Updated: 7:01 p.m. Saturday, June 19, 2010 | Posted: 7:00 p.m. Saturday, June 19, 2010

Interior design studio brings style to Urbana

Store is the latest business to open around the downtown square

By Elaine Morris Roberts

Staff Writer

When Joni Kaplan took a job to help finance her husband’s graduate education about 15 years ago, she didn’t know she was starting down a path that would shape her own professional future.

On Thursday, June 24, Kaplan will open ben and me, an interior design studio and store at 18 Monument Square in Urbana.

“I started working at Laura Ashley in Richmond (Virginia) and people started asking me to design. Then, I had an opportunity to go back to school when we moved to Charlottesville and had the opportunity to work with my mentor — and the woman I think is the best designer in the world — Jan Roden who works with her daughter Christy Ford,” Kaplan said.

After working in design in Richmond, Atlanta and New Jersey, the former first-grade teacher went back to school at Mary Baldwin College while she worked with Roden.

Her personal style, she said, has been influenced by the different places she and her family have lived, but was honed during her time in Charlottesville where she spent six years building her client base.

When the Kaplans — Joni, husband Tom and son Ben, for whom the store is named — moved to Urbana, the notion of her own store grew into reality more quickly than they had originally planned.

“When we moved here (in July 2009), I thought a design business out of my home probably wouldn’t start off with a bang, so in February, Tom and I decided to take a walk downtown and see what square footage would cost. We were standing outside this space, called the Columbus number listed just to get a feel. The landlord happened to be sitting in his car right outside the store and jokingly said he couldn’t rent to anyone wearing a white baseball cap, which was what Tom happened to be wearing at the time,” she said.

The building where ben and me is located is owned by Mark Kerns, a Columbus-based attorney originally from Champaign County who retains an office in Urbana.

Within a week, the husband and wife team had created the business plan and signed a lease.

Tom is the Ness Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship at Wittenberg University; taking the job is what brought them to the area.

“It’s been a nice combination, the two of us,” she said. “Our strengths really balance with each other’s.”

The Kaplans were lucky in that only cosmetic changes were necessary to get the store ready to go.

“We actually didn’t have to do much. We replaced the carpet, painted, changed a few other details,” Joni said.

Tom served as the general contractor on the project, doing all the painting and laying the carpet.

“I was the labor. I played my part — I have no design decision-making authority,” he said light-heartedly.

Beyond the personal sense of accomplishment Tom has for his nearly completed project, he said he’s glad he’s been able to set an example for Ben — who is 15 and helped with some of the work — and instill in him the pride in accomplishing a goal.

After watching Joni’s success over the past years, Tom believes in her ability to take ben and me to that same level.

“She’s had a vision for the kind of store she’s wanted to open for a long time. When we moved to Urbana, we talked about giving it a shot in the next couple of years, then we decided, ‘Why wait?’ ...The store is pretty unique, which is great, but there’s also risk in that because you never know how many people are going to come into town and stop in. One thing Joni learned from her other retail experiences is to keep things fresh. You have to keep things interesting so people will keep coming back.

She knows how to pay attention to what the market wants and bring those kinds of things into her store,” he said.

Personal style and its inspiration

Inspiration can come from anywhere, something Joni Kaplan tries to instill in her customers.

“It could be a patining you like, a rug, even a pillow. You can start building a room around that one piece. Also take a look in your closet. Those are the colors you most often feel comfortable in and those will tell you if you’re a more neutral person or you lean toward bright colors.”

She has a bulletin board over her desk in the back room of the store that’s jam-packed with photos, art work, magazine clippings and other visual reminders of what inspires her.

Included are mementos from the Andover Hardware Store, run by her grandfather; a picture of her grandmother, whom she called “my huge inspiration”; a photo of Roden and her store where Kaplan used to work; a photo of Kaplan and Thom Filicia, the designer who gained national fame as part of the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” cast; artwork created by Ben “when he was a little guy” and magazine page with a picture of a favorite door knocker.

The style Kaplan brings to ben and me is what she describes as traditional with a kick.

“We have some really beautiful antique pieces and some traditional lines, but we move it into the present with some modern pieces. ...I like the idea of mixing antiques with new things. That way, things don’t get stale. ...I think for a lot of people, it starts to feel unimaginative to keep going back to one style. It’s not current,” she said.

At that moment, another voice chimed in from the back room.

“It’s boring,” Ben said, getting right to the point.

A philosophy also underpins Kaplan’s style. She wants every room she designs to be comfortable and welcoming, functional and beautiful.

“We’re all about using what you have. We’re kid-friendly, dog-friendly — We have dogs, cats and teenagers in our house. It can functional and still be pretty. I always say a thing is a thing and if it breaks, it breaks. Use things and enjoy them. If you have beautiful things that are in a closet, then what’s the point?”

Her inventory will include a mixture of items and price points so everyone can shop at ben and me.

“We have things that are $2 or $2,000 and everything in between. The nice part is that things are always changing, new things are always arriving. We’ve already started gathering for Christmas. It’s nice that you’ll come in and always see something new,” she said.

Good neighbors

The ben and me store joins a growing downtown Urbana, which now has a number of shops and restaurants surrounding the square.

Pat Thackery, owner of Cafe Paradiso at 13 Monument Square and Kaplan’s new neighbor, is excited to have another retail offering.

“The square is really coming together and we’ve got some first class shops here — downtown is really coming together...and ben and me will be a fabulous asset. We’re looking froward to working with them.”

The Kaplans painted the exterior of the building to create a more attractive facade and to create a more cohesive look with their new neighbors.

“We are trying very hard to respect the integrity of the other retailers and won’t carry the same things they do. We want people to be able to buy things in all of our shops — we want Urbana to become a destination,” Joni Kaplan said.

Even before the doors have opened, the Kaplans have received a response greater than expected.

“We’re really pleased at how it’s come together. This community has welcomed us in a way that’s been very nice. I’ve gotten to know so many new people and gotten to know some people I knew much better,” Tom said. “There’s so much energy in Urbana right now and so many great shops — there is such a strong sense of community here.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0371 or elroberts@coxohio.com.

ben and me

What: Grand opening

When: Thursday, June 24

Where: 18 Monument Square

Business hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Information: (937) 508-4258


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