Matt Bernson’s Furniture Fascination Pays Off

When he needed fixtures and décor for his first retail shop, footwear designer Matt Bernson embraced one of his longtime passions: salvaging and redesigning vintage furniture.

“Furniture and interior design are intense interests of mine,” said Bernson, who opened his 2,200-sq.-ft. shoe store and attached showroom in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood earlier this month. “When I first started designing shoes [in 2005], at the same time I was finding old furniture and stripping, refinishing and reupholstering it myself.”

While Bernson didn’t hand-build all the furnishings in his loft-like boutique, he did have a hand in the creation of each piece. Leading up to the store opening, he worked seven days a week for four months, scouring the East Coast for materials, sketching ideas and collaborating with local furniture designers to achieve the look he wanted. Bernson needed ample seating for customers and display shelves for shoes, as well as eye-catching fixtures for his expanded offerings, which include his jewelry line, select accessories from other designers and a collection of rare, vintage sunglasses.

The fruits of his labors can be seen throughout the new space, which even features the first piece Bernson reupholstered: a baroque-style loveseat that now serves as a favorite napping spot for the designer’s dog, Abraham. Additionally, the store’s oak front door hails from an old school in Pennsylvania; a large standing mirror is framed in antique, hand-carved Spanish molding (Bernson worked with a company in Yonkers, N.Y., to conceptualize and assemble the piece); and the huge window overlooking the downstairs showroom was once part of a factory in Philadelphia before Bernson discovered it at a New Jersey salvage yard.

On the sales floor, shoes rest on floating shelves fashioned from that window’s original glass, which is embedded with chicken wire (a common feature for industrial glass circa the 1920s through 1960s).

The checkout counter is wrapped in a similar type of glass. “I found the materials, worked with an architect to sketch it and had a builder [construct] it,” Bernson said of the counter.

That interest in building and interior design goes back to childhood, when Bernson would accompany his father to the family’s New York-based construction business, where he also worked before starting his label. When it came time to build out the new store, Bernson hired the family firm, and his dad not only headed up the project but also traveled with Bernson on furniture-hunting road trips.

“We worked side by side,” Bernson said. “It’s a really fun activity to search for stuff, and you meet so many cool craftsmen and collectors.”

But Bernson said his hobby doesn’t influence his shoe designs — in fact, it’s the other way around. “I take the process that I use for footwear and apply it to furniture,” the designer explained. “I try to [capture] the same look for both.”

For example, the soles of Bernson’s sandals and other styles come in natural colors and materials, with the heels on pumps and booties primarily made of wood. Similarly, the shop’s two black armchairs — sleek, vintage Danish pieces that were reconstructed by a designer in Brooklyn, N.Y. — feature raw, natural wood peeking out from their bases.

“[The aesthetic] is a mixture of natural, refined and rustic,” Bernson said. “[My passion for furniture and interior design] comes from the same place as loving fashion and anything else that can have a profound effect on how people feel in their environment.

“I’m in love with each [fixture],” he added. “The sunglasses display case is from Argentina, and the hat rack is from Paris. These are things that you don’t find everywhere — even this pair of stools where someone just decided to take a charming fabric and put it on a little chair. ”

As for where he might take the hobby next, the designer said he sees furniture becoming an integral part of the Matt Bernson brand. “I definitely want to make my own unique collectors’ items and one-offs,” he said. “If I could, I’d open an all-furniture store right next door.”

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