Third Generation Continues "Old World" Heritage

Mark and Marty Strazzabosco carry on the design and woodworking skills inherited from their grandfather and father.

By Hannah Miller

Designed by Mark and Marty's father, Martin Strazzabosco, this design in oak has proven so popular that it is used on the company's business cards.

 

Mark Strazzabosco didn't know his paternal grandfather, Enrico Strazzabosco, well. He was 6 when the founder of Casaragi Furniture Corp. died, too young to hang around the family-owned shop in Manhattan.

But traces of his adventurous forebear's architecturally-informed approach to furniture design show up in the custom cabinetry Mark and his brother Marty produce today at their shop, Martino & Sons, in Mount Mourne, NC.

Enrico Strazzabosco, family history goes, was trained as an architect but was forced to leave Italy as a young man after wounding a fellow countryman in a duel over a woman.

"It was leave the country or go to jail," Mark says. Enrico landed in New York in the early 1920s, where he turned his design talent from buildings to furniture, primarily ornate, traditional French and Italian styles. The pieces were made by his 30-employee firm, Casaragi Company, and sold to interior decorators and designers.

Framed as art by Mark, drawings of the furniture decorate the shop in the small North Carolina town where Mark and Marty turn out custom entertainment centers, home offices, specialty items and home libraries.

Some of their ideas and knowledge came down through their father, Martino Strazzabosco, who with an uncle took over the New York company at Enrico's death and ran it from the '60s into 1976.

Mark did hang around the shop during his father's tenure, he recalls, and later, when his father ended a Florida retirement to start Martino & Sons in Boca Raton in 1987, he and Marty, adults by then, joined him. Mark is now 44, Marty, 39.

Their father died in 1992. Three years later, Mark and Marty moved the company to Mount Mourne, 25 miles north of fast-growing Charlotte, where a photograph of their father at his drawing board hangs above Mark's drawing board.

"Proportion is what I learned from my dad," says Mark, who draws all the designs for the two-man shop, "to make my pieces look pleasing to the eye."

"That's why I always go to the customer's house to measure the space personally," he adds.

That sense of proportion prompted the Strazzaboscos to build an entertainment center 28 feet wide and 14 feet high for a high-ceiling, exposed-beam room. "That's what that room needed," Mark says. It holds a 70-inch TV.

They made the glass doors for the upper part eight feet high and raised the "break" point where bottom and top sections come together from the usual 30 inches to 42. "It would look ridiculous to have the break way down here," Mark says, illustrating.

Their father coached Mark and Marty on finishes, particularly glazing. "He showed me the Old World techniques on that," Mark says.

Their high-end, custom furniture is also known for other characteristics, they say, so much so that Floridians, on noticing a piece at a friend's house, would say, "Oh, that must be (by) Martino & Sons."

Those characteristics include "the use of a lot of mouldings to create architectural details," Mark says. A vertical element of a piece will be wrapped with both crown and base mouldings. "That requires a lot of mitering," Mark says.

They work in all styles and woods, but they do more traditional than contemporary styles, they say.

Stains are hand-applied, sanded, then re-applied and sealed, with the brothers "touching every square inch about seven times," they say. They use a Binks spray booth, DeVilbiss HVLP spray guns and M.L. Campbell sealers and lacquers.

They mix Sherwin-Williams stains to whatever shade a customer wants. "We will match the color to another piece of furniture, wallpaper, a piece of fabric, whatever," Mark says.

They want the finished product, they say, not only to look good, but also to feel good to the touch. "We sand all the time," Marty says. "You want it to have a nice feel when you are done. It's furniture."

Equipment used in the 5,000-square-foot shop includes a Powermatic 66 table saw, a Virutex edgebander, a Blum hinge boring and inserting machine, a Crouch edge sanding machine, an SCMI bandsaw and a Williams & Hussey moulding machine. The number of shop employees has fluctuated over the years, and now consists of the two brothers and an installer. Marty's wife, Teresa Strazzabosco, manages the office and is keeper of the company Web site, www.martinosons.com.

 

Created for an interior designer, this entertainment center features an Egyptian-feeling design by Mark, with olive-wood screens made in Morocco. A brightly lit blue interior shines through the screens at night. The compound angles of the tapered cabinet, which holds wine glasses, were a challenge, says Marty. The base, topped with black granite, holds stereo and ice-making equipment. The cabinet is birch with a custom fruitwood stain.

Mark designs and sells; Marty builds the cabinets. Together they do finishing. "We're both equally qualified to do any job," Mark says.

With only the two of them involved, they can control quality and, working as they do for individual homeowners, keep the work more personal, they say. "Everything we do is so one-of-a-kind," says Marty, "that it's hard to teach someone."

They prefer to work for individual homeowners rather than for contractors.

"When we show them what we can do, they get excited about it. It's a positive experience," Mark says.

Also, he says, when working for homeowners, "we never have any problem getting paid." Sales total a little under $500,000 yearly.

In order to increase income while remaining essentially a two-man shop, the Strazzaboscos also sell stock kitchen cabinets from four companies: Chris's Custom Cabinets in Bardstown, KY, StarMark in Sioux Falls, SD, Executive Kitchens in Simpsonville, SC, and Wellborn Forest Products in Alexander City, AL. They customize and install the cabinets. When they sell Chris's and StarMark lines, they also draw some of the designs.

The brothers chose their new town carefully after they decided Florida was not the place they wanted to raise their young families. He visited the Raleigh-Durham area, but was afraid its population was too transient to want to invest in the kind of high-end furniture Martino & Sons specializes in.

An entertainment center is not a necessity, he points out. "It's an investment, a high-ticket item, a luxury item," he says. The Strazzaboscos' work typically is in the $80- to $100-per-square-foot range.

Then he visited the Charlotte area, within easy driving distance of mountains, lakes and coast. "It seemed more the kind of place where people were going to settle down for a long time," he says. He didn't know at that time that nearby Lake Norman would become the booming, high-income residential area it has become.

"We got real lucky, I think," he says.

The Strazzaboscos brought work from Florida with them; in fact, seven such jobs sustained them at first. Customers told them, "Fine. Build it in North Carolina and bring it back when it's done," Marty says.

They have become known for welcoming unusual jobs some shops might shun as too time-consuming. "I think it's our lot in life," Mark laughs.

One example is an Egyptian-flavored entertainment center designed by Mark, featuring screens made in Morocco from olive wood. They are set in a tapered upper cabinet that has compound angles. "A real challenge," says Marty, who built it.

"It was sort of like building a boat where the bow angles in both directions," says Mark. A brightly lit blue background shines through the screens, which hide shelves for wine bottles. The base holds stereo and ice-making equipment.

Another entertainment center they built has a base that literally goes up a small flight of stairs. "That would be the definition of custom right there," Mark says. The spot in the living room where the owner wanted his TV just happened to be over the stairs.

The Strazzaboscos put shelves in the stairstep base. If the owners ever want to separate the upper part from the shelves and use it separately, they can, Mark says.

While they are building their own distinctive cabinetry, the Strazzabosco brothers haven't forgotten their grandfather's contributions to furniture-making. They are looking for a company interested in manufacturing some of the hundreds of designs he left behind, ranging from a marble table with a painted-wood, seashell-shaped base to a gilded dining-room server with slender, curved legs.

They are also introducing their children to the shop the same way their father introduced them. Mark's daughter, Nicole, 14, works on her own projects there, and Marty's daughter, Lauren, 9, made a toy hobbyhorse from boards her father let her nail together.

Mark's son Erik, 16, made himself an entertainment center and painted it black and blue. He's on the payroll as a sander. "He's good at that," his father says.

In Florida, the Strazzaboscos were known as "a going concern that had an excellent reputation," Mark says. Nearly all their business came through referral.

Five years after picking up stakes and moving to a spot where they knew no one, referrals have again become an important source of sales, Mark says.

People see their work and ask about it, he says. "We get referrals from people we haven't even met."

 

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