Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared in Walter magazine (waltermagazine.com).
It takes a visionary to dream up things that don’t exist and make them real. It takes courage to believe in the unlikely, invest in it fully, and make it your life. And it takes love, faith and fortitude to do it as a team. But Beth and Chris Collier of Washington, N.C., do all of that with the same refined grace they bring to design. Together they have created an avant-garde furniture company in the unlikeliest of places, turned a haunted old hospital into an elegant home, and done it all while raising two boys and remaining happily wed.
The Colliers live and work in the pretty, historic town of Washington (sometimes known as “Little Washington,” incorporated in 1782; population about 10,000), which sits on the bank of the Pamlico River. The town’s inland coastal location has the breeze and spirit of the seaside, and its historic district boasts picket-fenced restored colonials and Victorians. The Colliers don’t live in one of those. Instead, they’ve made a home and workplace in a once-abandoned, 10,000-square-foot hospital, built in 1907. The Georgian pile is a place with significance for both of their families. Chris’ grandfather and great-grandfather were doctors here, and Beth’s grandmother lived here when it later served as a nursing home. Tayloe Hospital was eventually shuttered in the mid-’90s, and stood empty for more than 10 years.
When the Colliers came upon it in 2004, they were not concerned about the building’s ramshackle condition or the detritus left behind – beds, wheelchairs, even slippers. “We jumped in feet-first,” Chris says. It took the two of them a year and a half – and a good bit of their own elbow grease – but they turned the building into a remarkable place to work and live. The hospital’s third floor operating room became an airy studio to design, make and finish furniture. The second floor – which once housed patients, a delivery room and a nurses’ station – became home.
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Today, a giant, creaky, original elevator moves newly finished furniture from the Colliers’ top-floor studio to their ground floor for shipping. To keep the ancient lift’s parts in working order, the couple relies on the 84-year-old repairman who first worked on the thing when its cargo was patients on gurneys, not dining chairs on pallets.
A friendly ghost
The Colliers’ work is clearly influenced by the history of their surroundings, and by the spirits that move them. Sometimes literally. They have seen a ghost more than once, and felt him, too. They expect he may once have been a cheeky doctor – possibly even a relation? – because he’s apparently fond of giving women an occasional goosey squeeze. A plaque with the name of Chris Collier’s grandfather – Dr. J. B. Hawes – sits propped on a sink, providing a possible clue.
But it’s the spirit of nature that originally inspired the couple’s joint designs. The first piece they designed together, a gingko-leaf-shaped sconce, was sparked in 2010 by the tree outside their window. The curvy, distinct shape of its leaves also found its way into other pieces, and has become something of an emblem for the vanCollier brand (which incorporates Beth’s maiden name of van Dorp). The tree’s budding branches are now showing up in chandeliers and table legs.
Other elements from the couple’s surroundings also play a role: Tobacco sticks Chris amassed from dismantled local tobacco barns have become recognizable vanCollier design elements, incorporated in headboards and light fixtures.
Designing together was a natural evolution, they say. The two have always worked in art and design in some fashion – Chris as an antiques dealer, Beth an interior designer and museum curator. At first, their creations were custom items for Beth’s interior design clients.
But after Betty Nelson (of Eatman’s Carpets and Interiors, her family’s Raleigh business) began selling some of their pieces in her store, vanCollier’s popularity took off more broadly.
“What they do is made in North Carolina, and it’s different,” Nelson says, “… so unique and beautiful.”
Nelson says she has long considered Beth “one of the most talented people I know,” with a knack for “taking something that’s kind of out-there and incorporating it into a traditional home.”
Now the brand appears poised for even bigger things: A new line the couple just designed for the major interior design company Kravet hit the market earlier this year. They are working with several furniture designers on a book that that will be published in October.
Soon, furniture inspired by one Little Washington gingko tree and two creative souls will be making its way around the world.
Liza Roberts is editor and general manager of Walter magazine.
These Triangle stores carry vanCollier design products:
▪ Eatman’s Carpet and Interiors, 8101 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, 919-782-6010, eatmansinc.com
▪ South at Meadowmont Village, 107 Meadowmont Village Circle, Chapel Hill, 919-240-5475, souththeshop.com
This story originally appeared in Walter magazine, which celebrates Raleigh’s art, food, music, local businesses, people and culture. It is published 10 times a year. To subscribe, go to waltermagazine.com/subscribe/.