Sarah Reiss has been a fixture at Flea Style shows for years. Her irreverent watercolor prints and cards, quirky jewelry and appliqué clothing is always a hit with our guests. But Sarah says she’s always had a hard time describing what she does, mostly because she lets her business evolve with each new idea. Her company, R&R Designworks, started as a custom, artistic furniture maker working in reclaimed wood and welded steel, but today it’s much more.
“I think you could best call me an eclecticism,” she says. “I do a bit of everything, and except for welding, it’s all self-taught. If something catches my fancy, I figure out how it works and run at it until I get it right. I think the constant in every piece I make, whether it’s a custom order or something I just have an idea for, is that it’s new every time.”
Sarah says she’s always felt uncomfortable calling herself a professional artist, although that’s what she is. Her father was a professional artist, but Sarah didn’t find her medium until she was in her 40s. “In some ways it still feels new to me,” she says, “but when I step back and look at the big picture, I see that I’ve been making things for people my whole life. Being able to do so as a business is like winning the nonconformists’ lottery every single day.”
Sarah lives with her husband, Karl, and their two dogs: Sheba, a kuvasz and former foster from Paws in the City, and Henry, another foster-fail who arrived to Sarah and Karl on the arm of Jay Jerrier of Cane Rosso Rescue. Their North Dallas home is a midcentury space they bought in 2011, tore apart with their own hands and put back together — one nail, one board, one brushstroke at a time — as their very own.
What first attracted you to the house?
This house was the 32nd house we saw. What had started off as casual looking had evolved into a full-on quest. I was resolved that if we were going to purchase something, we couldn’t settle for anything less than this pipe dream of quirky potential that I held in my gut. It had to have that special combination of lots of natural light mixed with a sense of complete disaster. And it had to be a house that we could completely tear apart and put back together as our own.
We had driven by the house months before, when it was first on the market, at which time I wistfully pointed out to Karl that this was the kind of house I’d always dreamed of living in. That was before we pulled up the price on our real estate app, saw the price and realized that this particular dream had no earthly potential for coming true. Flash forward several months when we happened to drive past again on the way to a friend’s house. I said to Karl, “Oh look, our dream house is still for sale.” I pulled up the listing again and saw that the price had dropped by almost a third.
While we hyperventilated and waited for our real estate agent to drop what he was doing and let us in, we peeked through the back gate and saw exactly what we’d been searching for: the midcentury pool, mature trees, skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows — everything slightly dated and charmingly shabby. I looked at Karl and said, “Oh my god! This is our house.” By the time our agent arrived 10 minutes later, it was a done deal. I remember he said, “Don’t you want to see the inside first,” and I thought, “At this point, it doesn’t even matter.”
The inside, which was a soul-deadening mixture of 1980s black lacquer and olive green sponge-painting, didn’t disappoint. The fact there were scarcely words to express the ugliness filled us with glee, and we ran from room to room laughing and devising solutions. But the real nail in the golden coffin was the master suite, which we imagine had, at one time, been a den or a collection of smaller bedrooms. The far side of the room, which sat at the back of the house, was flanked with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the pool and flower beds. No matter how ugly the wall color, the fixtures or the layers of linoleum, a beautiful view will trump it every single time.
You did a lot of renovations. What were some of the biggest changes?
The easier question to answer would be What didn’t change? We removed walls, replaced flooring, tore down layers and layers of wallpaper, demolished the kitchen down to the studs, removed ceilings and extraneous build-outs. We built bookshelves and a banquette, installed a reclaimed wood wall, reclaimed oak herringbone floors, built an entirely new kitchen, installed racks in the garage for my wood storage, transformed the former pool house into my 1,000-square-foot workshop and studio, built furniture and, of course, painted, painted, painted. And we did every stitch of it — all the demolition, design and rebuilding — ourselves with the exception of two things: the installation of a 16-foot, load-bearing beam where the kitchen wall used to be and running new electrical lines. I know my limits.
My home is very much my test-kitchen. Almost every one of the wall treatments and furniture designs I’ve created for clients I’ve tried out here first, on these walls. Needless to say my husband is about as far on the go-with-the-flow spectrum as you can get.
What was your favorite change?
The guest bedroom has seen a lot of different styles, but I have to say that its current iteration, which I completed last August on the eve of my oldest girlfriend’s arrival for a 20-year reunion, is one of my favorite rooms I’ve ever put together. The combination of lagoon-blue walls, a red Otomi headboard I made when we first moved to town, bed linens that I nabbed at an estate sale, side tables and bedside lighting that I built for the space and, of course, the 36-by-48-inch art piece that changes depending on the guest. Currently it contains the words from my most popular print: “Never apologize for your slutty 20s.”
What seemed like a “small” change but made a huge difference in your experience of the house?
Changing the art scape on the fireplace. For a long time, we had a one of my favorite prints by another artist hanging there, but when I took up weaving last summer, a friend encouraged me to hang the large piece I was working on, as well as a couple of decorative animal skulls I’d just completed, over the fireplace. I’ve historically been reluctant to hang my own artwork in our home. It feels self-congratulatory in a way that makes me uncomfortable. But I decided to take my friend’s advice and hang the weaving and the skulls. I’m very critical of anything I make, but I have to say I’m pretty proud of how all three of those pieces turned out, and my friend was right, the texture, color and unexpected juxtaposition of the grouping really does work in that spot. Plus, as a bonus, it’s given me an opportunity to take joy in something I’ve created. It makes me remarkably happy now.
What does “home” mean to you?
Karl. He and I have been so nomadic in the course of our marriage. We’ve lived in five states in the last 18 years, so developing a sense of stability or community has been hard. You know, there’s a statistic that states that, if you’re over the age of 35, it takes three years to make real friends when you move to a new city and five years to really feel like you live there. Because our stays in other cities have been just shy of those parameters, we’ve tended to rely on each other for a sense of groundedness. The bottom line for me is that wherever Karl is, that’s my home.
Describe your home style in three words.
Boho, eclectic, imperfect.
Favorite thing about your house?
I’m really torn on this one because the pool and the studio are pretty much equal in that regard. Being able to immerse myself in water is one of my great corporeal joys. Especially with the Texas heat, the luxury of a private pool is about as delicious as it gets. But having my own, functional studio space on property is beyond a dream for an introvert like me. I’ve worked for years to be able to outfit my workspace with all of the equipment I could possibly need to create anything I can dream up. And to be able to walk inside for lunch, or all-important cuddle time with my pups… well, it doesn’t get any better than that!
Favorite room in the house?
Master bedroom. It’s big and bright and makes every day feel as if I’m waking up at a luxury resort.
Favorite thing in that room?
So, when I said that the master suite was the clincher in our decision to buy the house, what I left out was that attached to the master was another bedroom that looks out over the side yard and which may have served as a nursery in years past. I immediately repurposed it as a closet, and in the course of a weekend I covered one entire wall in cedar planks, then built a hanging clothes system that makes the room feel like a boutique. My friend Eric calls it the Star Chamber. The irony is that, thanks to the filthy nature of the work I do, I really wear only a handful of destroyed shorts, jeans and T-shirts, and since I tend to be a workaholic, I don’t really have the opportunity to get prettied-up very often. But having this beautiful space reminds me that all work and no play makes for a pretty dreary life. So when I do get dressed to go out, I tend to have a lot of fun with it.
What’s the most surprising thing we’d find in your space?
A gloss black urinal in its own private alcove, complete with a porthole. The house came with it, and it’s one of the few truly bizarre things that we have no interest in removing.
You have your studio in your home. Where is it and how big is it?
The studio occupies what was originally a very generous pool house, complete with kitchen, bathroom and full Finnish sauna (another quirky surprise). It’s such a delightful place to work because the entire front of it overlooking the pool is glass.
What do you do there?
So many things. When I started R&R Designworks, I was focusing on making one-of-a-kind, handmade tables from reclaimed wood and natural-edge slabs. That was the core of my business for several years. Then along came a batch of new clients — like LuluLemon and Cane Rosso — who asked me to create custom art pieces, furniture installations and custom walls for them. I started playing around more seriously with complex geometric designs and soon developed a line of tables and wall art in which I created larger patterns from small, interlocking pieces of wood, some of which produced optical illusions of depth or height. Around the same time, I discovered the magic of carving with a CNC router, and a whole new line of finely carved clocks and signs emerged.
At one point, in the midst of all these hard materials and angles, I found myself missing saturated colors and softer textures, so I took a six-month break from tables and worked on a line of sarcastic watercolor prints for all of the letters of the alphabet. This was also around the time that I discovered weaving. About this time last year, my friend Anastacia Quinones, then the chef at Kitchen LTO, encouraged me to throw my hat into the ring to be the next featured artist at Kitchen LTO. No one was more surprised than I when I won. And, just as that was wrapping up, Jay Jerrier asked me to create all of the tables for Zoli’s 2.0, a revival of the Oak Cliff favorite set to open in North Dallas in 2017.
I love working with Jay because no matter what nutty idea I come up with, he tells me to go with it. The restaurant is notoriously fun and irreverent, so I decided it would be fun to make each of the 28 tables a different design. The best way to keep myself on track, I decided, would be to set a challenge to myself on Facebook to create a table design a day until I was done. I knew that around day 18 I would most likely run completely creatively dry, and I was really intrigued to see what would come out of the void. The whole process was pretty extraordinary in that it forced me to generate new ideas every day and to show up even when I thought I had no new ideas left. The fact of the matter is that I like the designs I came up with at the end of the process, when it was painful and frustrating, far more than the ones I created in the beginning when it was easy. Who knows what I’ll be making next in the studio? My guess is that it’ll be something altogether different yet again.
What’s your experience of working from home?
I can’t imagine life any other way, which is to say that I really don’t think I’m suited to work with other human beings anymore. In fact, when I have nightmares it’s often about having to show up at an office every day. I’m just not an indoor cat. Most entrepreneurs will tell you that they work harder for themselves than they ever did for anyone else. I’d agree with that 100 percent. I work at least nine hours a day during the week and at least three or four hours every Saturday. And I love being alone. I can’t imagine trying to work this way if I were an extrovert. As an introvert, I have a very rich creative life inside my head.
FLEA STYLE SPEED ROUND
If you were a piece of furniture, what would you be?
A bed — a fluffy delicious bed by a wall of windows and with a featherbed on top and pillows for days. I do so much reading and almost all of my computer work sitting in bed, it’s like an extension of my body. And there must be sunbeams — lots and lots of sunbeams.
Dream house guest?
Mike Rowe. Can you imagine how much fun we’d have making stuff and talking about making stuff? And then I’d take breaks and just stare at him because, you know, he’s Mike Rowe.
Three people (living or dead) you’d like to have for a dinner party?
I’m an introvert. We hate dinner parties. But if it’s just an imaginary dinner party, I’d pick Ben Folds, Jeff Bridges, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Ben would sing us songs, Neil would blow everyone’s mind by just stating the facts of the universe, and Jeff, well, he would just be Jeff. But as insurance I’d invite my friend Anne Weil because she’s a pro at kickstarting conversations when things get awkward.
Mornings or nights?
Cook or clean up?
Netflix or Amazon Prime?
Oooh…I’m an Apple TV devotee, and I’m new to Amazon Prime, so I’ll have to plead out on that one until I have more data.
To learn more about Sarah and shop R&R Designworks, go to randrdesignworks.com.
A huge thank you to Allyson Hall Photography for capturing such beautiful images. We are so excited to share them with you here. Check her out for any of your portrait needs! www.allysonhallphotography.com.
Photos: Allyson Daniel Hall, Allyson Hall Photography