Some might say it’s magic. Transforming furniture of yesteryear into chic conversation pieces, Jacqueline Sharp’s business combines the childhood world of imagination with the mystery of nostalgia and times past.
Interestingly enough, Sharp’s innovative venture of making, designing and repurposing furniture was born in a storage unit.
At the time, Sharp had just broken up with her boyfriend and moved out of their L.A. home, which was filled with her iconoclastic, recycled works of furniture art.
Although the couple sold most of the pieces in their five-bedroom home, Sharp continued attending estate sales in search of overlooked gems of the past that she could make over. With little space in her new apartment for all her creations, she rented a Public Storage unit in 2010.
“The more I went to estate sales, the more I fell in love with furniture, the more I would collect,” said Sharp, founder and CEO of FORT. “Once I filled up the storage unit, I realized I had to do something with all my pieces, so I started to sell.”
Word of Sharp’s fledgling business quickly spread. She began showing the pieces at the storage unit to prospective customers. She hung pictures on the walls and gussied up the place like it was an avant-garde furniture boutique.
“That worked for the first four months after starting the business,” said Sharp, who’s 30 years old. “And so it was kind of a steppingstone for my business.”
Today, Sharp’s business—located in an old factory in downtown Los Angeles—is booming. Since officially opening its doors in November 2012, FORT (an acronym for Furnish or Trade) has gotten a jump-start from a Fab.com promotion and an American Express print ad featuring small business owners. The Tory Burch Foundation, which supports the economic empowerment of women entrepreneurs, recently asked her to participate in its first West Coast class.
The company hasn’t raised any outside capital. Instead, it has grown solely through revenue generated from sales of seating, tables, desks, lighting, storage chests and other furnishings. In addition to furniture sales, the company works with Good Planet Media to obtain materials left over from Hollywood sets, and it rents pieces to Hollywood set designers.
A Longtime Passion
Jeffrey Sharp said his sister is a talented craftswoman who has a keen eye for seeing the hidden value in what others have discarded.
“This is what she’s been passionate about since she was young,” Jeffrey Sharp said. “You can almost make a room with just a piece from FORT. It really becomes a definitive piece of any room—a talking point in its second life.”
The idea for FORT is rooted in Sharp’s childhood. Growing up in Rock Island, IL, she and her siblings and cousins often would play “fort” at their grandparents’ home.
“My grandparents kind of let us take over the basement in their old house,” Jacqueline Sharp said. “It was a kids’ zone. We would tear apart the couch, use the cushions and bring in blankets from all over the house.”
Using what was available in the house, Sharp said the kids created “our own little town.”
“Everybody had their own little fort, and within that system was a post office,” Sharp says. “One of my cousins would be the postmaster, and she would come and get mail from us.”
A Painful Revelation
Later, while attending the University of Iowa, one of her brothers was diagnosed with leukemia and was being treated at the university’s hospital. For eight months, she visited him each day—spending hours connecting with her dying brother.
“I watched him go through probably the most difficult thing that someone could endure, and as I watched him deteriorate at a young age, I realized life has an unknown shelf date,” Sharp said. “When you go through that kind of experience at such a young age, you wonder what this universe is about and how it could just take someone out of the world like that.”
After his death, realizing there was so much she wanted to do with her life, she took a vacation to Southern California. She loved it so much that she moved to Los Angeles in 2004.
“There was just so little diversity in Iowa. When I came out to Los Angeles, I was blown away. I tried all different kinds of foods. It was the first time I had mango. I’d never had cilantro. My mouth was going crazy with so many different foods,” Sharp said. “I also met people who were from different cultures and spoke different languages. I realized how much I was missing out on the world, packed up and moved out here.”
Help From Craigslist and YouTube
After moving in 2008 into a home in L.A.’s Mount Washington neighborhood—and discovering how expensive it would be to furnish the space—Sharp started making her own furniture. She bought her first table saw on Craigslist.
“I didn’t know how to use it, so I went on YouTube and figured out how to use one, and that’s sort of where it began,” Sharp said. “After I made my first table, then I started making mirrors and side tables, and it kind of spiraled from there.”
In her search for items she could transform into beautiful pieces of custom furniture, Sharp started frequenting estate sales and “fell in love with them.”
“I love old things—old people, old furniture, old fabrics, old everything,” she said. “I just feel like there is a history or a soul to these things that make them so much more valuable.”
Telling a Story
Every FORT piece tells a story, Sharp said. For example, one of the most unusual items at her store is a colorful wooden container with steel doors that once was used as a “magician’s disappearing act back in the ’60s.”
“The magician would wheel that thing out onto the stage every night, climb inside and disappear,” she said. “Well, 50 years later, I don’t know what happened to him, but there was an estate sale at his house and his disappearing act was there. So I brought it back here and converted into a storage piece with wheels on it.”
“I put a steel inlay on it and had a local artist paint it,” Sharp added. “It’s a piece that has such a story behind it, as every piece here does.”
Bottom photo courtesy of FORT; all others by Troy Anderson