REMEBER THE UGLY STEEL DESKS AND CHAIRS THAT ONCE DECORATED OFFICES
AND CLASSROOMS? SONRISA FURNITURE IN L.A. IS SELLING TONS OF THEM

Burke and Peggy Byrnes, co-owners of Sonrisa Furniture, used to sell brightly colored Mexican and Southwestern folk art and pine furniture that evoked the fiestas and fanfare of the Latin world.

But when customers' tastes began to change, so did the inventory at their L.A. store. Now their lineup of furniture is mostly gray and mostly steel, catering to the growing demand for refurbished mid-century modern furniture.

Their new specialty has helped them boost revenues from $1.3 million in 1998 to $2.2 million in 1999, paving the way for them to open a store in New York City about 18 months ago.

Among the customers at their L.A. store, located at 7609 Beverly Blvd., are actor Gary Oldman, who has a Sonrisa desk in his house, and actress Glenn Close, who recently stopped by the store to order a table.

"Sometimes the interests of customers take you in a new direction, and that's what happened with steel," said Peggy Byrnes. "We experimented with a few pieces, and our customers could not get enough of it. They were interested in almost anything that was steel that we took the paint off, regardless of what it was. They were interested in the structure of it. They liked the way it looked and the way it felt."

Who would have thought the furniture once used in colorless corporate headquarters and the chambers of your elementary school principal would now be a hit among the oh-so design conscious? But among the Byrnes' hottest sellers are the old steel desks, cabinets, tables and chairs from the 1930s through 1950s that used to be considered ugly.

In fact, entertainment types, graphic artists and dot-com honchos are snapping up the bulky metal office fare so quickly that the Byrnes have had to become sleuths constantly in search of used steel furniture.

The Byrnes buy the furniture at rock-bottom prices when companies go out of business or decide to redecorate. They turn around and sell desks for anywhere from $1,500 to $2,100. A steel armchair can fetch as much as $650.

Post-Depression throwback

It all began in a rather haphazard way.

Burke Byrnes, a former actor, has always been interested in industrial steel furniture. About seven years ago, he and his wife picked up some old steel garden furniture and brought it back to life by stripping off the paint and sanding it. The items sold quickly.

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