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The Sweet Smell of Success

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 A South Salem couple tries a new business and emerges smelling like roses.

 

When some women go to dinner parties, they show up with a freshly baked cake, a bottle of wine, or the latest hors d’oeuvres from Martha Stewart. But when Deborah Michel pops in, she comes toting 10 tiny vials filled with 10 versions of her latest scent-in-progress—from peony to pomegranate, Christmas tree to Lavender Fleur. Passing them from nose to nose, she listens intently to her friends’ comments before crowning one worthy enough to bear the Michel Design Works name.
Deborah and her husband, Bruce, co-founders of the South Salem-based company, have it all: their own business, a cozy 18th-century colonial house in the country, a big healthy family (three kids, an Australian shepherd, and three cats), and the best commute in Westchester County¬—just steps down a cobblestone pathway.
Over the last two decades, they have nurtured what started out as Michel Publishing, a stationery, diary, and note-card company, into Michel Design Works, a rising member of the global gift industry. While retaining its quirky, unique identity, the company has doubled its sales in the last three years by adding baby items, home décor, scented soaps, lotions, candles, and room sprays to its inventory. And the packaging of its products is so attractive, they don’t even need to be wrapped. Soaps come in cigar-box-shaped cases covered with ornate designs. Body lotions are in containers inspired by London buildings and topped with braided tassels. Baby onesies and bibs squeeze into retro tins modeled after 1930s food cans. Hooded towels and wash mitts for babies come in lunchbox-like containers covered in pastel polka dots. And nature-inspired note cards are bundled into boxes that even a librarian could mistake for antique novels sitting on a shelf.
Deborah finds inspiration from things others might pass over as shabby—a scuffed-up old suitcase, a water-stained sepia photograph, a cracked picture frame. Deborah sees these as gems of the past, full of history and romance. Gathering them all up, she flips, squashes, contorts, miniaturizes, and otherwise manipulates the objects in order to produce her art.
“I look at things that exist and ask, ‘What’s the idea here?’ and reinterpret old objects to make them modern,” she says. And high quality: their soaps are triple milled and their candles are made of clean-burning soy-wax from a renewable natural resource.

Michel Design Works products have been featured in publications such as Town and Country and O, The Oprah Magazine. (And we all know everything Oprah touches turns to gold!) Its products are sold around the world, online at amazon.com, and in more than 4,000 stores in the U.S. In Westchester, products can be found at Nordstrom in White Plains, Blush in Rye, Weinstein Pharmacy in Katonah, Marmalade in Chappaqua, Cherry Lawn Pharmacy in New Rochelle, Enchante Limited in Bronxville, and Town Center Pharmacy in Armonk (visit www.micheldesignworks.com for more information).
The company has just four local employees, the Michels, and occasional freelancers (aka, their kids’ friends, who are hard-up for cash). “He understands how the business side of an entrepreneurial business works,” Deborah says of Bruce, who has a master’s degree in design from Yale but leaves the artistic tasks to his wife. “That is why we’re such a good team.” That is also why they don’t drive each other crazy working and living in such close quarters. “Sometimes we go all day without interacting,” Deborah says.
Their mutual passion for the deep roots of history, ironically, may be due to their transient pasts. Bruce, whose father was a Pepsi industrialist, spent his childhood in Europe (high school in Paris, boarding school in Switzerland and Germany) before settling in Manhattan.
Deborah grew up in Michigan but moved almost annually from one modernist home to another with her mother, a builder. “Everything always shifted between my feet,” she says. “I think that’s why I like old things so much. There’s a warmth to them and a sense of history. They feel familiar and almost broken in.” She loved the lived-in feeling of her grandmother’s house, with its layered rugs and chipped china cups. And while her mother was off designing and building houses for her latest subdivision, Deborah often found herself riding through the soon-to-be developed fields on her bicycle, searching for forgotten old farm foundations and lugging home old bottles she’d unearthed.
Nowadays, she has much more to work with than grungy bottles. Her office, located in a 2,000-square-foot converted horse stable between the house and garden, is a sea of antique artwork, turn-of-the-century prints, vintage fabrics, with a 30-inch Mac computer screen towering above it all. The couple moved from New York City to South Salem in 1984 because, Deborah says, “we thought we needed an adventure—and we thought it was so exotic”—exotic and “absolutely in the middle of nowhere.” But with communications boosts like FedEx and the Internet, the Michels have acquired contacts and suppliers throughout India, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Their soap maker, whose name Deborah guards with her life, lives in England and frequently helps the couple come up with fresh products.
The fall 2006 line alone has more than 70 new items: polka-dot baby blankets in cylinder boxes with braided handles; a “Tubby Time” baby towel-and-wash mitt set stored in a miniature plaid suitcase; shaped soaps in wooden boxes that look like crates; handmade wooden trays and decoupage glass trays; home-fragrance sprays and room diffusers that use reeds in a frosted container to disperse your favorite scents through the house. A new Christmas line includes Comfort & Joy, Deborah’s (current) favorite scent. Made of “cinnamon and clove, a little bitter orange and a whiff of pine, it smells like what a house should smell like during Christmas—if we were all Martha Stewart,” she says. Prices (including shipping and handling) range from $15 to $35 for body products and candles, $12 to $20 for bundles of note cards, and $13 to $36 for baby products.
What’s next for the Michels? Bruce is almost certain that their upcoming trip to Great Britain and Ireland will get the wheels turning in Deborah’s head. Maybe the whole spring line will be green, he jokes, or have elves. “What surprises the future will bring?” he asks—and answers, “Who knows?”

Laura Kenyon, of South Salem, is a fan of Michel’s Lavender Fleur hand lotion.

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