by RONA MANN
“There is no one I’d rather be than me.”
Quite a statement. For how many people have you ever met that might utter those words and truly mean them? So when you meet Michael Ciborowski, it doesn’t take long to realize you’ve met a true one-of-a-kind individual. And it fits, because his is a one-of-a-kind business: Oak & Velvet.
To understand the uniqueness of this concern, you first need to understand the uniqueness of the man behind it, and that goes back a number of years. Michael Ciborowski was raised in the boroughs of New York; and like many young men in their teen years, he sought a part time job to make some pocket money. He and a couple of buddies wound up working after school at an upholstery company where “we tore apart stuff and goofed around a lot.” But in a very short time Michael, unlike his friends, stopped goofing around and really began to take the art of upholstery seriously.
“Back then the older upholsterers working there didn’t want to teach you anything because they were afraid for their jobs.” But there was one older worker who spotted the teenager’s interest and took him in hand, teaching him the trade. It took two years, but when Michael finally covered his first chair, he was not only proud, but perhaps a bit cocky. With all the over-confidence and youthful pomposity of a teenager, Ciborowski took out an ad in the local Pennysaver, advertising himself as the “Moonlighting Upholsterer.” He was all of 19.
“But the phone in my mother’s house started to ring and pretty soon rang off the hook. I was going to Hofstra University at the time to be a teacher. My mother insisted I continue on this path and maybe do a little upholstering on the side. But who listens to their mother, especially a teenager?”
For a while Michael plied his trade in the family’s garage till he grew out of space and decided to rent a store. As he was hanging his shingle, “Sew Fine Upholstery,” a man happened by at the same time and asked for work, saying he was an experienced upholsterer. The young man hired him on the spot, which just may have been the aha moment in Ciborowski’s young career. “The experienced upholsterer watched me work, stitching quickly, cutting a few corners here and there, and finally said, ‘If you want me to stay here and work for you, I will show you the right way to do the job. You don’t have time to do it right, but do you have the time to do it twice?’ That became a turning point for me in only producing quality work, with no corners cut…ever. And to this day I still repeat this quote to my employees. It’s what this business is built on.”
Ciborowski’s employees are a small band of solidly trained craftsmen who make up Oak & Velvet, a Middletown enterprise unlike any other statewide because it is both showroom and factory in one. Open not just to the trade, but to discerning clients as well who want handcrafted pieces built to their specifications, exactly fitted to them and their lifestyles. These are customers who value upholstery fashioned by old fashioned methods. Methods that have no room for cutting corners…work that takes time to create because Oak & Velvet believes quality happens when you match a customer’s expectations.
That’s why Michael hired Maria Louise. Her formal title is “Creative Director,” but she is in her very bones and soul an artist. Maria is a professional painter who works by commission; and although she’s young, she is an old soul when it comes to that tradition of quality, the very cornerstone of Oak & Velvet.
When a client makes an appointment to visit Oak & Velvet they are first ushered upstairs into an expansive showroom within the Remington Rand building. Here they may view sofas, chairs, ottomans, and other one-of-a-kind handcrafted pieces. They may choose from a wide variety of fabric. And best of all, they themselves are measured! Maria carefully measures her customers so that the talented old world craftsmen downstairs can craft each piece to each individual physique for maximum comfort. No one else does that! While many furniture stores bandy the word “quality” about, it’s often just an advertising tag line. Not so at Oak & Velvet where quality is the only stock and trade Michael knows. It’s the way he was taught so many years ago, the way he teaches his young staff today, and the only way they know to custom craft or upholster furniture that lasts. “I teach them inside and out all I know.”
Maria, the creative brain in the mix, works from customers’ ideas. Some bring her a photo, some a sketch, but all have a vision. Maria makes it happen and loves what she does because as she says, “every day is different; it’s always fun to work here. But it’s Michael’s passion that fuels all of us.”
Ciborowski has made it as much fun to work at Oak & Velvet as it is to be a customer because he thoroughly and deeply values the employees he has worked so hard to train. “I have a vision not only for my company, but for the people who work here. We are small and will stay small; and I will do just about anything to keep every one of these people because they are highly trained craftsmen, not found anywhere else.” To that end, Michael is installing a giant flat screen TV and a bar so his employees may come in on Sundays to watch the World Series or football games with their families. He’s also built a company gym and is offering financial “perks” and health benefits, doing whatever it takes to let his people know they are valued and to keep these high-end furniture makers and upholsterers happy at Oak & Velvet.
But it doesn’t stop there. Michael is a good steward of his community; and like his company and his philosophy, his approach to community service is unique as well. This past April, Oak & Velvet had its formal “grand opening” in Middletown, even though Michael had served the community well for more than 20 years as “Sew Fine Upholstery.” But this was no ordinary grand opening. Instead, Ciborowski invited some 300 people to fill the showroom for a unique kind of fundraiser. There was a dance floor, a live band, four bartenders, plenty of food, and a goal of raising $10,000 for Huntington’s Disease, which they surpassed. The piece de resistance was raffling off a custom crafted sofa, chair, and ottoman with a retail value of $7500. The winner not only was now the recipient of magnificent handcrafted furniture, but was given the honor of selecting the charity for next year’s gala. “We will continue to hold this event every year on the last Saturday in April,” said Ciborowski. “And every year the winner of the raffle will pick the beneficiary for the following year. In 2017 it will be Spina Bifida. By doing this we are constantly paying it forward.”
So that’s the story. The story of one very unordinary young teenager who early on had instilled in him the passion for upholstery with a penchant for quality. It’s the story of the business he built – one perfectly handcrafted piece of furniture – and one flawlessly upholstered item at a time.
Oak & Velvet is really just an extension of Michael Ciborowski…not at all ordinary, but without a doubt, extraordinary.
Oak & Velvet is located at 180 Johnson Street, just a bit off the beaten path and off Main Street in Middletown. Look for the signs…or call ahead for a personal appointment