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.

From there, they began frequenting flea markets and scooped up things like metal medical dressers covered in faux wood paint. Again they restored the pieces to their original metal luster and sold them.

Then it was desks, chairs, credenzas, tables, in-and-out boxes and even school lockers. "We didn't realize at first that the office portion of it would be as important as it was," said Peggy Byrnes, sitting at a metal table in the midst of their store itself a throwback to the post-Depression era.

One of their first customers was Rock, Paper Scissors, a Web design company. Later, executives from Sony Pictures Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG and Motorola Inc. began ordering up suites of metal office furniture.

"We just opened an entertainment marketing office on Sunset Boulevard," said David Pinsky, director of entertainment marketing for Motorola. "One of the things I wanted to do was create a loft-type of experience and a very New York look."

As demand has grown, the husband-and-wife team discovered they needed to increase their supply of metal furniture. But where could they find it?

After advertising in design publications and local weeklies, information began to trickle in about metal furniture that was soon to be discarded. For example, the couple was told about 20 metal desks and tables that Caltrans was about to dump after storing them for years under the Hollywood (101) Freeway. The Byrnes got the items at bargain-basement prices.

One of their biggest hauls came after learning that tenants at the Southern Pacific Railway Building in San Francisco, constructed in 1927, were getting rid of metal furniture from 11 floors. The Byrnes spent two days communicating with walkie-talkies as they trekked through the building deciding what to buy and what to leave.

Career detour

Hunting for metal furniture is a dramatic departure from the original professions chosen by the Long Island natives.

Peggy was a librarian in New York for nine years. Burke was an actor in the Big Apple who decided in 1969 that he needed to come to Hollywood to advance his career.

Neither expected the move to California to last as long as it has. But Burke was fairly successful as an actor, appearing in more than 20 feature films. Meanwhile, Peggy pursued her interest in Mexican folk art and soon was traveling to obscure villages in Mexico to buy goods to sell at her store on Beaudry Street.

By the early 1990s, she had tired of traveling, and Burke was getting out of the acting business. Their mutual love of well-designed furniture led them to their most recent endeavor, which has been quite profitable.

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