Finding a profitable niche
October 15, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

If you don't believe a small, family-owned upholstery business can succeed in today's marketplace, you haven't heard of Cellura Designs Inc. This year marks the 60th anniversary for the Bedford Heights, Ohio, manufacturer of custom seating for the residential and contract markets.


Brothers Ray and Joseph Cellura and two partners started what was then called Western Furniture Corp. in Cleveland in 1947. The company manufactured upholstered seating products for local retail furniture stores. In 1967 the Celluras bought out their partners and in 1973 moved the business to its current location, a 25,000-square-foot plant with a 6,000-square-foot showroom.


Changing marketplace

When larger retailers moved into the Cleveland area and smaller retailers started going under, the company began selling to interior designers and architects exclusively. "Our product was always better than what (retailers) were purchasing and actually cost us more to produce," says Ron Cellura, president. "The products were more expensive, a little more design-oriented, and that was our focus."


Ron and his brother Ray, sons of Ray Sr., and John and Jim, sons of Joseph, are active in the business and together have more than 100 years of industry experience.


In the mid-1990s, the company changed its name to Cellura Designs Inc. "We were always an upscale, design-oriented company, but our name, graphics or trademark didn't reflect that," Cellura says. "The easiest thing to use, as far as copyrighting, was our last name, and that's why we went to it. And Cellura, being Italian, seemed to follow suit with designing furniture."


Products and customers

The company designs and manufactures seating, and sells occasional pieces it either sources or produces itself. For existing seating, it provides reupholstering; remodeling altering the look of a piece by changing, for example, the arms or base; and restoration.


The percentage split between residential and contract work is about 85/15. The difference between the two, Cellura says, is that there's usually a little fudge time with residential projects while contract jobs require tight time frames. Recent contract projects include a medical clinic, a health spa and a luxury box at Quicken Loans Arena, home of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers.


Cellura Designs can handle almost any request, but don't ask them to copy other designs. "People come to us with ideas," Cellura says. "We try to do our own version of what they want. We try to stay in our own product line and not duplicate things."


Most customers are located in Ohio. "We're a regional company, but we have accounts in areas where we used to have showrooms, such as Philadelphia and Washington D.C.," he says.


Cellura identifies three reasons why the company stands out in the marketplace. First is its location. "Most of the manufacturing is done in the South," he says. "There aren't a lot of manufacturers up north, so we're unique to our area."


Second is its size. "There's nobody like us as far as our scale," he says. "There are smaller upholsterers, but they're not really doing what we do."


Quick response

Third is its quick response time. "We can design a product, manufacture it, put it on our floor to test market and refine it, without much time or turnaround," Cellura says. "That's an advantage of being a small company."


Ron and Ray handle most of the design and outside sales work. They also contracted with architect John Malkowski to design the Signature Collection of upholstered seating, casegoods and occasional tables.


The Web site,, features a product catalog that serves as the starting point for ordering. "We adapt those designs or we take (the customer's) drawings or ideas and work out specific designs to their needs," Cellura says. "It's a process."


Ron creates scale drawings by hand. He's considering buying CAD software that will enable him to make quick modifications and convert drawings to patterns for production.


After the designer approves the drawings and pays a 50 percent deposit, the next step is for the customer to provide the fabric. Cellura Designs at one time had represented and sampled several fabric lines. When it moved to Bedford Heights, Kravet Fabrics approached the company about placing its fabric line in the showroom; Cellura Designs accepted. "This is a Kravet Fabrics regional showroom," Cellura says. "We man it, we service it, but in a sense it's a showroom for them. It attracts people to us and helps us to have a larger inventory of product to show." Cellura Designs also represents JAB fabrics.


Customer's own material

All fabrics used in the company's product are customer's own material (COM); about 25 percent is purchased on site from the Kravet and JAB collections. When the fabric arrives, the company writes up, processes and schedules the order. "If the fabric is readily available, our normal delivery is 10 weeks," Cellura says. "Custom items can take about 12 weeks."


The company manufactures frames using soft maple, double-dowelled and glued, with poplar in filler spots. Most raw materials are stocked. Except for Ridgid and DeWalt power tools, all the work is done using basic upholstery tools, such as tack hammers and staple guns.


Once the cushioning has been added to the frame, the piece is ready for a test fit. "Designers will bring in their clients, who will sit in a piece and request a firmer or softer filling," Cellura says. "Sometimes it holds up the process, but it's useful for the designer."


Any final adjustments are made and the upholstering is completed. When the designer pays the remaining 50 percent, Cellura Designs arranges for delivery.


Cellura Designs is striving to become more self-sufficient by manufacturing its smaller occasional pieces. "We've designed all kinds of things, but we've had other people make them," Cellura says. "We still design larger items for our designers, but we're going to take some of the smaller items and have a little better hand in doing them. We can key them to the job."


New employees often require training. "We try to take young people who have mechanical skills and either train them to do woodworking or to do upholstery," Cellura says. "If you break the process down, and they become proficient, their hands are good and they learn how to use the tools, you can train someone to do a decent job. It takes more supervision for us, but in the long run that's the way we find that our help works out the best."


Cross-trained upholsterers

Upholsterers are cross-trained, but most have a specialty. If they need to sew or cut, they do it, but they're more productive if they stick to what they do best. "If we can put the supplies they need to do the job in front of them," Cellura says, "that makes them more efficient."


Cellura says it's gratifying to take a design from concept to finished product. "We make things that are different," he says. "I think the guys who work here find some pride (in what they do) because it's more of an artistic process than just a job."


The biggest challenge is to grow the company, he says. Increasing health care and raw material costs, for example, require action if the company is to remain profitable. "You either have to cut expenses or grow," he says. "We have the capability of growing."


He expects to achieve growth by spreading the word about the company's capabilities and adding sales reps to outlying cities. "You can't grow in leaps and bounds, but we can try to grow slowly in our region," he adds. "That's our goal to expand our market share."

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About the author

George Lausch was a staff writer and editor for FDM and CabinetMaker magazines. He wrote feature and news stories for the magazines.