Atlanta home decorating shop thrives on the handiwork of Mexican artisans
Teresa Borden – Staff Wednesday, February 23, 2005 San Antonio Texcala, Mexico
Julian Rodolfo Reyes and his wife, Florinda Basurto de Reyes, who own an onyx-sculpting shop here, are looking at the plans for an order of lamps from No Mas Productions, an Atlanta home decorating store. He wrinkles his brow. She shakes her head. In the more than 30 years they’ve been cutting and shaping white, gray and black onyx from local quarries into chess sets and souvenir figurines, the Reyeses have never seen anything like this. These gringos want hunks of the stone, not polished, not lacquered, just hollowed out enough for a socket and light bulb. “They get really confused,” says Steve MacNeil, the owner, with Walt Bilinski, of No Mas. “They say, ‘Are you sure you don’t want us to do anything to it? Let us polish it, at least.’ ”
No Mas Productions, on Huff Road, has been selling Mexican handicrafts and furniture since 1996. The premise: Find artists at the source and deal with them directly, without middlemen, so both sides can make a decent profit while keeping prices reasonable. But MacNeil and Bilinski go beyond merely importing Talavera flower pots, pewter picture frames and carved wooden furniture. Custom orders are multiplying, so they now ask artists to experiment with motifs and materials, to move beyond the tchotchkes they’ve made for generations so their work can appeal to more sophisticated American decorating tastes. “We’re not just doing it because we personally like it,” MacNeil said. “We’re doing it because we think it’ll look good and it’s going to sell here.”
To the Reyeses, their diagrams seem strange. But these weird ideas are saving the couple’s business. “It’s a good thing when prices improve,” Julian Reyes said. “When we have an order from them, that’s a sure sale, and they come two or three times a year.” For the past several years, Puebla state, where San Antonio Texcala is located, has seen its young men and women emigrate to the United States in search of low-skilled work. The North American Free Trade Agreement, now a decade old, only accelerated the move. Disappearing trade barriers meant that small, inefficient Mexican farmers competed with U.S. agribusiness to sell their produce in Mexico. When they couldn’t keep up, many went north, crossing the U.S. border illegally to work cheaply on American farms. Mexican laborers had been crossing the border since before World War II to pick and plant crops. But after NAFTA, what had been a seasonal cycle from a few Mexican states became a year-round phenomenon from practically all of rural Mexico. It has also affected the onyx trade. Reyes says that 72 onyx workshops operated here in 1985; today only 18 remain. He employs six people, including his two daughters. One of his workers left for Atlanta five years ago and hasn’t been back. With their business, MacNeil and Bilinski have been doing their small part to reverse the trend, even though that isn’t their goal.
The two simply see Mexican artistry as a renewable resource worth cultivating, and they see themselves as promoters of it in the United States. They work with almost 200 Mexican artisans who make everything from carved wooden armoires to wrought-iron wall sconces to volcanic rock mortars and pestles used to grind corn and chiles for salsa. They have criss-crosssed Mexico’s most picturesque regions, from Oaxaca to Michoacan to Puebla, in search of truly original work. Then they adapt it to the U.S. home. MacNeil says that search missions used to take up a lot more of their time. But the store, and plans for another with an attached restaurant in Castleberry Hill near downtown Atlanta, keep them from traveling. So they hired an agent in Mexico, Miguel Moreno, to convey their ideas and search for new talent. “The triumph for me is to actually find the artist,” Moreno said. “They told me they didn’t want to buy from resellers.”
Always a guessing game MacNeil and Bilinski didn’t fall naturally into decorating and imports. MacNeil was a technical illustrator; Bilinski worked for General Electric as an engineer in sales. In the early 1990s they moved from California to Massachussetts, taking with them wrought-iron pieces bought in Tijuana, Mexico. So many friends praised the pieces that the two began talking about a shop. Originally, they had planned to open No Mas in Hollywood, Fla. But GE offered Bilinski an attractive transfer to Atlanta, and they adjusted. Eventually, Bilinski felt secure enough to leave GE to tend the shop full time. He says it’s always a guessing game. Because decorating is about aesthetics, they can’t tell in advance how customers will react to their choices.
Two years ago, red clay Christmas ornaments hand-painted in white looked like a sure-fire hit. MacNeil and Bilinski worked with an artist known throughout Mexico on the design, but the ornaments didn’t sell well. They still wonder why. They think maybe the size was wrong – too big and heavy. On the other hand, paper-wrapped votive candles printed with the face of Jesus, which they bought from a small Mexican soap wholesaler to have by the cash register, turned into a reliable seller. Every time they return, they buy out the wholesaler’s entire stock. “She’d know, when she saw the gringos come in, what we wanted,” Bilinski said. Cheap knockoffs a threat No Mas customers are loyal. Ira Sanchez, who owns the Frontera Tex-Mex Grill restaurant chain, started coming to the shop in 1998. She decorated her own restaurants, bringing in whole containers of handicrafts from Mexico. Last year, she asked MacNeil and Bilinski to take over. There have been other restaurants, such as El Nopal and Mitra, where they did everything from the tables and chairs to the wrought-iron panels in the patio. MacNeil says they got those contracts by accident. No Mas looks a little like a restaurant from the outside, and eatery owners would stop in to check it out. They liked what they saw – even after they realized there was no menu.
MacNeil and Bilinski are flattered when owners of Mexican restaurants come to them. It means they must be doing something right. They worry not so much about other Atlanta decorators but about knockoffs. No Mas wares don’t seem quite so special when something similar is available at Home Depot, even if it’s machine-made in China. “There are so many cheap things coming out of China now that it’s killing a little bit of the Mexican trade,” MacNeil said. “The wrought iron from India is very cheap, and they’re getting better at it, and China is very good at replicating anything.” So MacNeil and Bilinski rely on quality, service and nudging their artists beyond their usual limits. “Maybe some don’t even care about changing; that’s all they make and they’re not interested in the other,” MacNeil said. “But somebody’s hungry enough to try something different. Somebody’s got that part of the brain that wants to break off from all those other people. That’s what we want to do with them.”