The second and third-generation owners of Authentic Designs shed light on the past, present and future of their family business.
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY AUTHENTIC DESIGNS
Walking through the doors of Authentic Designs’ showroom in Rupert is a truly illuminating experience in every sense. After passing through an inviting and rustic foyer, customers are greeted by a dazzling array of lighting fixtures. The reproduced historic heirlooms and original creations built by the artisan craftspeople at Authentic Designs are both stunning and unique. To Authentic Designs’ owners Michael Krauss and Maria Peragine and their two sons, Sam and Luke Krauss, their business is far more than a vocational commitment – it’s a labor of love that has brought them closer together as a family. By honoring the original vision of Authentic Designs’ founder and family patriarch, Danny Krauss, they have managed to thoughtfully carry on his legacy while moving the business forward into the future.
Danny Krauss was born in Brooklyn, New York. After working in the field of commercial art representation for years, he eventually took a step back from the hectic corporate landscape of Madison Avenue. In 1963, he purchased a 19th-century farmhouse in Great Neck, New York. During the time he spent restoring the property, he began refining his craftsmanship skills, as well.
According to Danny’s son, Michael, his father always had an innate penchant for working with his hands. “He loved making handmade furniture, and his taste was exquisite.” While Danny was restoring the farmhouse in Great Neck, he struggled to find period lighting fixtures that suited his aesthetic preferences. Eventually,
he decided start making his own. Shortly after, his friends began to ask him to design similar fixtures for their homes. The subsequent increase in demand for his services prompted him to purchase a small workshop at the intersection of 61st Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan in 1966.
As his fledgling business began to grow, Danny built a fiercely loyal clientele base. He expanded his knowledge of historic lighting fixtures through frequent trips to cherished historic museums and estate museums, including the Winterthur Museum, the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, and the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. Michael recalls accompanying his father on those trips as a young child with great fondness. “He took the whole family with him. I got to learn about the work that he was doing, and I gained a lot of respect for his craft.”
Several years after Authentic Designs first opened its doors, Danny partnered with a seasoned coppersmith and tinsmith named Abe Flam. A consummate craftsman, Flam fled from Austria in the 1930s to escape the Nazi regime. Working together, the two of them were able to bring Authentic Designs to new levels of success.
Once the business was well-established, Danny began to contemplate moving away from New York City. The landlords who owned the building that Authentic Designs occupied were raising the rent, and Danny knew that he needed more space in order to grow his operation. “He also knew that he could keep the majority of his clients, regardless of whether or not he stayed in the city,” says Michael.
t the same time that Danny was deciding whether or not to move away from the city, he encouraged his son, Michael, to apprentice under Abe Flam to learn the family craft. Although Michael went on to work as a teacher and actor for over a decade before he joined his father at Authentic Designs, his apprenticeship with Abe Flam played a major part in influencing his decision to take over the family business later on in life.
“Danny then began looking for a new home for Authentic Designs. Over the course of his travels, he came across the former site of The Lewis Brothers Mill in West Rupert, Vermont. Although the building had been partially consumed by a tragic fire in 1978, Danny still recognized its potential.
Danny purchased the mill building in Rupert and moved to Vermont full-time in 1979. He spent the next several years working with a talented team of local contractors and builders to restore and renovate the mill. “There was an enormous hole in the roof when he bought the mill building,” says Michael. “We still have visible scorch marks on some of the columns on the upstairs floor from the fire, as well. We covered them in plexiglass to preserve them as a way of celebrating the history of the building.” An old metal furnace door was also repurposed as a window, which now connects the downstairs office with the main showroom.
Throughout the course of the renovation, Danny Krauss restored the space, rebuilt the roof, laid slate floors, and re-connected the machine and metal shops. “Before the roof was fixed, rain used to pour into the building and freeze on the concrete floors,” says Michael. “When I came in to work at the shop occasionally back then, the other employees and I would play broomball on the frozen ice when we were supposed to be working. My father would catch us sometimes, and we would ask him if he wanted to join in. He would always laugh and say ‘No! My hip’s bad!’ There was a lot of work that went into the restoration, but we still managed to have a lot of fun.” Once completed, the workshops were outfitted with traditional metalworking and woodworking tools, which are still used to this day. Windows were added to many of the rooms in the building, and Danny planted apple trees and a garden in the field behind the workshop. The Authentic Designs workshop and showroom in Rupert was fully operational and running by 1981, and the stage was set for the next generation of the Krauss family to join the business. In the years following the initial renovation of the mill building, Michael Krauss was living in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, he was working as an actor and teaching acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. While there, he met his wife, Maria Peragine, who was working in the school’s administrative department. In the late 1980s, Michael’s acting career began to take off. He landed a significant role in Barry Levinson’s Academy Award and Golden Globe-nominated film Avalon in 1990, in which he played the younger version of the film’s protagonist, Sam Krichinsky. In the same year, he and Maria decided that they wanted a change of pace. After Maria gave birth to their first child, Sam Krauss, the family of three followed in Danny Kraus’ footsteps and moved to a small house in Rupert.
Over the next several years, Michael worked as a substitute teacher for Manchester Elementary and Middle School and the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union. He also taught acting classes at the Green Mountain Academy for Lifelong Learning. During the first few years she spent in Vermont, Maria gave birth to their second son, Luke Krauss. She also worked for Ben Hauben, who was the visionary behind the highly-successful Manchester Designer Outlets.
By the time that Danny Krauss began to step down from the business in the late 1990s, Michael and Maria were ready to take over the business. Michael and Maria later acquired the business in 2004. “From there, we jumped right in and started running the show,” says Michael. Authentic Designs celebrated the most profitable year in the history of the business in 2007, but the nationwide financial recession of 2008 heavily impacted their bottom line. When Danny passed away in 2010, Michael and Maria were forced to navigate an unprecedented series of financial and logistical challenges.
“Neither my wife, nor myself had any formal business training,” says Michael. “It was a trial by fire, but it was also an incredible learning experience. In retrospect, facing difficult situations as business owners helped us grow in ways that we might not have otherwise.”
In the years since Michael and Maria took charge of Authentic Designs, they have entered a new era of sustainable prosperity. They strive to maintain the high customer service standards that have defined Authentic Designs from the beginning. According to Michael, their ability to retain a loyal following of long-term customers is a direct result of their perpetual commitment to honesty. “To quote Mark Twain, ‘If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.’ We really care about the people who buy our products, and we offer an open return and service policy that reflects that.” The way that Michael and Maria see it, their personal sense of investment in customer satisfaction is one of the primary reasons that Authentic Designs has remained successful. “If you bought one of our light fixtures 25 years ago and something breaks, we’re going to help you fix it.”
That same philosophy of deep, personal connection also extends to Authentic Designs’ business model and workplace culture. “As business owners, we want to make sure that the people working here are taken care of,” says Maria Peragine. “We want people to feel good about working here.” Michael echoes that sentiment and believes that it is crucially important to work alongside his employees. “Having worked in a variety of professional fields, I know what it’s like to work in an environment where it feels like the bosses are not in the trenches with you. At Authentic Designs, I’m proud to work side-by-side with my employees on a daily basis. I’m incredibly grateful for everything they do.”
The Authentic Designs team is comprised of a loyal legion of talented staff members. Ron Facin is a trained glassblower who has been working in their sheet metal shop for over a decade and a half. He is responsible for the construction of much of Authentic Designs’ sheet metal lighting. He has recently been joined by Henry Hughes, who is an accomplished steelworker and project manager. Prior to joining the team at Authentic Designs, Hughes oversaw metalworking crews that worked on large international projects. Glen Holmes is the most recent addition to the Authentic Designs team. Hailing from Manchester, Holmes is currently apprenticing and learning how to construct chandeliers, sconces, and table lamps. Travis Raymond does all of the wiring and assembly work for Authentic Designs, and Sharon King is responsible for all of the painting work. She oversees several lines of lighting that Authentic Designs builds exclusively for particular design firms. Stan Macri has been working at Authentic Designs for 19 years. He oversees their plating and finishing department, as well as their packing and shipping department. John Hubbard works at Authentic Designs in a part-time capacity. “We benefit greatly from his many talents in woodworking,” says Michael. “He is a fantastic problem solver.
Michelle Varone keeps us on track with her accounting and bookkeeping skills. Their hard work makes it possible for us to keep the lights on here in more ways than one. We all work together to accomplish our collective goals, and I feel like they are all part of our extended family.”
By working with a group of talented and passionate employees, the Krauss family has been able to expand the range of repair services that are offered at Authentic Designs. They have also broadened their product range by recreating increasingly large numbers of historic lighting fixtures. “If we come across a piece that we like, we will rebuild it from scratch using a mixture of modern and traditional methods,” explains Michael. Although most of the pieces that comprise Authentic Designs’ lighting fixtures are made on-site, they are nevertheless open about the fact that some of their products are made using components that are manufactured in other facilities.
In some cases, a client will bring a piece to Authentic Designs that is in need of small repairs or part replacements. In other circumstances, the Authentic Designs team will entirely reverse-engineer and “reconstruct the classic fixtures that a client brings in. Michael elaborates: “We work with our clients to build new or modified versions of the historic lighting fixtures that they bring in for repair services. If a client wants to wire an authentic early piece, we tend to discourage that approach.” Instead, they advocate for the construction of a separate electrified copy, which leaves the early original unchanged. Michael advises clients not to alter original antiques. “If you brought us an original Windsor chair and wanted it spray painted, our suggestion would always be to leave the original alone and build an updated copy.”
The majority of the products that are sold at Authentic Designs are inspired by classic antique lighting fixtures from the Federalist era, but their collection extends to many design styles, regardless of historic provenance. “We have built copies of pieces from the Deco, Arts and Crafts, and Mid-Century Modern styles,” says Michael. “We are not exclusive when it comes to building reproductions, and we have updated or modified many pieces and converted found objects into working lighting fixtures. We are, however, reluctant to disturb vintage pieces. We offer non-electric versions of most of our products for a reduced rate, but our customers predominantly come to us for electric lighting fixtures. Our challenge is not only to recreate antique lighting fixtures – we also have to figure out how to wire them safely, as well.” In order to accomplish this, every room in the Authentic Designs’ compound plays a specific purpose in the design and production process of their lighting fixtures. The main building is connected to several smaller outbuildings through a series of hallways and doors, each of which houses at least one specialized workshop. In line with Danny Krauss’ unrelenting commitment to business excellence, the architectural layout of the Authentic Designs campus was planned out in an efficient and thoughtful manner. Behind the downstairs showroom in the main building, a room known as “The Hub” serves as a central convergence point. Inside The Hub, specialized tools such as table saws, bending jigs and geo-metric die heads allow skilled workers to bend metal tubing pieces, cut metal parts down to size, and efficiently and safely pass electrical wiring through the arms of complex lighting fixtures.
In the front corner of The Hub, a “Plating Room” with transparent glass windows is equipped with ultrasonic cleaning machines and specialized chemical dipping tubs. It is here that Authentic Designs’ knowledgeable employees, led by Stan Macri, clean, finish, burnish and oxidize the handmade metal elements of their lighting fixtures. All chemicals used at Authentic Designs are disposed of using methods that are in-line with state and federal environmental regulatory standards, and the Authentic Designs team goes above and beyond to ensure that all chemicals are used as safely as possible. “We also use the lowest-toxicity chemicals that are available,” says Michael. “The State of Vermont is quite amazing in terms of how they manage the pickup and disposal process of our chemicals. They are incredibly professional, and it’s wonderful working with them.” To the left of The Hub, the electrical components of the fixtures are carefully installed and checked in an open and airy “Wiring Room.” All of Authentic Designs’ chandeliers, lanterns, sconces and lamps are made in line with the certified Underwriters Laboratory (UL) safety standards and undergo a comprehensive process of quality testing and evaluation.
To the right of The Hub, a meticulous- ly-organized “Parts Room” contains a series of essential metal and wooden parts, many of which are custom-made on-site for use in their fixtures. Beyond the Parts Room, two sheet metal workshops are staffed by proficient metalsmiths, including Ron Facin and Henry Hughes. Using a combination of traditional tools and contemporary tools, such as band saws, handheld shears, beaders and crimpers, they cut and shape the metal elements of the fixtures into appealing and captivating shapes. Further back, a well-equipped on-site woodshop houses a duplicating lathe. After the initial wooden prototypes of their chandelier “centerbodies” are fashioned on a manual lathe, the duplicating lathe is used to streamline the process of carving duplicate wooden components.
Upstairs from The Hub, a “Photo Room” provides an ideal setting for the Krauss family to take beautiful photographs of their products. The glass pieces used in their lighting fixtures are cut and fitted in their adjacent “Glass Room.” Down the hall, the wooden components of their fixtures are stained, painted, and finished in their “Finishing Room” by Sharon King. A small upstairs showroom next to the Finishing Room showcases additional fixtures and also houses products that are available at a reduced price. By the time every Authentic Designs lighting fixture reaches completion, it will bear the unmistakable mark of handmade craftmanship. The hard work of Authentic Designs’ employees always results in distinctive and astonishing creations, which are every bit as extraordinary as the story behind the business itself.
As Authentic Designs continues to build on its already stellar reputation, Michael and Maria Krauss’ two sons, Sam and Luke Krauss, have made crucial contributions to the business. According to Sam Krauss, he and Luke are deeply involved in efforts to help streamline and strengthen Authentic Designs’ online presence. “We’re developing the social media side of things to connect with new customers across the globe, and we’re also currently in the process of developing a new E-commerce platform.” Luke and Sam intend to use their knowledge of computer systems to make their back-of-house operation more efficient. “Our ultimate goal is to effectively integrate it into our front-of-house business model to make the inventory process seamless and uncomplicated.”
Luke Krauss says that although he and Sam have occasionally worked at Authentic Designs since they were teenagers, they never felt a sense of pressure to carry on the family business. “We never apprenticed with anyone in the way that our father did, and we never felt a sense of obligation to do so.” Luke adds that as he has grown older, he has become more interested in developing his craftsmanship skills. “Sam and I spent a lot of time here in the workshop when we were younger. I like working with my hands, and I’m interested in learning more about how the lighting fixtures are built here.” Although Luke says that he used to feel limited by the fact that he doesn’t have the same level of technical expertise as his father, he has now fully embraced the challenge of working at Authentic Designs. “I’ve been using the knowledge that I do have to help increase the efficiency of the business, and that feels great.”
Luke readily admits that he and Sam are often asked whether or not they want to carry on the family business. Although they are both keeping their options open, they nevertheless feel a deep and profound connection to the business – and they are both proud to be working there. “I worked as a teacher for five years after college,” says Luke. “Afterwards, I came back to work at Authentic Designs part-time. Over the past year, I’ve slowly taken on a more full-time role. Initially, I was incredibly hesitant to work here full-time. It’s really started to grow on me recently, and I’ve learned a lot through the experience.”
Sam Krauss says that the time he has spent working at Authentic Designs has given him a new level of appreciation for the importance of open-minded entrepreneurship and family connection. “I worked in the United Kingdom for over half a decade before I came home to work at Authentic Designs. Even though I’m back in my hometown, I’m still able to participate in an operation that makes beautiful products that have wide-reaching appeal. The lighting fixtures that we make are made with time-honored methods, but the business is in no way static or stagnant. There is a lot of freedom in working here. You can make almost” “anything you want in the workshops here, and you can take the business in a lot of different directions. It’s empowering to be able to do those sorts of things, and it also feels wonderful to work here with my family. I don’t have to second guess anyone’s intentions, because we’re all on the same page and working toward the same agenda. We can be honest with each other and hold each other accountable on a daily basis, which is incredibly important when you are running a business.”
Regardless of where he and Sam end up in their professional journeys, Luke believes that the memories that they keep from their time at Authentic Designs will last a lifetime. “It might sound emotional or sappy, but being able to work with my family is priceless. No matter whether I choose to follow my father and grandfather’s path and continue the family business or not, I know that I will always be able to reflect on the moments that have made the experience of working here so special.”
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