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Fall 2001 Framed!

Someone compared picture frames to chocolate: affordable, easy to find, portable, and highly addictive. But whether it’s an “addiction” or “passion,” people who like frames love them. And they have distinct preferences. As with chocolate, today’s frames come in a mouth-watering array of choices: size, styles, materials, colors and more. Fortunately, unlike chocolate, picture frames aren’t fattening, which no doubt helps account for their sales success.

“Frames are addictive,” says Barbara Howell, US sales manager for Axicon World Imports (Surrey, BC), which wholesales several lines. “Frames are affordable impulse buys.” Frame-lovers search everywhere for frames that are unique and eye-catching. They zip through catalogs, scour the Net and—most important—cruise the malls for the just-right frame. And today’s frame-seekers come in all ages—teens who encase friends and good times in bright, whimsical frames; young parents documenting the antics of their growing offspring; seniors who add to their ever-They wrap around an image that might be otherwise “lost” or unnoticed. And they give even the simplest or most modest graphic a sense of importance and pride of place.

“Picture frames let you have your friends and family around you all the time,” Howell says. But photo frames today are being used to display more than the latest snap of Aunt Hattie’s birthday or Junior’s toothless grin. Finding their way into frames are favorite quotations, treasured memorabilia, and even art postcards. And perhaps a cousin of the scrapbook craze, vintage family photos are highly prized, as well, lending not only a sense of family continuity but invoking another time, place and mood—especially if it’s in one of countless decorative frames now on the market.

Not just for desks or tabletops anymore, photo frames have been transformed into refrigerator magnets, keychains, mirrors, beanbags and unbreakable cubes that can be tossed on the seat of your car. They can even talk to you or play your favorite tune.

Boom times

imageIt’s no wonder picture frames have become a $4 billion-a-year business, according to Mike Shea, spokesman for the Professional Picture Framers Association (Richmond, VA). This trend, like so many others, is driven by baby boomers, he says. They’ve got photos of kids and parents, photos of grandkids, pets and friends, and photos of vacations. While many of these shots may be forever consigned to boxes and drawers and envelopes from the drugstore and never see the light of day, the favorites get frames. And some get sent to Grandma, who also puts them in frames.

Another factor: as the boomer generation reaches peak earning power, they redecorate their primary homes, and the vacation homes and condos many of them have been buying in the past few years. Because photographs in frames are a simple and inexpensive way to give a room a focal point or just a fresh look, frame sales have soared. In fact, black-and-white photos—whether art photography, one’s own camera work, or something in between—have been an extremely popular home-décor element in recent years.

Also growing in popularity are “shadow box” frames for preserving and displaying three-dimensional items, particularly memorabilia. Shea says people (particularly boomers) use shadow boxes to frame nostalgia: collections of items from childhood; sports paraphernalia; wedding bouquets; and travel souvenirs. Shadow boxes are also used to showcase collectibles, from the simplest items like vintage buttons, bits of lace, or old letters and other ephemera, to pricey antique objets. In the past, shadow-box frames were a custom item, but as a result of the growing popularity of framed collections, a number of frame companies now sell simple, ready-made shadow-boxes in a variety of sizes, materials and finishes.


imageFrame aficionados want more than unimaginative rectangles of wood or metal. Some want highly decorative frames; others want the sleek, austere look of “museum” framing; and still others want whimsy. Manufacturers have responded to this growing demand by producing an enormous variety of frames, say industry experts. With myriad frames available today, the challenge for retailers, of course, is to stay on top of trend cycles; and to narrow their inventory choices to frames that have greatest appeal for their customers. One way to do that is to base those choices on some generalized “personality types” of their customers. Here are some typical categories:

The Classicist.
These customers believe classic good taste never goes out of style, and tend toward traditional styles. In fact, classic and traditional frame styles have very broad appeal, all the more so when they include a unique element or clever twist.

Classic Photo Frames (Orangeburg, NY), for example, defines its products as “both exciting and old.” The company specializes in Italian marquetry, a 17th-century art form that uses inlaid wood in intricate designs. These frames are made in Italy from exotic woods such as poplar and elm. They come not only in traditional wood tones, but also in bright contemporary shades of yellow, purple, blue and lime. “We’ve taken an old art and brought it into the 21st century,” says Linda Garrett, president. Inlaid Italian mosaic, also an old-world art form, finds its way into another of the company’s popular frame lines. These mosaic frames are so beautiful that some retailers pair them with jewelry displays.

Metal frames tend to suggest a contemporary look, but not when they come from Danforth Pewterers (Middlebury, VT). These pewter picture frames, handcrafted in Vermont, are designed to evoke the solidity and grace of Colonial times. The company launched the frame line about five years ago to meet increased demand in the home décor market. Today the frames are an important component of the company’s product offerings, which include jewelry, baby gifts, vases, ornaments and table accessories. Retailing for $25 to $48 makes the frames relatively pricey in the ready-made frame category, but that seems to be of little concern to consumers, many of them mothers and grandmothers looking to display precious family photos in beautiful, classic frames. “One of our New York City retail customers told us that the price of the frames is not an issue,” says company spokeswoman Lynne DeBeer. “People weren’t blinking an eye” because of the frames’ quality and artistry. “There are a lot of pewter frames on the market, but our quality is a standout,” says company co-founder Judi Danforth. “We’ve experimented with a lot of colors and designs. Our frames make an artistic statement.”

Leather is another classic décor element, and leather frames fit right in. Wolf Designs, Inc.’s (Malibu, CA) classic brown or black leather frames are a key component of the elegant personal desk set the company has created. Their “Write in Style” line includes several individual pieces as well as two- and three-piece desk sets. Retailing for around $30, the two-piece sets feature a 4″x6″ photo frame and either a three-compartment desk caddy or a desk caddy with drawer; the three-piece set has a 4″x6″ frame, a business card holder and letter opener. A desk/travel photo frame complements either desk set. “Our distinguished line of genuine leather writing and desk gift accessories is designed to make a statement,” says Simon Wolf, president. Available in both brown and leather, it holds a wallet-sized picture inside and clasps shut for easy travel.

The Sentimentalist.
These customers cherish family, friends, and the good times they have together. They gravitate toward frames that underscore the happy memories their pictures evoke.

Homeword Accessories (Hatfield, PA), a division of Quality Artworks, touches the heart with wooden frames bearing words that resonate with consumers: “Mom,” “Sister” and “Dad,” among others, and its number-one seller, “Friendship.” Some of these value-priced frames also bear words relating to a season or special occasion. “Our frames inspire sentiment. They make great gifts, or they can make an office more personal, says Nancy Bergey, Homeword’s marketing manager. “The core of our business is nourishing the soul, inspiring people and bringing back memories,” says Bergey. The company also produces a line of decorative boxes, clocks and door hangings.

Another company whose frames celebrate relationships is Axicon World Imports. Constructed with an engravable metal plate on the front, the frames are excellent as personalized gifts for a wedding or a new baby, says Howell; in fact, some of their best-sellers have words like “Best Friends,” “Wedding” and “Love.” The frame with “Family” on it has the figures of a woman, a man and a toddler on a tricycle, and is a customer favorite. Howell says “We tried to choose universal themes so they would have wide appeal.” Howell and Bergey both advise retailers to display “sentimental” frames in themed settings. For example, a frame with a garden theme surrounded by flower- or garden-related items instantly tells a story.

The New Ager.
A growing and wide-ranging market segment, these customers seek spirituality and harmony along non-traditional paths.

The Silhouette and Astrology frame lines from Axicon World Imports appeal to New Agers and anyone who simply appreciates life’s mysteries. Silhouette Frames, the company’s best-selling giftware line, are made of burnished chrome, with colorful acrylic in patterns that resemble stained glass. The 18 designs, many of them exclusive to Axicon, include the Tree of Life, a pagoda, a dragonfly, a frog, an angel, and a cat. The Astrology frames, which come in green, lavender and orange, include natural stones representing one of the signs of the Zodiac. Howell suggests displaying these frames with the paper insert that describes the personality traits of that frame’s astrological sign.

The Nature Lover.
Also a wide market segment (which can overlap several others), these customers love nature and the outdoors.

Frames by Big Sky Carvers reflect a love of the outdoors in two key ways. One line of stone-cast frames has representations of fish, birds, bears, trees, wolves and elk—the kind of wildlife you’d see if you took a trip to Big Sky’s headquarters in Manhattan—Montana. But the company goes a step beyond the expected by incorporating elements of the outdoors onto the frame itself. One rugged line combines replicas of driftwood and arrowheads; another includes bits of faux antler. “Each year, antlered animals shed their horns and begin growing new ones,” says Kern Stevenson, vice president of sales and marketing. “There are people who collect these sheddings when [the collectors] are out walking in the forest. We take those pieces of antler, make a cast, then make reproductions to include on our frames.”

Authentic-looking birds perch on Big Sky’s Audubon frames. The birds are reproduced from original carvings by Richard Lamson, the popular American carver of songbirds. Ornithologists from the Audubon Society examined and approved each Lamson carving for anatomical authenticity. Then Big Sky made molds of the carvings, which are hand-painted and affixed to the frames.

“Our frames don’t follow trends; they reflect a lifestyle,” Stevenson says. “They appeal to people who want to bring their pursuits into their home or office and reflect their passions there.” The frames sell well when coupled with other outdoor-related items from Big Sky’s line, he says: a fishing frame placed with a carved trout, for example, or a picnic-basket frame and Big Sky dinnerware.

The World Traveler.
People who travel widely (or want to!) are drawn to frames that reflect the globe-trotting experience.

For more than 20 years, company founder Allan Palecek has traveled the globe searching for products that exemplify quality, excellent design and exquisite craftsmanship. His company, Palecek, a picture-frame and home-décor import company (Richmond, CA), sells a line of home furnishings and accessories that appeal to consumers who want to incorporate an international flavor into their homes. And one effective but inexpensive way to do that is with picture frames. Palecek specializes in frames made of natural materials such as raffia, banana leaves, coconut twig, and seed pods with a translucent coating to preserve their organic beauty. Its newest offering is a line of frames made of leather. “Our frames are beautiful and unique in the marketplace,” Frudden says. “They integrate into almost any décor.”

The Music Lover.
Who doesn’t love music? And who doesn’t have a special song or relate a particular song to a special event? Knowing that a favorite photo becomes even more special when combined with a special song, Symphony (Culver City, CA), a division of Reuge Music, created a line of musical wooden keepsake and jewelry boxes that incorporates a photo frame on the lid. Customers can select from a list of songs that match the subject of the photo. If the box is for a wedding gift, for example, a photo of the couple in the lid’s frame could be paired with a song title like “Unforgettable” or “Because You Loved Me.” For a baby gift, “You Are My Sunshine” or Brahms’ “Lullaby” could pair with the baby’s picture.

The Fun-Seeker.
Whimsy strikes everyone’s funnybone from time to time. So will frames by Bean Framed Inc. (Petaluma, CA) and Three by Three (Seattle, WA).

Bean Framed’s products come in fun shapes and textures that appeal to the young and young-at-heart: long-stemmed flowers, colorful hearts and stars, bean bags, sports balls, animal skin prints, and cuddly baby animals (great for baby gifts or presents for the grandchildren). Because many of the frames are soft and unbreakable, they’re well suited for children’s room, and can be tossed anywhere you want the memories to “go.” The flower photo-holders, with their 21″ stems, are among the company’s most popular products, according to Mary Jane Waxler, sales manager. “They appeal to everybody,” she says. “We can hardly keep them in stock.” They’re especially eye-catching when displayed in a bunch in a tall vase, perhaps along with other garden-oriented products.

Anita Nadelson, co-owner of Three by Three, a wholesale and design company, says she and her partner, Gwen Weinberg, wanted to create frames that appeal to young, hip, coastal customers with a taste for the latest trends and plenty of discretionary income. These frames have bright colors and textures, and are made of materials not usually seen in picturesframes, such as wool.

Three by Three also designs frames with a magnetic back for mounting on refrigerators or lockers. “Our frames are easy to buy and don’t require a big commitment from the customer,” Nadleson says. Display tip: Choose at least one frame in orange. It may not be the one that sells, but that color is effective in drawing passersby to the display.

The Art Maven.
The gift shops of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City sell a line of products that replicate design elements of Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of 20th-century American architecture. Wholesale and retail customers can purchase jewelry, scarves and ties, dishes, stationery, umbrellas—and picture frames—decorated with Wright’s distinctive geometric and organic patterns. Their appeal is strong among sophisticated, upscale consumers everywhere.

Sold in metal and enamel for several years, the Wright picture frames are now also available in laser-cut alder wood with a rich finish. “People see these frames as art objects,” says Fred Goldberg, director of sales for the museum’s wholesale and retail divisions. “It’s a different way to interpret Wright’s designs. Customers are into newness, and the metal frames have been around for a while. The wood has a much broader appeal than metal. It’s a clean, professional look that’s nice for a desk.”

In the picture

Frame styles may come and go, but retailers can be certain that frame sales will stay in the picture for a long time to come, industry experts say. People want to stay close to family and friends they love, and experiences that have touched them. They want to preserve their memories, and placing them in stylish, artistic or whimsical frames is an easy and decorative way to stay connected. Photographs and keepsakes—and the seemingly endless array of frames that find their way onto tables, desks, shelves and ledges throughout homes and offices—are simple yet powerful reminders that life is beautiful.

Pamela Rohland

Pamela Rohland often writes about the joys and tribulations of entrepreneurship for a variety of regional and national business publications.

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