Photography by Frank Di Piazza
The entire notion of having products custom made hearkens back to eras long gone—of royalty, vintage Hollywood, a time when mass manufacturing and “Made in China” labels weren’t the order of the day.
However, ordering objects to fit your personal tastes can still be done.
From bikes to beds, candy to christening gowns, pretzels to perfume, here are 20 rather unique areas in which you can have items custom-made just for you. And not only are they made in America, most are made right here in St. Louis.
Afghans, Baby Blankets and Sweaters
If you love the look and feel of hand-knit products but have no intention of whiling away hours clicking needles together, turn to Pennie Carlson, owner of Pennie’s Place (10414 Manchester, 314-821-1728). She has one customer from Michigan who calls for a custom baby blanket every time she has a new grandchild. The cost: $15 an hour. Afghans and sweaters can start around $200.
Or if you prefer your afghan have the touch of fine silk and the softness of cashmere, call Jen Sertl, owner and operator of Angelina’s Accoutrements, LLC (314-729-7048, www.angelinaaccoutrements.com). “I’ve always loved textiles,” Sertl says. “My grandmother was a seamstress working downtown. She always gave us scraps of fabric. That instilled into me that you should use whatever you had.” From a childhood of stapling clothes to her dolls, Sertl grew up and started making patchwork scarves, using remnants of velvets and silks. Then a cousin in the textiles industry offered up some cashmere pieces and Sertl’s business started soaring. She can make baby blankets ($110-$130) or the more grown-up version of an afghan (prices start at $250). The backings are the choice of the customer—chic or cozy, sleek or soft. You pick.
Several places around town do custom furniture, but the granddaddy of them all is Zollinger Furniture (4821 Fairview, 314-832-1555), which has been turning out custom-made furniture since 1893. The current owners, the Junker family, have run the business for 80 years. While much of their business is in upholstering furniture and refinishing and repairing antique treasures, they do build to custom specification. For example, the craftsmen recently completed a half-circle sofa that’s 13-feet, 1-inch long and built for a room in a silo. (Matters were complicated considerably when the owner picked a plaid fabric.) The cost of custom-upholstered furniture runs about 25 percent higher than retail. The company also employs a wood maker who will carve pieces to order. Or if you need an extra leaf for the dining room table, Zollinger will make it for a cost beginning around $800 for maple.
Want to serve your dishes on signature china? Artist Nori Obata (3264 S. Big Bend, 314-647-1776) can deliver. The starting point: cobalt blue and white. “It’s my statement,” Obata says. “Food looks great on it and it can cross over from traditional to contemporary.” The china is high-fired, dishwasher-safe porcelain with lead-free glazes. She’ll create something herself or to order. “If they have something that they love from Steak ’n Shake, I tell them to take measurements,” she says. “I get as close as possible.” The price per place setting (dinner and salad plate, soup bowl and mug) starts at $75. She also sells “partner pieces,” such as vases, platters, serving bowls and candlesticks.
Want the wheels near your heel or the seat under your tush to be just so? Does your child have a special need necessitating a special bike? Mark Laytham at Ballwin Cycles (15340 Manchester, 636-391-2666) can help. When a customer comes in, Laytham sits down and conducts an interview, querying him or her on what type of riding the bike will be for (competitive, mountain, freestyle, downhill, recreational) as well as the budget (prices start at $1,500 and soar upward of $6,500) and goals (long trips? triathlons?). After getting lots of measurements, he starts designing. Each and every component of the bike is individually selected, including the color, which can be the most difficult decision. There are 300 standard choices, and colors can be customized. The frames are designed in Laytham’s small shop and fabricated in Waterford, Wis., by a company started by Richard Schwinn (yes, that Schwinn). Ballwin Cycles custom builds the wheels.
An amputee himself (minus one leg), Laytham also creates specially made bikes for children with cerebral palsy or Down Syndrome and adults in the early stages of multiple sclerosis.
While Ballwin Cycles isn’t the only bike shop in town to custom build bikes, enthusiasts say it’s the best. Each bike also comes with a lifetime of free service. “We have lots of repeat customers,” Laytham says. “People get spoiled and say they would never buy a bike off the rack again.”
Commonly Custom Made
In this story, we concentrated on items not usually made to order. But for many items, custom creations are still common. Among them:
• Bookcases and cabinets
• Curtains and draperies
• House drawings
• Men’s suits and shirts
A.E. Schmidt Billiards (122 South County Center Way, 314-845-7665) has been building pool tables to fit the whim of the buyer for 154 years. The company is now in its fifth generation of the Schmidt family. Sitting in front of a computer screen, the pool player can design his own table with options ranging from antique (right down to the Victorian turns on the legs) to ultra modern. Crazy about Anheuser-Busch brews? There’s a Budweiser table replete with the eagle in the “A.” Love your Hog above all? The Harley-Davidson billiards table is for you. You can even have your name or a favorite design carved into the sides, and, of course, you can choose the trims and rails on the aprons, sight markers and pockets and select from 28 colors of felt. Each table takes approximately four weeks to complete. The tables are made at a factory on Koeln Avenue in South County and have been shipped as far away as England, Germany and Sweden. Prices can range from $2,695 to $15,000.
Feeling decadent? Have Bissinger’s French Confections whip up a special chocolate treat just for you. Simply fax your design (314-367-9751) or bring it into the Central West End store at 4742 McPherson and Bissinger’s will make up a plate (cost: $200). Bissinger’s will make anything—from chocolate business cards to after-dinner mints with the picture of a person’s face on each one. “The range is limited by your imagination,” says Ken Kellerhals, president of Bissinger’s. “The cost is not prohibitive if you order quantity. They can keep the plate forever and repeat the item.” Recently, for Ducks Unlimited, Bissinger’s created chocolate boxes with a duck head on top as well as specialty duck-head chocolate-covered Oreos. Another order was for the children of Humphrey Bogart, who asked to have a publicity photo of Lauren Bacall replicated in white, milk and dark chocolate as a gift to her. Bissinger’s requests two weeks to fulfill custom orders.
Need a little something extra in your swing? Get your clubs custom made. John Kelly at Kelly’s Golf & Repair (7823 Olive, 314-725-4663) has been building clubs for the past 18 years. To create the perfect club, Kelly uses a computerized swing monitor that measures everything about the customer’s swing, including speed, swing path, face angle at impact, stance, posture and balance.
A set of eight steel-shafted irons (the 3 iron through pitching wedge) runs $500 to $700. The fitting takes approximately an hour; construction of the clubs takes two to three weeks. Drivers and fairway woods (with graphite shaft) cost $225 to $250.
“What is a ball gown but a wedding dress in color?” asks Marylyn Simpson, owner of R & M Designs (11150 Manchester, 314-821-2932). And what doesn’t Simpson know about both? She has been custom designing and sewing party and nuptial frocks for 25 years. “I ask people to bring in ideas of what they like and what they don’t like,” Simpson says. “Occasionally one will walk in and say, ‘Just make me beautiful.’”
Together the buyer and sewer pick the color and fabric (although patrons can bring in fabrics they have bought elsewhere, and Simpson orders many fabrics from out of town).
“We try not to duplicate something in the [retail] store,” Simpson says, though she will remake a gown bought off the rack. Once the design has been decided, Simpson or one of her colleagues will make up the dress in muslin. Details—including hand beading, origami flowers made of fabric, embroidery—are worked out through three fittings.
The cost? A lot. Simpson charges $25 an hour and spends at least 40 hours on each dress. One of just a handful of seamstresses in St. Louis who will custom make a bridal or gala gown, Simpson is a favorite with young debutantes—every year she estimates she creates about 20 gowns for the Veiled Prophet Ball.
Lelu (13200 Manchester, 314-966-6195) can bend iron (wrought or cast) into anything you’d like—a fire screen, andirons, fireplace fender, gate, mailbox posts, railings for inside and outside the house, chandelier, pot rack, lamp post. According to owner Bud Lang, Lelu can pretty much make anything to a person’s specifications. “They often come in with a design and ask us to fabricate it,” Lang says. The costs vary according to design and style: a mailbox stand with pole and mailbox (which Lelu doesn’t make) runs from $95 to $1,000, hanging pot racks start at $300 and wall-mounted (racks) at $100, with fire screens costing around $350.
Have a fake Ming vase you’d like to make into a real lamp? Take it to Hewitt & Hitchcock (23 N. Bemiston, 314-863-2787). Owner Madelyn Lane says just about anything can be converted into an object of light and beauty. Baseball players have brought in their bats to be transformed into floor lamps, and she has made lamps out of riding boots, fishing rods, an Anheuser-Busch 2000 centennial magnum beer bottle, sterling silver teapots, antlers, hooves and bird cages. Customers choose whether to mount or drill the object and select the base, cord, switch, lampshade and finial. The cost runs from $65 to $200, depending on the complexity of the project.
Imperial Lamp & Shade Co. (10424 Manchester, 314-821-8090), home of “Katie the Lamp Lady,” will make a lamp of anything from wrought iron dressmaker forms to toys, antique fire extinguishers, hats, even bustiers.
Maplewood Custom Bedding Factory (3110 Sutton, 314-645-1380) has been building mattresses to personal preference for at least three decades. Now owned by John Schaffer (the son of the founder, another John Schaffer) and Joe Cusumano, the company can create the mattress of your dreams. Want it round? Heart-shaped? One hundred inches long? To fit an antique bed? Anything is possible. You pick size, cover (ticking, brocade, solid) and feel. Feel possibilities include the “memory” latex foam that is currently the rage in pillows called Latexco ($1,119 for a queen set; $1,019 for the mattress alone). The mattress makers come to your home to take the measurements and one week later deliver a mattress bearing the tag, “Custom made for you by Maplewood Custom Bedding.” Prices for regular (non-latex) mattresses are $279 to $649. “For the quality, we are way under retail,” Schaffer says, adding that each mattress comes with a 10-year unconditional guarantee. Most of the company’s business is repeat from longtime customers, which includes the archbishops in town. “We’ve sent mattresses to members of the Busch family in Florida and Houston,” Schaffer says. “They really like our mattresses.”
Stroll into Makes Scents (316 N. Euclid, 314-454-1010) and walk out with a waft all your own. The store’s sellers quiz you first on what kind of scent you prefer—floral, musky, clean—from the 200 scents in stock. “We pull down scents that they like and we basically blend them together until they are happy with the scent,” says store clerk Erin Faucheux. The recipe for the fragrant formula is kept on file for your next visit. Depending on the size of bottle purchased, the perfume runs from $7 to $18. Your signature scent can also be added to shampoos, conditioners, lotions, bath gels, body oil and bath oil—all in stock at the store.
When it comes to custom-made items, there’s nothing more amazing than a portrait by CasaMima (10822 Kennerly, 314-849-6900, www.casamima.com). Or as expensive. For a starting price of $60,000, the company will take a portrait that is more poetry than photojournalism, more spectacular than any snapshot. The company produces museum-quality archival photographs that zero in on the subject’s personality and personal longings. The company was started in 2002 by Jack Thorwegen, founder of Zipatoni. For years, Thorwegen’s wife had badgered him for a family portrait. Once he retired from Zipatoni, he turned his attention to the matter. A series of photographs were shot and a background of an Italian Renaissance painting was dropped in and then re-colored into rich browns. Using a computer, different photographs were added and each person touched up (goodbye wrinkles and flaws).
From that familial start, Thorwegen launched CasaMima, which he now co-owns with Mitch Meyers, also of Zipatoni. After conducting an interview with the subject, a group of creative artists develop a variety of concepts. “Three options are presented to the client,” says Sara Power, CasaMima ambassador. Once the concept is picked, a photo shoot is held wherever they want—be it at home, in France, Italy or beyond. Sets are built and hand-painted, and stylists, makeup artists and hairdressers are flown in from Los Angeles or New York. The stylists come armed with a multitude of rented outfits or costumes and borrowed jewelry for the client to wear. “We treat you like a movie star,” Power says. With the help of digital editing, only the best parts of each photo make the final shot, and CasaMima can even add photos of absent (or deceased) family members. Each portrait takes up to six months to complete.
You can get your name in neon (at a minimum of eight places in town), but what about your name in pretzel? It’s no problem at Gus’ Pretzel Shop (1820 Arsenal, 314-664-4010). It costs $7 to $8 per party size letter (15 inches to 18 inches) and 65 cents for letters made of the standard pretzel size.
Tish Singer of Made to Remember, LLC (636-751-4418, www.madetoremember.com) takes the concept of scrapbooking and shoots it right to the moon. As opposed to the sort of big book with blank pages that you pick up at Michael’s and fill up with stickers (and shots from every vacation since the beginning of time), Singer’s are artful combinations of materials, textiles, labels and occasional artful sticker, as well as interviews she conducts with the subject. In two years, Singer completed more than 200 custom scrapbooks covering everything from the birth of a baby to a successful struggle with cancer. The prices range from $100 to $1,000.
Also, representatives of the scrapbook supply company, Creative Memories (www.creativememories.com), will put together scrapbooks for people neither inclined nor with the time to do it themselves. Prices vary.
While custom curtains and drapes are the norm in many homes, getting shades to your specification isn’t. But it can be done, and Victor Shade Co. (10100 Page, 314-428-7979) has been doing it for 95 years. You can bring in fabric, which they send to Arizona to be laminated and made into a shade, or you can pick from one of the company’s in-stock choices. A Victor employee comes to your home to measure. Then back at the plant, the shade is fabricated on a wooden roller. (If you supply the fabric, they add the backing.) You pick the finish at the bottom (a number of choices in decorative hem or straight across), trim (loop, surrey fringe, gimp or brush trim) and type of pull (tassel, crochet ring pull, brass ring or plastic grip). The shade may be spring or chain operated. Costs can range from $35 to several hundred dollars per shade, and the process takes approximately three weeks.
While it can be done elsewhere (i.e., Calico Corners), the top of the line in custom-made upholstered furniture can be found in Maplewood at T. Rohan Inc. (7310 Manchester, 314-647-7400). “When I say custom, I mean custom,” Rohan says. “We don’t hand you a catalog of frames.”
Once the design has been agreed upon, Rohan or one of his workmen goes to the house to be sure that the scale is correct. Then there is fabric selection—from Rohan’s library of 200,000 samples. And once frame, design, fabric and cushion have been picked, there’s the trim. “It can all be done here,” Rohan says. “We are a one-stop shop.”
During the process, which takes an average of six weeks, the client comes to the shop for a sitting. “We make adjustments and a week later, we deliver it,” Rohan says. Prices (without fabric) range from $2,000 for a loveseat, $3,500 for a sofa, $1,600 to $1,800 for a club chair, $400 to $800 for an ottoman, $600 to $2,000 for a headboard and $85 to $2,000 for pillows. Rohan will even customize bedding to color coordinate it to the rest of the room. “It is just a matter of spoiling the client that much more,” Rohan says.
Some christening gowns are nothing less than a wedding dress in miniature. Certainly, you can fuss as much with it as you can a grownup gown. Angelic Creations (636-458-2982) will make a long or short white dress just for your darling. A professional seamstress for more than 30 years, Tania Stieferman started sewing christening gowns a decade ago and founded Angelic Creations two years ago. Each gown is handmade. “The designs are my own. They are strictly one of a kind,” she says. Embellishments include tiny pleats, embroidery and lace insets, among other touches. Once called, Stieferman makes a house call armed with samples of her gowns. Customers can combine gown designs or create one from scratch. Gowns take about three weeks to complete, with costs starting at $399.
The front door (including the transom and side glass panels) at Ozzie Smith’s house is a stained glass recreation of the yellow brick road—leading, naturally enough, to the land of Oz.
“That took five to six weeks and we worked 18 hours every day,” says the artist, Sue Wilhite, who, along with her husband, Jack, owns Indian Creek Gallery (5940 Chapel Hill in Sullivan, 636-629-1061). Usually, Wilhite creates the window design based on the input and living space of the client. Price depends on the project.
At Art Glass Unlimited (412 N. Euclid, 314-361-0474), Gary Harris, one of the owners, has stacks of catalogs from the turn of the century to assist clients in coming up with a design. Costs range from $100 to $300 per square foot.
Shoes and Boots
Sam Gershilevich has been making shoes and boots for 45 years. First he stitched and sewed in his native Ukraine and now does so at Sam’s Handmade Riding Boots and Shoes (11010 Olive, 314-997-4097), also known as Olive Shoe & Luggage Repair. The boots—which come in tall or short varieties—are made based on careful measurements of the client and would make a Cossack proud. Gershilevich specializes in boots, but will make any design. Each pair takes approximately eight to 10 weeks and costs at least several hundred dollars.
At Comfort Shoe Specialists (12133 Manchester, 314-822-3300), comfort comes before fashion. High heels? Banned. The choices are flat and flatter. The basic style is a Birkenstock Mary Jane. The store is owned by Edith James, a one-time long-distance truck driver. Each client is fitted, starting with the old metal Brannock shoe-sizer of yesteryear (it dates back to the 1930s). If you have a special request, Ioan “John” Chereji, a master shoemaker from Romania, can whip up a pair in a matter of hours.