June 16, 2015
The heirs of a creative genius renew the energy of a treasured American company.
Disney without Walt, Apple without Steve, Sony without Morita-san: Companies created by charismatic geniuses face unique challenges as the founder exits the stage. So it’s instructive, even inspiring, to see how the heirs of Maya Romanoff have embraced and extended the Chicago-born artist’s formidable legacy since he passed away last year.
“I’m happy, lucky and grateful to be putting something back,” says Joyce Romanoff. Joyce joined the company in 1988 as a sales assistant. She became Maya’s third wife in 1998, eight years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and took over officially as head of the company in 2002. “Maya and I had a lot of wonderful years, and we had a lot of fun. I feel like he would want me to be doing what I’m doing.”
Maya Romanoff studied anthropology and art at Berkeley in the 1960s, and in his post-graduate travels in Africa and Europe discovered an interest in textile design. His first stroke of commercial genius converted Woodstock’s tie-dyed aesthetic into couture fashion, costuming (among other celebrities) rock stars including Roger Daltry and Elton John. In 1979, his company introduced its first handpainted wallcovering. After that, he and a team of artisans in a small Chicago factory began to wow the design world with one invention after another, using materials ranging from glass beads to gold leaf to create unusual surfaces now found in luxurious interiors around the world.
“If walls could sing, they would sing about Maya Romanoff and his groundbreaking innovations in wallcoverings,” says designer Catherine Shager. “The term wallcoverings seems far too commonplace to describe the mystique of Maya Romanoff’s creations.”
Given such a legacy, as well as the continuing involvement of four other family members in the business, the decision to rebrand the company as simply “Maya” might seem unexpected. “After my husband’s passing, the graphic designers working on the identity and even our own marketing people were afraid of changing the name,” Joyce says. “Maya loved his last name, but he also loved his first name. Dropping Romanoff has given people pause, and a reason to look at us again.”
Along with the re-brand came an updated, visually-rich website, designed to support online commerce and to be easily updated as collections change. Next step: Updating the company’s samples. At list prices of up to $50 a yard, it’s a considerable investment to make the material for 280,000 cards. “But we’ve got to have them,” Joyce says. “The photos on the website are so good that they make you want to touch something, to feel the beads, to see first-hand the shimmer of gold leaf, to follow the play of light.”
Maya is perhaps best known for a couple of signature creations. A browse of Houzz.com turns up dozens of homes showcasing its mother-of-pearl surfaces, distinguishing bedrooms and particularly bathrooms. Its “Bedazzled” line of glass-bead products is equally celebrated. But maintaining Maya’s “lawless” spirit means a continuing effort to find new ideas. Its summer 2015 introductions include additions to its wood-veneer, metallic, and fabric range, as well as vinyl-printed versions of its metallic patterns. “People are always interested in seeing what is the latest, greatest innovation,” says Joyce, adding the company has no shortage of ideas. “We have five years’ worth of product to get out.”
The rebranding has coincided with a noticeable upturn in the market, happily for all. Joyce sees a renewed appreciation in the market for the authenticity of hand-crafted materials, citing the flavor of this year’s Maison et Objets show in Paris. Investing in new Chicago and New York showrooms during the recession was a big bet that’s now paying off. Employment in the company’s Skokie, Ill., factory is up to 70 from as few as 40, sustaining the company’s commitment to made-in-America craftsmanship. “People are feeling good about being in the business again,” Joyce says. “It’s kind of a perfect moment.”
Joyce looks back on her own career development with high regard for Maya’s impact, both as spouse and as business mentor. “He was an unusual and unpredictable person,” she recalls. “He always said, don’t do what everyone else wants you to do — do what you think is right.” She laughs. “He wouldn’t have said that to me 20 years ago. It’s taken me twenty-five years to learn to be that kind of maverick. I never thought I would have a life like this.”
Joyce was interviewed by John Marcom, co-founder of Design Commerce Agency’s content strategy partner, Media BBQ.