We're the original Picker Sisters," Nora Kuhlmann-Lasky says over iced tea in the courtyard of a coffee shop. Kuhlmann-Lasky and her stylish cohorts Melanie Fischmann and Suzie Allain are referring to the Lifetime TV series in which two best friends and interior designers travel the country for great finds. Driven by a similar passion, Kuhlmann-Lasky, Fischmann and Allain joined forces earlier this year to open Caravan inside Agora on Magazine Street.
"We were hanging out and realized we all had this shared passion," Allain says. "Each person had thought about taking that collecting passion to the next level of sales, and once we were all together, it fueled that. It's ... a lot of fun."
"It's a great avenue for our creativity," Fischmann adds. "It's shopping without the guilt."
All three friends describe their love for art and design as an addiction with a hereditary component that's been fine-tuned by their surroundings, education and experiences. A part-time nurse and Minnesota native, Kuhlmann-Lasky was raised in homes renovated by her father, who had an affinity for architecture, and her mother, an interior designer. Thibodaux native Fischmann, whose father is a master carpenter and whose mother had an interiors shop, honed her visual instincts as a classically trained dancer, a fine arts student and later as an art dealer. New Orleans native Allain has worked as a designer for 20 years, holds a degree in interior design and has shown her paintings in local galleries. All three women have children attending Isidore Newman School, where Kuhlmann-Lasky and Fischmann are now in their second year chairing Garage-a-Rama, the school's garage sale fundraiser.
But the friends' differences are just as crucial to their business's success as their commonalities. Though all relish the challenge of reworking vintage treasures, each has a unique approach. Kuhlmann-Lasky favors strong colors with a hip, urban sensibility and a hint of humor. Fischmann leans toward time-honored antiques juxtaposed with glamorous 20th century design ranging from Hollywood Regency to '70s Moderne. Allain interprets traditional ideas and bold colors with a bohemian twist. "I allow myself that freedom, but my clients are a different story," Allain says. "I strive to cultivate their own individual style."
When buying for Caravan, the friends have one rule of thumb: Each looks for unusual things she would put in her own home. It's proved to be a winning formula: Designers, locals, tourists and big-budget movies and videos have snapped up merchandise. "There have been some things that have caused one or more of us to raise an eyebrow," Fischmann says. "But it always sells," all three say in spontaneous unison.
"I bought this goat," Kuhlmann-Lasky says. "It must have been part of a nativity scene. I just couldn't walk away from it. It sold after just a few days."
The goods are displayed in a way that simulates an inviting living space. Agora customers browsing through the eclectic mix of furniture, art and other decorative wares frequently sit and relax in the Caravan booth. For a time, one businessman with a nearby office visited daily to enjoy the ambience. "We're always bringing things back and forth with the mandate of keeping it fresh," Allain says. "We like to show people how they can use the pieces." Customers have responded by buying more than one piece at a time so they can repeat the effect for themselves.
To keep Caravan stocked with unique items, the business partners attend auctions, estate sales, flea markets, tag sales and design centers in and out of state and cultivate a closely guarded list of vendors. When auction bidding gets hot and an anonymous phone caller scoops a purchase coveted by the designing trifecta, they share a joke: "We always say the phone bidder is Kelly Wearstler," Kuhlmann-Lasky says, referencing the world-famous designer.
"We're sad when something gets away," Fischmann adds. "But not for long. We know something spectacular is out there waiting for us to claim it."