Until we can actually visit in-person, we spoke to Kelley Bishop, owner of STEEL + PLANK, to learn how this peculiarly awesome store came about and how we can be part of the experience via her new online marketplace featuring Southern makers.
Tucked away in a revived 1940s multi-use industrial building in downtown Athens, GA, you’ll find the bricks-and-mortar nucleus of the STEEL + PLANK design world. Envision a pre-pandemic (and hopefully near-future) visit to the store: you enter through a lush, greenery-lined doorway and step into a sleekly designed space filled with furniture and lifestyle trinkets that beg to be explored. The owner, Kelley Bishop, offers you a cup of tea with a smile and begins to tell you about the Southern artisan who made the ceramic mug you’re holding. You plop down on a sectional (that Kelley designed) and leave having custom ordered one to fit your living room.
Kelley Bishop is a furniture designer and architect by trade, and she’s collaborated with many popular Atlanta restaurants like Storico Fresco. After 20 years as an architect, Kelley created STEEL + PLANK to design and craft the furniture that she wished she could find — simple, naturally beautiful, made with high-quality craftsmanship and sustainable processes. Now, STEEL + PLANK trickles from Athens throughout the country as a trusted source for custom modern furniture and exquisite home goods by Southern makers.
When bringing this store to life, Kelley imagined “a lively and tight-knit community of people: the makers who pour their passion into their art, Athens locals who join us for monthly in-store gatherings, and those who connect with the STEEL + PLANK way of life online.” And despite the wacky odds that last year threw at her, Kelley is doing just that. With the new e-commerce companion to the bricks-and-mortar shop, STEEL + PLANK interiors and wares are landing in homes all over the map.
We recently spoke with Kelley about her foray into the world of furniture and got to know this Southern entrepreneur better.
Tell us a bit about your journey into the furniture world.
I am an entrepreneur at heart. I’m a licensed architect, a licensed contractor and, more recently, a furniture maker with a retail store. It was a huge learning curve to go from the service industry to the retail industry, but learning is one of the things I continue to enjoy. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to make the online and in-person experience something that will make you want to continue to come back to us.
So, the first part of my journey is that it is in my nature to start something new. The second part of the answer is that I am trying to fill a void that was missing in Athens and, frankly, Atlanta. The furniture is simple but beautiful. There is nothing extra. The ease of customizing each piece allows customers to order just what they need for their space. Only a few of our customers purchase off the floor. So designing and fabricating furniture led me here, and wanting to complement that with housewares, kitchenwares and art led me to a constant search for makers that fit our brand.
Speaking of housewares, how do you select the brands and makers you sell?
By accident, 90% of our makers are women-owned and women makers. And one thing I will say about women, we love helping each other out. Many of my makers connect me with other makers they think fit our brand. And many makers come to me because they don’t have a brick-and-mortar shop. I can’t give you the criteria for the brands and makers I carry, but I know it when I see it. Handcrafted, timeless, minimalist, simple beauty.
How did you pivot your business model once the pandemic took hold?
Luckily, we had an online store and we were just finishing an update/redesign of the website, so in some ways, the pandemic actually sent more people to our website. We focused heavily on blogs*, mailers and social media and grew our online presence. We actually increased our sales because we expanded our customer base. We now have customers from the West Coast to the East Coast to Canada. It’s been really exciting to see our customer base grow beyond the South.
*SB TIP: Kelley’s “Journal” entries on the site are thoughtfully written and informative, and you can check them out HERE!
What can shoppers expect when they visit your Athens store?
Before the pandemic, we always had tea brewing. We wanted to get to know our customers, have them linger and enjoy our peaceful space. We hosted gatherings throughout the seasons, whether we were celebrating a holiday or showcasing a new maker or artist. We miss that and look forward to connecting with our artist community again soon.
Thanks for chatting with us, Kelley! Until you can plan a visit, head over to steelandplank.com and join the mailing list to hear about what’s happening online and in-store. You can also follow them on Instagram @steelandplank.
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