Cathie Anderson

Fringe Studio in tiny Dutch Flat wins awards, attention for luxe furniture

A Watermark cabinet designed by Fringe Studio
A Watermark cabinet designed by Fringe Studio Fringe Studio

If you make a run to the post office in the Sierra foothills town of Dutch Flat, population 200 on a crowded day, set aside at least 30 minutes for catching up with the neighbors. That’s what sought-after furniture designers George Bennett and Stacy Binns have learned since moving here two years ago from the Bay Area.

The two architects design award-winning contemporary desks, cabinets and more from inside a rambling Victorian-era home on Stockton Street.

They are still bringing their signature style to the place, but inside, you already will find a number of pieces from their MIXI modular line of furniture, which snagged the best furniture award at last year’s Dwell on Design show in Los Angeles. An antique wine rack from a French chateau covers a 2-foot-by-4-foot strip of one living-room wall, bottles jutting out upward at a 45-degree angle. A peek into a nearby sitting room reveals one of German master Ingo Maurer’s suspension lights, the one with a pendant surrounded by a cloud of love letters written on Japanese paper.

Bennett, educated at Princeton and Columbia universities, has worked at a number of large architecture firms in New York and the Bay Area, but he left all that behind nearly eight years ago to work with his wife of 17 years in a firm they call Fringe Studio. Binns, a graduate of the California College of Arts & Crafts, has 20-plus years of experience designing homes for high-net-worth individuals. Her first job as a professional was reimagining a New York loft for then-married celebrities Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet.

“We’ve had very high-end, very big multiyear projects in Atherton and Hillsborough,” Bennett said. “We’ve also done a lot of really tiny ones. Sometimes, those are more fun and more interesting. The really big projects, because we established trust and good relationships with our clients, we went from doing the architecture to doing the interior design.”

And, after they began doing interior design, he said, they found that clients had special challenges with getting the right furniture to fill their rooms.

“If you have a client who has got 20 rooms that need to be furnished,” Bennett said, “and she says, ‘I need a dining room table that needs to be big enough to fit 20 people, and it’s got to be almost 20 feet long,’ you can’t just go to a store and buy that. We said, ‘All right, we’re designers. We’ll make one.’ It became a habit. There were a lot of cases where the particular thing a client wanted just didn’t exist.”

We’ve had very high-end, very big multiyear projects in Atherton and Hillsborough. We’ve also done a lot of really tiny ones. Sometimes, those are more fun and more interesting.

George Bennett, Fringe Studio

They formed relationships with artisans such as Jim Baker of Baker Hardwoods in Gilroy and metal fabricator John Kolkka in Redwood City, a maker of fine furniture in his own right.

For years, Bennett and Binns operated out of San Mateo, but they bought their home in Dutch Flat about five years ago and moved there full time a couple of years ago to allow their 12-year-old son to live the quintessential small-town life.

Bennett and Binns said they have designed more than 50 custom furniture pieces for their wealthy clients. Commercial furniture dealers were delivering other pieces to the same showpiece homes that featured Bennett and Binns’ custom work, the couple said, and they began to contact them, saying: “If you’re making stuff like that, we’d love to carry it.”

Binns and Bennett enjoyed designing furniture, but they were so busy with architecture and interior design that they didn’t have the time. Then, two things happened. Five years ago, the owner of San Francisco’s trendy Zinc Details suggested they do a furniture show at his design store.

“We said, ‘Sure, cool, we’ll do that. When do you want our stuff in there?’ ” Bennett recalled. “He said, ‘How about six weeks from tomorrow?’ It was the sort of thing where you say yes and then figure out how to do it.”

They designed a storage unit called Divide. A predecessor to their MIXI Modular line, it had cabinets and drawers and shelves all blended together, some elements with sleek white fiberboard surfaces and others with sustainable wood grains. They also showed several of their wood-slab tables featuring fallen, dead timber that Baker had collected from vineyards and aged to perfection. They also completely reconfigured how everything was displayed in the Zinc Details store.

To meet the deadline, they called in every favor they had amassed with their artisans, Bennett said. When he looks back now at photos from their opening party, he can see just how exhausted everyone looks. The show was a success, however, and it made Bennett and Binns realize that they could maybe do more with furniture, if only they could find the time.

Then, in 2013, they said, they got the time. Just as much of California began emerging from a housing crisis, Fringe Studio began to experience a slowdown.

Suddenly, that furniture idea seemed imminently doable. They knew the Divide cabinet was popular. They had put photos of it on their website, Bennett said, but there was only one challenge.

“We were finding that every other order for one of those, someone was saying, ‘We love it, but can you make this end box longer, so I can put legal files in it? Can you make it taller, so it holds my TV a little higher? Can you make it do this or that?’” Bennett said.

Customization, they figured, was what customers wanted, so they designed a line of clean, contemporary furniture called MIXI Modular. It is essentially a kit of parts: boxes of different sizes and colors and finishes that the customer can combine to create bedside tables, credenzas, media cabinets, shelving and more. They included in the line a wood cabinet printed with a refreshing blue marble pattern that glistens like water passing over rocks in a creek bed.

Last year, they showed that Watermark cabinet and other products from the MIXI line to the interior design industry at the Dwell on Design show in Los Angeles and at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. MIXI won the award for best furniture at Dwell, and although there were no awards at ICFF, Binns said, their furniture was recognized as one of the top eight lines to see during the show.

It was a heady year. Now the task for Binns and Bennett is to get MIXI to furniture dealers that have expressed interest for retail customers and boutique hotels in Canada, in Asia and in the United States.

The couple spent a little more than two years trying to find the right manufacturer, and they have finally found one in Wisconsin. They could have product ready as early as September, they say. While their custom pieces have sold for as much as $40,000, Binns and Bennett said, they are hoping they will be able to sell the MIXI line for roughly 5 to 20 percent of that cost.

Although MIXI will be manufactured in mass, Binns said, it still resonates as a custom piece with clients because they can choose the size and finishes to fit their needs.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee