DC Metro Mom
Triumph Over Tragedy ~ The Story Behind Ekster Antiques
After becoming an instant fan of Ekster Antiques at the recent Luckett's Antique Fair, I decided I needed to learn more about this wildly successful business. Since so many of my favorite items were being sold out from under me, I quickly asked the owner, Caroline Verschoor, if she had any additional inventory. I was then told about the Ekster Antique Barn Sale, held on June 19 - 20, 2010. It was a wonderful day that included furniture, fun and an interview with one amazing lady.
I initially thought that the Ekster Antique Barn Sale would be a perfect story for my new "Design Bug" section. After interviewing Caroline for my series "Mission: Design", I quickly discovered her story transcends mere design tips and tricks.
Caroline shares her incredible pain of the loss of her child. She also shows that even from deep pain can come redemption and hope. Read more about this awe inspiring and incredible woman!
DC Metro Mom: What brought you to the DC Metro area?
Caroline: I first came to Washington D.C. in 1986. The Dutch Foreign Service (State Department) sent me to the United States. I worked for the Dutch Embassy in Washington D.C. for 4 years. At that point I had met my future husband and had decided to stay in the area. Unfortunately, the Dutch Government only offered two 2-year contracts. I had a choice, to move to another country or change employers. I joined the World Bank and later, the International Monetary Fund.
DC Metro Mom: With a successful career, what inspired you to start selling antiques?
Caroline: Whilst working at the International Monetary Fund, and now married to Jon-Paul Saunier, we had our first child. He was a beautiful little boy named Ewan. He was the love of our lives. We lived in an emerging neighborhood in DC in a huge loft at 4th Street and M Street. We had bought this ultra-cool place and decorated it with columns and huge paintings. Very avant-garde! On weekends I would drag my husband out to the country to search for "cool stuff" and I soon realized this is how I would like our children to grow up!
One weekend we ventured upon a speck of a town called Waterford. I begged my husband to move here! But the house prices were exorbitant and the commute was out of this world, so we settled for a rental in Leesburg. My husband agreed to the commute. Note Jon-Paul still makes the 100 mile round trip commute into Washington D.C.
Unfortunately, fate had a blow our way. Our little boy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor soon after his third birthday. For 10 months he fought as bravely as he could but after many chemotherapy sessions, surgeries and alternative treatments, Ewan succumbed and passed away on 9/19/1999. I still detest the number 9.
During those many days at the hospital and just occasionally coming back to "live" at home, I discovered the Old Lucketts Store. I remember so very well the one time I took Ewan to the store. He had fresh, raw scars on his bald head. I put him in a chair, just to go look around for a minute to find some distraction. The girls at the Old Lucketts Store, Amy in particular, later told me she always remembered that day. She had to go to her car and cry, it was just so sad.
Months later, when Ewan had died, I asked Suzanne, the owner of Old Lucketts Store, if she had a vendor space for me. I could not face going back to the place where I had worked. There were too many memories, Ewan's daycare, etc. At that point, I had given birth to our daughter Sofie whilst all this was going on.
And even though Suzanne had a waitlist from here to Tokyo, she gave me a chance! I have always loved the Old Lucketts Store for that reason! They took a chance with me and it worked out!
DC Metro Mom: Your fortitude and resilience are an inspiration. This goes well beyond any dialogue on design. I am in awe of the challenges that you and your family have overcome.
Caroline: Yes, incredible hardships came our way, and certainly I hurt on a daily basis for our son and what happened to him. But...you cannot get mired in grief and take away your other children's chance at a happy life. You have to move forward. Having created Ekster Antiques, I was able to do that.
I have to admit, when I found myself at an auction completely caught up in finding that "one special piece", it was a moment where I did not think of my son or the suffering that we experience as human beings. I could escape the notion of Pediatric Oncology! In a way it was a new addiction, an escape, a way to know I could still function with all this grief within me.
DC Metro Mom: So Ekster Antiques was your outlet, your emotional and physical therapy after Ewan's passing. Still, to start a store is a huge undertaking. Where did you find your first batch of items that were sold at Old Lucketts Store?
Caroline: After Ewan passed away, we took a trip to New Mexico to visit Jon-Paul's parents. During the trip my mother-in-law dragged me to my first auction. The auction was selling off the contents of Ted Turner's ranch that he shared with then wife Jane Fonda. I bought so many items that JP and his father had to go out to buy a trailer so we could drive it all home. JP claims those were the earliest roots of Ekster Antiques and Uniques.
The look has evolved over the years! I started selling things I had in my house as well as other local finds. Then I started purchasing items in my country, The Netherlands. I first filled a small container, then a bigger one and then a huge container! This being the early nineties, in one of the fastest growing countries, my things sold time and time again.
It gave me and my husband an opportunity to grow our business, which would not have been possible in today's economy. Thanks to the Old Lucketts Store and the economy at the time (unlimited credit), I got the platform to showcase my talents and build up a clientele and strong following.
Soon the Old Lucketts Store (a multi-dealer space) did not seem like the natural progression of things. I opened my own shop in Leesburg, VA. It was a huge success. People came out regularly to buy and order items. It was an incredible opportunity for me to follow a passion while creating a beautiful settings and selling a distinct look.
DC Metro Mom: Why do you think people gravitate toward Ekster Antiques? What are you doing that is different from other antique vendors in the area?
Caroline: I have a very loyal following of people that have stayed with me for many years. They have brought their friends who have turned into new customers. It's a certain look that I sell that resonates with consumers.
Ekster Antiques is not about big business or big profit. Pure, natural, reclaimed and recycled embodies Ekster Antiques. In fact, Ekster Antiques was the first in the U.S. to publish an old chair clad in refurbished feed sacks from Europe. I can prove it! And now everyone is doing it including large retail chains like Restoration hardware. I was doing that look ten years ago!
I have never been about money. I live in a beautiful house, yes, but that's because I have always decorated the houses I lived in to look like a million dollars. I love when people can see the true potential of a home.
Funny story, one day I was at a local antique event. I had, as usual, saved up all my best things for this show. I brought my own tent. My husband and I worked all night to set it up just the way I wanted it to look. Did I mention how wonderful he is?
The day of the show, a number of people came by and were just fawning over the space. One older man stood in front of the tent and commented "This is so good; I would like to move in". I thought it was very sweet. Soon after another person came in and said "You DO know who that was, no?" It was the famous Master American Artist Mr. Cy Twombly. I had always admired his work. It was my biggest compliment ever!
DC Metro Mom: How fun! You are beyond popular at local antique events. I can attest to the fact that you were the most popular vendor at the most recent Lucketts Antique Fair. Where do you procure your amazing inventory?
Caroline: I basically get things from everywhere. I have found items at flea markets in Southern Virginia, Old Lucketts Store, Amishville, Amsterdam, New York City, Madrid and the list goes on.
DC Metro Mom: What type of items do you carry? Is there a design aesthetic that you gravitate toward?
Caroline: I like the European aesthetic. I especially gravitate toward the Scandinavian clean style, but I have a style all my own, as everyone has. One hard and fast rule, I do not like clutter. I get rid of it in a heart beat in my own home and even though I sell "small items" I lean more toward "big statement" pieces.
Another thing, I really enjoy the way the right combination of "new antiques" or "antique design" pieces still work! That is something I saw early on in my life in The Netherlands and it has always stuck with me. When you have too many "true antiques" the look can become weighty and oppressive. At the same time, if you have too many Modernist pieces you run the risk of looking sterile and cold. I think the right combination works and when it is right for you, you will know it.
For me, I have achieved the perfect medium, an old house with a modern feel to it. There is lots of land for our children to enjoy. You will find space, nature, barns and outbuildings for me to showcase my "finds" at barn sales.
DC Metro Mom: So after many years of local shops in Leesburg you will now be shifting to a monthly barn sale in Hamilton, VA. Why the change?
Caroline: I will now have barn sales only, versus an expensive, time-consuming shop. My barn and property are an idyllic setting for what I believe is "the perfect life".
DC Metro Mom: I can't thank you enough for spending time with me. Last question, how did you select the name of your signature business?
Caroline: In fact, Ekster stands for my son initials "EKS" and Ster (the Dutch word for Star) and Ekster itself, the Dutch name for Magpie. The Magpie is a bird that is known for collecting shiny objects and making a pretty home to attract a mate (they mate for life by the way). The name paid homage to Ewan and has deep meaning for me.
I think in those early days, after Ewan's death, he stayed with me and guided me. Starting Ekster Antiques was part of that journey. I wish to believe it was Ewan's way of making sure his mommy would be alright!
Note: Inspired by Ewan's battle, Caroline started a website http://www.ewanthebrave.com/.
Caroline currently lives in Hamilton, VA with her husband Jon-Paul Saunier and her daughters Sofie Saunier (11) and Gwenael Saunier (8).