I had the pleasure of meeting Steve McKenzie along with his lovely wife Jill at an industry event a few years ago. I remember thinking how genuinely kind they were and how well they seem to work together. Over the past few years I would run into them at markets and events but we never had a true chance to sit and chat, it was simply one mingle event after another. I always left feeling the same way, such kind and talented people and a duo I needed to know more about.
Fast forward to this February at The Southern C Summit where I found myself seated next to Steve at dinner. I had the absolute honor to chat with Steve for more than an hour where we conversed about our businesses, our lives and the journey along the way. I was immediately smitten with his southern charm and his incredible passion for art. I knew I wanted to know more about Steve “the artist” and “the McKenzies” as shop owners and business partners and how it all fit together.
Steve and his wife Jill own steve mckenzies in West Midtown Atlanta. The lifestyle shop is a two story warehouse with an art studio upstairs and a retail shop below. The shop has an incredible old world collected feel about it with the perfect blend of the lines they carry mixed in with Steve’s art and textiles. You can pick up amazing blue and white porcelain, fabulous fabrics and wallpapers from fellow industry artists, incredible china, design books and amazing gifts, and of course, all of Steve’s creations.
I have had the pleasure of getting to know the McKenzie’s even more since our time together in February and it has truly been a delight becoming friends. I adore both of them, their incredible work ethic and every single thing about their business which I have the honor to share with you today …
First of all, tell me about Steve McKenzie. Where did you grow up and how did your childhood influence your life and your business today?
I was born in Ohio and raised Midwestern. The funny thing is my parents were from the South; they went north after college looking for employment. So I was that kid eating cornbread and turnip greens, biscuits and gravy and none of my friends did. I now know I am home. It only took about 30 years to get here.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Funny question, I am not sure I am still grown up so I still dream about what I want to be when I grow up. I had very successful, middle class parents, my mother in education and my father in chemistry, so I understood a work ethic. The only thing I really remember about aspirations as a kid was after a trip to Washington DC and I found out people designed the President’s china. It was a dream then and remains a dream now, I would love to design the official White House china of a sitting president.
Did you always want to be an artist?
I always loved the arts. I was the kid growing up that became compulsive about leather working, then macramé, who knew it would serve me well now. I was string art obsessed, copper wire and nails in the shape of something…I hooked rugs anything that let me express myself. I was a dancer in high school and continued as a hobby in college. Anything that would let me express my interest and learn something would hold my interest. It was not until we were married and I was in my mid twenties I got serious about painting and drawing. I then pursued it with abandon and it became such a part of my learning. For me every work of art is a learning experience. Every painting, drawing is an exploration into me and the medium I am working in. I guess at this point is a 25+ year addiction.
I love your story about how you and Jill met; will you share it with me again?
We met playing a drinking game in college at Butler University. It was a Fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, Sorority, Delta Gamma function, she won!! We continued to be friends and double dated a lot with other folks, but finally one day we decided to go out on St. Patrick’s Day. Neither of us knew whether it was a date or just friends. At the end of the evening, I told my roommate I am going to “marry that girl”. We were married 6 months later and now we are celebrating our 34th anniversary this year…it stuck.
What has your career path looked like and how did you get to the present day?
Just like painting I like a journey to learn and my career has been just that. I have a degree in Business Administration from Butler although I started as a Pharmacy/Chemistry major and worked for Sherwin Williams as a bench chemist during the summers in college. I worked on color pallets and that made me fall in love with the power of color in space. I went to work for Sherwin Williams out of school as a store manager and it taught me to work with clients that thought they had a vision but needed some guidance. I then worked for LeeWards a nation wide craft chain designing frames and holiday decor. This gave me my love of all things holiday. I used to spend weeks at a time in Asia designing all holiday decorations. I then went to Larson-Juhl, the premier manufacturer of Custom Picture Frames. It was a wonderful culture, I did design, and marketing and eventually I took over as CEO when the business was sold to Berkshire Hathaway. I think running a subsidiary of a fortune 50 company was as much about learning as starting a new painting. Eventually after 20 years they decided to make a change and steve mckenzie’s was born.
Did you always want to own your own business?
Not at all. I loved all the team members, and all the moving parts of a large mutli-national. My parents were of the generation to work for someone for life and that is what I believed in. I have to say, it is very scary but I would not have it any other way today. I still have a boss, I work for Jill.
How did you decide to take the plunge and launch steve mckenzies?
Art is so in my being, I have to make art. I always wanted a textile collection. Both Jill and I had background in retail, so how else do you sell the textile collection you want to have, open a store… Probably not the best plan but we did and it is such a fun endeavor to do it with my partner for life and have a business partner I trust that I know has my best interest at heart. Second careers are a chance to not only does something you are good at but to do something you love. That is what steve mckenzie’s is for me.
Anything you wish you had done along the way and didn’t do?
I worked really hard, and this is a cliché, but a little more time with my children and wife probably would have served us all well. I am so blessed to have a fabulous relationship with my children and my wife, but I was gone over 75% of the time. I treasure every moment we had together and we made the most of it, lots of trips etc., but the little things everyday are equally important and I missed some of those. If you ask my family they do not miss it, they love where we all are now, but I wish I had just stopped for a little bit.
Share two people who have inspired your journey and why?
One is my mother, I know that too is a little cliché, but she was a very successful woman in a man’s world in the 60’s and 70’s of higher education administration. She worked hard to stay an equal yet she taught me the importance of equality for all of us, the importance of the job anyone one does, no matter what it is. We need to relay that message more often to our children.
The second is Craig Ponzio, he was the owner of the business when I joined Larson-Juhl, the frame company. He developed a business with a strong set of values focused on success the right way, including the success of your customers and all team members. Never exclusion, separation or division. I hope I live my life in the same manner as he taught me.
Can you share a high point in your journey and what was that like for you?
Wow, that is a question… There are many along the way. I think the day I married Jill our children were born were all high points. The day someone trusted me to run a multi-national was a high point. The first time someone asked me to do a show of my art in 2006 in Santa Fe was a high point. I was asked to do a show in New York at Galerie Protégé, right before I left Larson-Juhl. That was definitely a high point to exhibit your work and realize you have made a commitment to make a living off your creativity. Big High Point. I think life is full of high points if you can stop to recognize them. What I do not do well and I hope I can tell others to do this is celebrate them.
Your art studio is on the second floor of your retail store, is that ever challenging for you?
Absolutely. I had a beautiful studio in our suburban house that was an escape. With the studio upstairs, I can hear everything going on downstairs and it is easy to get distracted by the daily activities. I find I paint a lot more at night when everything is quiet. On the other hand, it is handy to pop up when the urge is there. Everything is a balance.
Anything you must have to spurn creativity?
Music! And not just any one genre. Sometimes it is Gregorian Chants and other days it is the latest EDM from a new Dutch DJ. It just depends on my mood and what is inspiring me that day.
Do you have a favorite thing to create?
I think over time this probably changes, however I love to come back and visit ink on paper drawings. I think it is almost meditative to feel the brush pull the ink on the paper without an outcome in sight. It is a discovery process where it will take you.
I know a lot of interior designers and some of them are also artists, do you think that is a common thing?
I think it is absolutely common to have other creative pursuits if you are an interior designer. You are always creating these environments from scratch for others to live in. This process is so similar to creating art, knowing that it will live in the world for others to enjoy.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
My guilty pleasure is a good BBC murder mystery. I am not sure why but I can escape from everything following a good Poirot, Rosemary and Thyme or any of these.
Five must haves.
My cold brewed Café Bustello coffee in the morning
A good daily devotional to start my day, right now I am revisiting Oswald Chambers
A trip to a great art museum regularly
Friends that make me laugh; I can get way too serious otherwise
A good pair of brown suede loafers
Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it. Robert Motherwell.
Aren’t they amazing? I love their journey and Steve’s commitment to his art no matter what he was doing in his life. I also highly respect his reflection on his life and his devotion to his family. What an incredible inspiration to live a purpose filled life no matter what is going on.
Make sure follow along with Steve on Instagram and to stop in to steve mckenzies when you are in Atlanta. To purchase Steve’s art check out their website or contact him directly. Thank you to both Steve and Jill for your friendship, the access for this fabulous interview and for an incredible example of hard work and loyalty. It is an extreme honor to call you both precious friends.