Design Menagerie: Shopping For “Soulful, Sustainable Stuff”
By Lisa Green
In a shop like Design Menagerie, it wouldn’t be surprising to find an owner who is on a first-name basis with her vendors. But for Birgit Marko, who moved her store from Wisconsin to downtown Lenox last November, the items she carries, and the people who make them, are a personal matter. And with her background in design, and distinct aesthetic sensibility, her customers are the ones who benefit.
“I buy what I love, not what I think I can sell,” Marko says. “There is a connection with every item, a story why it tugs at my heartstrings.” And although the merchandise — objects of utility and beauty, the tagline states — speaks for itself, let her tell you those stories. A visit to the store becomes so much more than a stop to pick up a gift or an item for your kitchen. It becomes a portal to artisans and products from an astonishing variety of geographic regions, trades and techniques.
The feather earrings displayed on clumps of bright green moss come from a customer in Wisconsin who’d never made them for anyone but herself — until Marko asked her for some to sell. How do those sleek cutting boards get their deep charcoal color? Marko can explain the process. The charming Moroccan leather poufs are stuffed the traditional way — she’ll show and explain why, so you get a mental picture of the old men in Morocco who sit on them, drinking tea for hours. The smoked olive oil imported from Spain? She got it as a gift years ago and promptly found a supplier — and she’ll tell you the best way to use it. “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t carry it,” she wonders. But that’s the kind of store Design Menagerie is.
Marko’s goal is to carry soulful, sustainable stuff, as she puts it. Look as hard as you can, but you won’t find the striking Basotho heritage blankets from South Africa anywhere close by. (Marko can give you their historic background, but you’ll just want to wrap yourself in one, as the Basotho people still do.) Those boots she’s wearing? They’re Danish, made of natural rubber from a sustainable harvest — waterproof and breathable — and built to last. She’s had hers for a couple of years, but they look brand new.
“We work cooperatively with our vendors, sometimes tweaking items to make them uniquely ours,” Marko says. There’s a real emphasis on handcraftsmanship, sustainability, natural and small-batch products, durability and, of course, that elusive quality of fine design, a sensibility Marko has in spades. Price points run from around $5 up to $2,000, and everything in the store is for sale, including the knockout display shelves made of reclaimed boatwood; some of the lath pieces still have bits of paint on them.
Originally from Vienna, Marko and her husband, Dan, lived until this year in a town south of LaCrosse, Wis. Following a career in creative direction (for which she had to commute), she opened Design Menagerie in 2012. Although it and the online business — still going strong — were successful, the couple was ready to head east once their two oldest daughters left for college. A visit with friends in Litchfield County led to a tour of the Berkshires.
“We came to Lenox in March. Even though it was mud season and there weren’t many people around, we still thought it was so cute,” she says. They closed the Wisconsin shop and sold their house. Dan preceded her and got a taste of a Berkshire summer; Birgit arrived in the fall. Their youngest, who’s 12, is happily ensconced in the public schools and Dan picked up his career as a health and wellness therapist at Canyon Ranch.
Marko hasn’t had much time to explore her new home base; opening a shop at the start of the holidays is either crazy or smart. But she’s received a warm welcome from other merchants, and she’s been delighted by the interesting conversations she’s having with her new customer base.
“Customers have often turned out to be vendors for us, so many of the products here are from artisans in the Midwest,” she says. “But I have a feeling that as I get to know the people here, more of my inventory will be from local and regional artisans.”
26 Housatonic Street, Lenox, MA