the company brought in a Maine-based independent contractor to lead its design process. The Portland concept store, which opened in late 2020, now serves as a 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 so far in 2022, Levin said. “That number has increased significantly over the past few years,” she said, as Chilton focuses more effort on this segment.
Mission done in Maine
Currently, Levin said, nearly 70% of the furniture on offer is made in Maine by three builders — including the designer’s own contract shop — with the rest produced by furniture makers in Ohio, Indiana, and Indiana. and the newest addition, Vermont. Could it arrive 100% made in Maine? That’s the goal, Levin said.
There is still a need today to diversify suppliers to shorten order delivery times, which had increased to 25 weeks or more due to high demand during COVID-19, Levin said. It was during this period, she added, that sales outside of Maine grew to account for 60% of the business.
“We’ve worked with some local workshops for decades,” she said, “while others are newer partnerships.” Some parts are ‘straight out of a workshop catalogue’, and others are tailored to meet Chilton standards.
“We often work with workshops to modify new furniture by adjusting proportions, streamlining and simplifying lines and adding improvements to the structural integrity of pieces,” she said.
During Chilton’s transition, Levin expects relationships with non-Maine vendors to resolve naturally. “We had three instances where stores came to us, and we mutually decided to go in different directions,” she explained. “It always settles when our relationships end.” Meanwhile, the ratio made in Maine continues to increase.
Repositioning the retailer as a supplier of its own designs presents some challenges. “We currently have a greater variety and price range by having different builders,” Levin said. “And we have a wider customer base.”
The plan, however, is not to reduce the categories of furniture offered, but rather to streamline the styles.
“As we create more original designs, we look for holes in our product lines to increase the number of options in certain categories,” she explained. Levin said they will continue to offer pieces that identify with the Shaker style, but “you’ll see fewer tangential styles like Mission in our collection in the years to come.”
As for retail buyers, Levin said the customer return rate is 70%, which they aren’t going to ignore. “Our plan is to bring our clientele with us,” she said. “Our solution is in the design. We can offer simpler designs but are of higher basic quality.