The Entryway to Creativity

Paul Michael on His Design Process and How His Original Products Come to Be

Photo by Ashlee Nobel  Close up texture of a table created by a wood burning process.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel

Close up texture of a table created by a wood burning process.

It’s late July, and Paul Michael has Market Hill on his mind. “We’re 60 days out,” he says, give or take, and it’s time to talk shop. The 130,000-SF facility located in Round Top, Texas, will soon be filled with the world’s finest antiques, presented by the best collection of vendors in the marketplace. The Paul Michael Company, the iconic home décor business and lifestyle brand he founded in 1993 with wife, Debbie, occupies about 11,000 SF of the facility. In his showroom are crystal chandeliers, large animal hides, antique rugs, fine art and, of course, his original products, concepted, designed, and built by hand in his woodshop in south Arkansas in a little town called Dermott. 

We met at his office in Lake Village, Arkansas, to discuss what he’s working on, what’s new for the fall show, and why Round Top is such a special place to him. His son, Jake Michael, manager of Market Hill, joins us. If Paul is one of the most recognizable people in Round Top (and he is, even if he doesn’t like anyone to say it), Jake is right behind him. Over the years, Jake has apprenticed to his dad in buying, selling, trading, and now designing. 

When we begin talking about current projects, texture is a recurring theme and the juxtaposition of natural elements like wood and stone with materials like iron or Lucite. “I think it gives it a less linear form,” Paul says, “It breaks up the lines when you switch components, and something that’s been remarkably popular has been mixing sleek with rustic.” 

When asked what his favorite pairings or favorite combinations are, he says, “I don’t look at it like it’s a favorite thing. My favorite thing is life, living from day to day and experiencing all of the different possibilities that constantly pop up.

Recently, we have been concentrating on creating things from natural stones we bought in the Ozark Mountains.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel  This table is the perfect example of the juxtaposition of stone, metal and glass.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel

This table is the perfect example of the juxtaposition of stone, metal and glass.

I’ve got several projects that I’d like to tackle, but we’re saddled with a lot of different responsibilities.” He may be referring to his four retail stores – the flagship store in Lake Village and locations in Canton, Texas; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Monroe, Louisiana – plus Market Hill.

“Sometimes you have to put these things off until it’s convenient to do them, and sometimes, and many times, the inspiration passes,” he says. “I think that sometimes a concept, if you don’t do it immediately, it goes away, and many times it’s a good thing it goes away. If it was a really valid concept, it wouldn’t have gone away so quickly. It’s like at night when you have a dream and it seems so vivid, and when you wake up the next day, it seems totally ridiculous. Sometimes creativity is that way.” 

Photo by Ashlee Nobel  This solid slab table was made from stone harvested from the Ozarks in Northwest Arkansas and has a custom metal base.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel

This solid slab table was made from stone harvested from the Ozarks in Northwest Arkansas and has a custom metal base.

“It’s a funny thing,” he says, “that the entryway is all the same; it’s only when you get into it that you can tell the difference. The entryway into a new concept is you get excited about it ... it’s full of mystery ... but then when you get into it, this doesn’t work out right, or it’s not going to be sound from an engineering standpoint, or it’s too hard to get this finish ... so many variables only happen when you get into it.”  

“If you’re humble, you realize even Picasso had bad days. His full-color art is selling from $100M down to $2M. Why? Those $100M pieces are those profoundly taxing projects that turned out great. When you commit to a concept in a really big way and you do lots of studying, lots of planning, those are generally the ones that tend to be the greatest works.” 

Photo by Ashlee Nobel  A showstopper is this bleached sycamore console table with recessed Lucite legs.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel

A showstopper is this bleached sycamore console table with recessed Lucite legs.

“I sometimes work on a project for months. It’s not like I’m constantly digging at it, but it keeps recurring in my thoughts and I keep running into roadblocks. Then, finally, the pieces come together. Many times, the missing component becomes available to me along the way. When I first conceived it, I didn’t know it was missing, but when I see it, then I can complete it.”

This brings to mind the Picasso quote, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

“You can’t be afraid of this part. You can’t resent it because if you do, you’ll never do anything. That being said, I would never start a project unless I knew how we were going to do it. Now, once we get into it, some of the things we had decided upon end up not being valid, so we have to improvise. That’s what’s wonderful about our shop. Everyone is thinking along with everyone else. Everybody is encouraged to think, to use their brain, to come up with potential solutions. I do a lot of thinking at night. We’ll put something off, set it aside, come back to it a month later.”

He says Salvador Dominguez, one of the shop’s co-creators and best woodworkers, is wonderful at finding solutions. “Salvador and Jake have both created things that have been top-sellers,” he says. “Sometimes the things I have the most confidence in, or the things I love personally, are duds. Sometimes they are only duds initially, then they gain strength a year later or two years later. All of a sudden, someone pops up and wants it, and it’s gone, and we may make another one, and it’s gone. Sometimes we’re ahead of the curve. Sometimes people see something for the first time.” 

Photo by Ashlee Nobel  This massive 12” thick slab table is also made from rock harvested from Northwest Arkansas and has a solid steel base.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel

This massive 12” thick slab table is also made from rock harvested from Northwest Arkansas and has a solid steel base.

“We are charged daily with creating things that the public has never seen before. That’s what we do. We work really hard at it. We make mistakes doing that. And, so, no, it’s not immediately received. Sometimes things cost more money, they are just more expensive than you thought they’d be, all kinds of variables.”

One of the things Paul is excited about, something that proved challenging, that they problem-solved and that he thinks will be a big hit is a new burning finish. Jake says, “I saw this burnt finish used on architectural elements. I asked a good friend of ours, Shawn Burks of Antique Woods of Louisiana, about it, and he said, “Oh, that’s that ‘shu shu stuff.’ After further research, I discovered the actual term is shou sugi ban, a Japanese technique of preserving wood. I liked the look and wanted to incorporate it into our furniture, but I couldn’t figure out how to touch it without it turning our clothes black. Finally, I figured it out.” 

Photo by Ashlee Nobel  Jake Michael stands next to small accent tables displaying the burned finish inspired by the shou sugi ban method of preserving wood.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel

Jake Michael stands next to small accent tables displaying the burned finish inspired by the shou sugi ban method of preserving wood.

“He figured it out,” Paul says. “At the end, I tweaked it, sanded it more, then waxed it, and then it was a big-time hit.”

Jake says, “It’s speculative that it’ll be a big hit,” but Paul says it again, “It’ll be a big hit.” 

Paul added, “I’m in treacherous territory with the things I consider to be the most profound from a creative standpoint. It’s unproven, it’s very expensive to make, it’s going to have to sell for a lot of money, and it’s weird. That’s really what great art is all about, all that I just described. I really shouldn’t be pursuing that trail, I should be pursuing something in a more pragmatic way, but it’s so enticing and so much fun, the potential for glory is so great.” 

Paul believes there are two schools of buyers: “One is the person with a lot of money who builds their dream home, decorates it nicely in a formal, organized way that’s functional and acceptable, and belongs in a magazine. Then there are other people out there with a lot of money who love art and love creativity. Their dwellings – if you look at photos of the homes where Matisse or Picasso lived, those homes are not formally decorated, they are, more or less, cluttered with great stuff, then there’s everything in between, of course. But someone who’s a serious artist, or connoisseur, would want a lot of unusual things in their home. When their guests come over, they wouldn’t want anything ordinary for their guests to look at with the exception of a really comfortable chair maybe, and so, the latter is the most elusive, and that buyer is the most discerning. But, to me, if you can come up with something that person would like, you could also be potentially eligible for the other school. This is just in my mind, but some things qualify in both cases. When you’ve got something like that, that’s when you’re golden. You’re golden.” 

Photo by Ashlee Nobel  A long console table also displays the burned finish technique Jake and Paul Michael perfected after some problem-solving.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel

A long console table also displays the burned finish technique Jake and Paul Michael perfected after some problem-solving.

That’s the sweet spot Paul is going for, to create something extraordinary but accessible, and those are the kinds of pieces you can expect him to bring to Market Hill. “There’s so much good energy, so many cool people,” he says about Market Hill and about the Round Top experience, in general. “I’m this weird-thinking guy. I’m not everybody’s person. I sit around, and I don’t know how to participate in ordinary conversation. But when I get to Round Top, there’s plenty of people with interesting thoughts. It’s so magical. It’s so wonderful to be there again. We spend three weeks with these people, twice a year, so that’s six weeks. If you put a bunch of cool people in the same place, a lot of spontaneous cool things will happen,” he says. 

Photo by Ashlee Nobel  A long console table also displays the burned finish technique Jake and Paul Michael perfected after some problem-solving.

Photo by Ashlee Nobel

A long console table also displays the burned finish technique Jake and Paul Michael perfected after some problem-solving.

“One of my favorite memories was meeting Ender Tasci of The Elephant Walk and talking about the concept for Market Hill. For years, I wanted to show my products at Round Top, but all – not most – all of the places to show were juried antiques shows. If you didn’t have antiques, you couldn’t come in. There wasn’t a place for me to show, so I had to invent my own place. Ender was a part of this. He has this keen insight, and he’ll cut to the chase real quick. He’ll say things that are piercingly accurate and pertinent – great fertilizer for thought. He is that guy to a lot of people, not just to me. He does that Instagram thing a lot. I can’t even spell Instagram,” he laughs. 

Paul may not be on Instagram a lot, but @PaulMichaelCompany and @Market_Hill_Round_Top are. Follow both accounts for updates on all of the happenings. Come meet Paul, Debbie, Jake and the whole family at Market Hill.