For small, mom-and-pop shops that produce goods for the home but don't have big advertising budgets, the Internet helps level the playing field, bringing customers who are looking for something different.
Many small design shops rely on word of mouth, or websites like Fab, which feature smaller collections.
"I don't think the old models of distribution are the only ways to play anymore," says Tracey Reinberg, whose year-and-a-half-old company, Kismet Tile, provides Moroccan-made cement tiles. She works directly with customers, she says, instead of trying to get showrooms to carry her goods.
More traditional methods also help get the word out: Vahallan Papers, a purveyor of hand-painted wallpaper based in Lincoln, Neb., swears by trade shows.
"We usually go to the same trade shows that (the big companies) go to," says owner Dan Nelson. "As long as we have a great product to show, we can compete."
Below's just a small sampling, culled from the Fab design realm and elsewhere, of the variety of small startups carving out niches in home decor:
Art of Board: Launched in 2004, it recycles colorful skateboard decks into "skate tile." Owners Bruce Boul and Rich Moorhead also make a ceramic tile onto which high-resolution images of skate tiles are imprinted, and peel-and-stick wall graphics. "Every scratch, scrape and gouge is kept intact, making each piece unique and just as original as the skaters who destroyed these decks," Moorhead says. The partners also launched a skate-deck recycling effort — I Ride I Recycle — to get broken decks into their hands and out of landfills. (www.artofboard.com, www.irideirecycle.com)
Housefish: Scott Bennett is the mad scientist behind this Denver furniture company, launched in 2008, that offers storage and shelving pieces with a nod toward the automotive industry. A former Indy-car designer, Bennett automated the manufacture of his furniture to keep costs down. Housefish furniture is made from birch-and-alder plywood and finished with non-toxic, zero-VOC paint. "Housefish is my experiment in using American, high-tech manufacturing to produce innovative, environmentally responsible furniture," says Bennett. (www.housefish.com)
Kismet Tile: Reinberg founded this cement tile company in 2010, inspired by the Spanish-revival architecture of her San Antonio, Texas, childhood. "I had always loved the material," says the longtime designer of textiles and wall coverings. The company offers dozens of designs and color combinations, and recently expanded into small runs of digitally printed, metallic wallpaper. Reinberg's next step: creating a line of ceramic tiles. (www.kismettile.com)
Mediterra Tile: Founded in 2007, this Tumacacori, Ariz., company creates decorative ceramic tile in hundreds of designs and several finishes. Husband-and-wife designers Morgan and Julie Ringer work with Oscar Carrillo, who oversees the tiles' creation at the company's studio in central Mexico. The patterns come from architecture and traditional crafts. "We hope to use pattern boldly and playfully, and we ask that our customers take some measured risks with their living space," says Morgan Ringer. New to the company's lineup: ceramic tiles made with reclaimed bottle glass. (www.mediterratile.com)
Niche Modern: Husband-and-wife team Jeremy Pyles and Mary Welch began this company in 2005 after failing to find simple yet elegant lighting fixtures. At first, they commissioned their own pendants with a Brooklyn glass blower. Today, they have their own art glass studio in Beacon, N.Y., where pendant lights and chandeliers are hand-blown in warm, translucent grays and ambers. "Each piece of glass is handcrafted, furnaces roaring, then lovingly assembled into a full fixture before shipping," says Mary Welch. (www.nichemodern.com)
Spoonflower: Started in 2008, this Durham, N.C., company makes it possible for designers and DIYers to design and print their own fabrics for window treatments and home accessories such as pillows. Spoonflower uses non-toxic ink to digitally print on 10 types of fabric. Customers can create original designs or choose from an inventory of more than 100,000. Owner Stephen Fraser says Spoonflower also will soon be able to print eco-friendly — and removable — wallpaper. "All along the novelty of Spoonflower has been the novelty of making customization available to regular people," says Fraser. (www.spoonflower.com)
Vahallan Papers: Two friends launched this hand-painted wallpaper company in a garage 15 years ago. "I will never forget making paper in the winter and having to go inside between (finishing) sheets of paper and having to run our hands under warm water to get the feeling back," says Nelson. The product line is sold through interior designers and at wallpaper retail stores. "When I say 'hand painted,' I truly mean it," Nelson says. "We use our fingers to do almost all of our painting." (www.vahallan.com)