By Jean Ardell, Special to the Independent
In a town where small businesses regularly turnover, Cottage Furnishings, on the corner of St. Ann’s Drive and Coast Highway, has endured for 21 years. The inspiration for its popular combination of beachy accessories and rustic furniture is credited to Lewis Tarter, who with his wife Jo Ann, opened the shop in 1996.
Back then a highly popular look in home decor was known as shabby chic, so named by Rachel Ashwell, who came up with the idea of marketing a line of casual, easy to maintain, affordable home furnishings culled from her flea market finds. While attending the Los Angeles Gift Show and casting around for a new line of business, Tarter had a brainstorm on how to capitalize on the trend: build and sell American rustic furniture. He leased part of a former glassworks with a garage in mid-Laguna, where the store remains today. Tarter frequented flea markets in Long Beach and throughout Orange County as well as architectural salvage places in north San Diego County in search of finds, which were renovated in the back of the building. He also manufactured furniture pieces, going for what he calls a distressed “chippy-chunky” look. “We sort of made the old furniture we bought look better, and the new pieces we made look old,” he explains.
Tastes in décor shift, however, and by 1999 Tarter saw the wisdom of bringing in his daughter Aviella Borg to help out. “She’s naturally gifted at design and staging,” says her father, “and I attribute a lot of the store’s success to her and my wife.”
“Trends change,” agrees Borg, who studied at the Interior Design Institute in Newport Beach and tries to stay up with what’s going on through design seminars, visiting model homes, and reading every possible magazine. “But when I’m on the floor I’ve learned that just listening to customers and what they’re looking for is huge. We’re transitioning from what was known as shabby chic to a more coastal contemporary style. The natural woods give warmth and a hint of a farmhouse feel.”
“We’ve evolved a lot,” adds Lewis Tarter, who stopped manufacturing his own furniture as he got to know people at the flea markets who now make the store’s furniture. “A lot of our suppliers are family-owned.” As is Cottage Furnishings. Walk in and you’re likely to be greeted not only by Lew and Jo Ann Tarter, but also by assistant manager Jonathan Tarter, their youngest son, who says he grew up in the store since the age of 5, and daughter-in-law Evelyn Tarter, who assists with the website and social media. Not to mention Max, the rescue dog acquired in Tijuana.
Cottage Furnishings reflects the sensibilities of the town and the Pacific Ocean, visible through the storefront window. There is a notable array of bathymetric maps (topographic maps of the sea floor). “Since we’re part of Laguna, we show lots of ocean art, and we always like to include the beach colors. People like the calm, peaceful look,” says Borg, so the palette of the pillows, bedding, rugs, and throw blankets sold tends to blue, aqua, white, naturals, and gray. HGTV devotees will notice the Magnolia Home Collection of accessories by Joanna Gaines of the show “Fixer-Upper.” Borg notes that she handpicked the selections from Gaines’s line that blend well with the store’s colors and textures. And while the store has always assisted its customers with design decisions, in April she began working with Ginger Thomas to offer full interior design services.
What hasn’t changed over the years is Lewis Tarter’s sense of connection to Laguna Beach. He has traveled the world and hitchhiked across North Africa. He recalls a boyhood in which he set up a stand at Cliff Drive and Coast Highway to sell abalone shells, with a coffee can to collect money from customers when he wasn’t there. He attended Aliso and El Morro Elementary Schools and Thurston Middle School before moving with his father to Huntington Beach. He grew up surfing and in 1959 won the Junior Division of the West Coast Surfing Championship, held in Huntington Beach. Great memories, he says.
“But I always hitchhiked back to Laguna.”
This story was updated Friday, May 12.
In the article “Longevity Adds Patina to Cottage Furnishings” in the May 12 edition, one of the subject’s, Evelyn Tarter, was identified incorrectly.