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Design duos: Three Metro Detroit couples navigate love and creativity

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Ah, love.

When it comes to matters of the heart, it can be a minefield out there. But imagine sharing not just your future with someone, but a business, figuring things out side-by-side. And imagine if it's a creative business at that.

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Homestyle checked in with three Metro Detroit couples navigating the world of love, work and creativity. They've built lives and businesses together in the world of furniture and home decor.

And these design duos say when it comes to love and work, communication is key. So is understanding each other's strengths. Still, building any business, let alone one with your significant other, takes time, adjustment and willingness to work out the rough spots. 

I interviewed three longtime couples with Detroit-based design businesses know what it's like to launch a creative business with your significant other: Alex Rosenhaus and Drew Arrison of Alex Drew & No One, a custom furniture shop; Kaitlyn and Ryan Lawless of Corbé, a ceramics studio; and Chad Ackley and Derek Smiertka, co-owners of LeadHead Glass, a terrarium company.

All three duos say it helps that they share a similar aesthetic, though that doesn't mean they always agree on prospective designs. One couple said they had to set limits on work for the sake of their personal lives; another said they had to figure out how to merge their different work styles. 

Alex Drew & No One

Alex Rosenhaus and Drew Arrison met through friends more than a decade ago while living in New York. Rosenhaus, who grew up in Metro Detroit, was working for an established furniture company and Drew was working for a set design business when they started dating. 

They did what comes naturally to two people who work with their hands and like to create things. 

Andrew Arrison and Alex Rosenhaus pause for a portrait in the Ferndale showroom of their furniture business, Alex Drew & No One.  The name is an ode to the two finally owning their own business and being their own bosses.

"We started building things together," remembers Drew, a Memphis native.

Eventually, they decided to start their own furniture business -- the quirky name is a play on finally being their own bosses -- but knew they couldn't afford to do it in New York. So they moved to Detroit. Today, the two share a workshop and studio in Ferndale. In the front is a small showroom with some of their work, including chairs, tables, mirrors and candelabras.

Almost from the beginning, the two agreed what their aesthetic would be -- they're both drawn to a more modern look -- but admit it took time to get on the same page about their design process.

They approached their work differently. Rosenhaus, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, was very methodical. With each piece, she goes through a design phase and then a mock up before she's ready to build. Arrison, on the other hand, liked to jump right in and start building.

Alex Drew & No One's Ivy Cocktail Table has a white oak frame dyed phthalo green. It has a mirrored bottom shelf and clear beveled glass top.

Now they have their own design process that works for them. Given that 80% of the furniture they create is custom, they start each project sketching separately. They then come together to go over what they've designed and then try to come up with a consensus. 

"We always start apart and then look at each other's ideas and pick parts that we like," said Rosenhaus.

Sometimes coming together on a design can happen quickly. And there are times it doesn't.

"Sometimes that back and forth will last weeks," said Arrison.

In the end, they always come together. Arrison believes that's the couple's strength.

"When I'm inspired, she has to reign to it and that's why it works," he said. "I think that's our strength."

For any creative couple thinking about going into business together, Rosenhaus and Arrison say find a process that works for you.

"And learn each other's strengths," said Arrison.

Corbé

Eight years after husband-and-wife duo Ryan and Kaitlyn Lawless launched Corbé, a chic Detroit-based ceramics studio with a sleek mid-century-inspired style, the couple is gearing up for the biggest change to their business yet: a new "roommate," jokes Ryan. The couple is expecting their first child in March. 

The baby will be the latest twist for Corbé which has evolved quite a bit since Ryan and Kaitlyn, who met in Portland through a friend, started their business in 2012. The business took off when they launched a set of custom porcelain platters designed like every state in the United States.

Ceramic artists Ryan and his wife Kaitlyn Lawless met through a friend in Portland, Oregon where Kaitlyn was living at the time. Eight years after launching their business Corbé, they're gearing up to welcome their first child in March.

But after a good run, the couple is phasing out Fifty United Plates -- the final platters are being shipped out this month -- and has downsized from a studio in Detroit's New Center area to a home-based studio as they gear up for their little one's arrival. They've also phased out the wholesale side of their business.

Working together, said Ryan, requires a lot of communication. He said they've gotten better as what he calls "effective communication." They have to be on the same page about new designs and even the colors they introduce into their pieces.

Corbé recently launched a dinnerware line. It comes in five different colors.

"Communication is important," said Ryan, who also has a 19-year-old daughter.

And that will continue to be key as their business evolves. They're hoping to ramp up online orders through their website. And they'll continue to do art shows, something Kaitlynn likes but Ryan isn't crazy about given how much physical work it demands.

But being in business together, they both understand what goes into their craft. Porcelain is "fickle," Ryan said, with as many 12 steps in the process to create one piece. He used to have drive to their studio for different steps of the process but now he just has to head outside.

And it helps that they appreciate each other's strengths. Ryan is talented on the potter's wheel. Kaitlyn is stronger at glazing. 

And what's their plan when the little "roommate" arrives? They'll figure it out.  

"I see us switching off," taking turns with baby duties and business ones, said Kaitlyn.

LeadHead Glass

Chad Ackley and fiancé Derek Smiertka were working in completely different fields -- Ackley was in financial planning and Smiertka was in government affairs -- but both knew they wanted to try something when they met at a blues festival in Ferndale 12 years ago.

Both liked working with stained glass as a hobby so when they decided to launch their business, LeadHead Glass, they naturally incorporated glass into the design. They primarily make terrariums from recycled glass and wood, though they're doing more custom lighting work and other projects.

Chad Ackley, right, and Derek Smiertka of Leadhead Glass are building a life and business together.

Like Rosenhaus and Arrison and the Lawlesses, it helped that the couple shared a similar aesthetic when they started LeadHead.

"We do share similar tastes in that we are drawn to the past for our inspiration, to classical architecture, art history, to the history of the the terrarium and Wardian case, as well as the history of the Botanic sciences," said Chad in an email.

As the business has grown, Chad said they've had to work to make sure it doesn't take over their entire lives. 

LeadHead Glass, co-owned by Chad Ackley and Derek Smiertka, makes terrariums from reclaimed wood and glass.

"For us the greatest challenge is managing our time together," he said. "When you work all day with someone and then go home with them, it can be hard to make those two lives not blur into one thing. Early on, we had difficulty disconnecting from work, and would bring that home. I certainly need a space outside of work to recharge, and we're both much more respectful of that time now."

Ackley and Smiertka say they don't have any "hard and fast" rules about setting limits on work talk. 

"It’s more about saying to the other person, 'Enough work talk. Let’s put it down for the evening,'" said Ackley.

And given how much time they spend together, luckily that's a good thing.

"For us, we just really enjoy each other's company," said Ackley. " And to be able to go on a journey together in both the professional and personal aspects of life can be rewarding."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mfeighan