Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wanted and Dangerous: Designer for the Mob

alvar aalto furniture study model 03Image by seier+seier+seier via Flickr

I should have known by the t-shirt he was wearing when he walked in the door. "Philadelphia Homicide Squad," it read. I asked him if he were a police officer. He starred me down with a sarcastic eye, glanced at his elderly father and with a crooked grin said "yeah, right. Homicide is my specialty."

It was my first year at my new job in Philadelphia. I had spent most of the previous 10 years working as a product designer for a Chicago-based importing company, designing lamps and home furnishings for well known American mass-market retailers. I had traveled Asia like Marco Polo, sometimes flying there 8-10 times a year, an occasional trip to Paris, London, India. I lived in extravagant five-star hotels. It was the life of a rock star...perhaps even better.

But in the end, it was all too much. I was everywhere, but nowhere. Always on the go. I had lost a sense of community, and missed the simple things we often take for granted, like going to movies with friends or just casually hanging out with family.

I also began to think a lot about what I was doing and why. I began reading books about the environment and our changing world. About human rights and labor issues. Globalization wasn't exactly working the way President Clinton made it sound like it would. And we really didn't seem to be advancing as a species or as individuals - least not me.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in the virtues of a free market system, competition, and hard-nose capitalism. But as time wore on, I began to witness many things overseas that contradicted those notions, things that required me to look away. I was getting paid well, and living like a king, but I felt a terrible weight building on my shoulders - my own Myth of Sisyphus, an existential crisis. Depression deepened the darkness of my eyes. It was time to change my life. I knew I had to simply walk away from it all.

I moved to Philadelphia in early 2007. I sought out a job as a custom furniture designer for a small Vermont-based solid wood furniture maker with a showroom in Manayunk. It was a true "green" company, and one with high ethics. Instead of traveling across the globe 10 times a year to an industrial purgatory to inspect lamps destined for the landfill a few years after purchase, I would take train rides up to a little mill in bucolic Vermont to review beautifully handcrafted furniture made from Forest Stewardship Council wood sources, and built to last a lifetime. I had reduced my carbon footprint from the size of Sasquatch to that of an ant. True, I had traded a nice salary and amazing perks and was now living on very modest means, but the important thing was, I got my soul back...well sorta...

That brings us back to where this story all began. I soon realized that the gentlemen who walked into our lovely Manayunk showroom that afternoon were probably not typical clients. The name was too familiar. It was just a hunch, but after a quick google check, it occurred to me that they might actually be affiliated with an infamous family known to Philly in a Sopranos sort of way.

Now keep in mind that the serious mafia wars in this town had long since ebbed from the days that Nicky Scarfo went on his murderous rampage, which included a series of bomb blasts that went off when his enemies turned on the ignitions of their cars. But I still felt a tad uneasy working with these fellas. Possibly it was the thought of being labeled designer for the mob! Would my picture be on an FBI sheet at the post office along with mob accountants and bookies, just like in the old movies?

Nonetheless, money was tight and I really needed the sale, so I pushed that thought to the back of my head and began working on some sketches for the guys. We ended up with a nice ensemble of transitional, Danish modern styled pieces. The wood selected was a light stained birch, and they choose a Merlot chamois fabric from Robert Allen for the upholstery. Discussing fabrics and fashion trends with mob bosses was something I never quite anticipated in design class. But hey, life is full of surprises.

The consultation was without issue. I recall the elderly man say something like "I like this guy, he's good." They even invited me to their residence to offer interior design advice. As weeks went by prior to delivery date, "the Godfather," as he was referred to by others in the family, phoned me continually for advice on arbitrary matters - like how to remove mysterious stains from seat cushions. He seemed to have a lot of accidents.

I didn't worry much about completion of the deal until one day I checked the mill's production list and realized that a slip-up had occurred - no work had been done on the order nearly 10 weeks after being placed! Soon I started getting calls from various members of the family concerned that something had gone wrong, that maybe I hadn't "handled the job right."

I began to sweat. I had nightmares of being rolled in a rug and tossed in the Schuylkill river - mind you it was an exquisite hand-tufted wool rug, custom designed, imported from Nepal. I had designed several of the kind already. The quality of Himalayan wool is unbeatable, and the workmanship on the rugs is excellent. I highly recommend them.

In any case, I immediately got on the phone to Vermont and explained to those laid-back New England hillbillies that this was Philadelphia. Things happen differently down here, I said. "People can get very upset when stuff doesn't go as planned."

I pleaded desperately for my life, and finally got them to push the order to top priority.

The customer's furniture was only delayed by a few weeks. I'm guessing it really wasn't such a big deal to them, though possibly just enough for the family to lose trust in me as their chosen designer for the mob, which was a good thing, of course, in my mind. I really didn't need another moral crisis in my life... I never heard from them again.

However, I do, on occasion, still get a little jittery when I turn on the ignition of my car.--D.A. DeMers.

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  1. Man, I'm glad I was alone at home when I read this - I was laughing hard enough to make people wonder about my sanity!

  2. Glad you enjoyed. And, OK, perhaps there's a little tongue-in-cheek here, and some slight embellishment, but the verity of the tale is uncompromising!