After spending their earliest years providing iconic set pieces for Broadway, Newel has developed one of the largest collections of decorative and fine arts in the world. For over 80 years, the New York-based business has been a go-to resource for in-the-know collectors and designers alike, with patrons shopping thousands of exceptional pieces dating from the 17th century through the present day. And if you’ve ever seen shows ranging from Saturday Night Live to Sex and the City to Succession, you’ve seen Newel’s work in action.
We spoke with Newel CEO Jake Baer about his company’s evolution and what it meant to take over a legendary family business as a young chief executive. See what he had to say about sourcing online, promoting up-and-coming designers, and what the future holds for millennials in the vintage and antiques world.
Newel has been around for almost 80 years and you’ve kept it a family business. Why is it so important to pass the company from generation to generation?
If you were to ask my father what he considers his biggest career achievement, he would tell you that he’s most proud to have two of his children represent the fourth generation of Newel. This is quite the accomplishment, as statistically over 98% of family businesses never make it past the third generation. It’s important to keep Newel a family business because there is a significant sense of shared history, vision, and trust in a family business that is simply impossible to replicate with non-family members.
What was it like for you growing up in a family business? When did you start working at Newel?
As a child, my dad would bring me and my siblings to the showroom where we would play hide and seek throughout the warehouse. I remember being curious about every object and creating stories about their past in my head. I am very appreciative to have been immersed in the history of antiques at such a young age.
I got my first taste of working at Newel during my summer vacation freshman year of college. I spent that time working. That summer I got down and dirty working as a carpenter’s assistant and learned how to refinish and repurpose pieces. That job set the stage for my love of antiques and appreciation for quality craftsmanship.
Who did you work with to learn the business?
I was able to cultivate an understanding of the business by working with various employees on a wide array of projects. My first few summers I worked with the warehouse employees, learning how to source items and pack orders. Since most of our items are one-of-a-kind, there is a certain skill level and learning curve that needs to be mastered in order to ensure orders are delivered in the same condition in which they left.
I was able to learn more of the business and management side of the company by shadowing and listening to my dad walk around with interior designers and helping our rental specialist, Richard, write up orders for TV shows and movies.
What sort of challenges have you faced being a young CEO?
Compared to an older, more seasoned CEO, the primary challenge I encountered was making and justifying executive decisions. Since the growth of Newel relies on maintaining a successful business model with important choices, I often turn to my team members to assist. This aspect of the business created a steep learning curve right off the bat. As I reflect on this core challenge, I am proud of my personal growth in terms of confidence in making difficult decisions, yet my experience also solidifies the importance of having a strong team to lean on for support.
What has been the most memorable moment in your career?
My biggest accomplishment was creating Newel Props. The entertainment industry and the retail industry are two very different businesses and I felt that in order for Newel to succeed, the rental business needed its own identity. Creating Newel Props was an exercise in creating a completely new company with a new name, logo, and website. Separating the renting from the selling side has enabled both components of the company to flourish.
Tell us more about that — how did the company come to focus on providing props for Broadway, movies and TV shows, and also stay a major player in decorative arts and antiques?
Newel was founded in 1939 by my great grandfather Meyer Newman as a Broadway-prop rental company. Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, Newel catered strictly to the entertainment industry and developed a reputation as a well-known prop shop. My great-grandfather decided to open Newel to the public after increasing pressure from various interior designers to sell his one-of-a-kind items. Since then, the Newel Company has evolved into those two branches I mentioned: a prop house for the entertainment industry on one side, and a major retailer in decorative arts and antiques on the other.
You have in-person showrooms and galleries, but have also been selling steadily online since 1998. How is technology helping your business, especially now?
Technology has revolutionized the way our business works, especially now that we are in the midst of a nationwide pandemic and shutdown. Given the current social distancing guidelines, things today are not business as usual. Having an online presence has been instrumental in allowing us to reach new consumers and social media has enabled us to stay connected to our customers and the interior design community. Additionally, since all of our employees are working from home, we have had to rely on technology and various cloud-based programs, such as Google Hangouts and Asana, to communicate and work together effectively.
Newel boasts a really large collection, both online and offline. How do you decide which pieces to feature online?
Since Newel entered the digital world in 1998, it has been our mission to ensure that all of our 30,000+ items are available both online and offline. Back in 1998, we were the first antiques dealer to disclose descriptions, images, measurements, and prices on the web. In 2000, Forbes listed Newel.com in their “Best of the Web” series. It is crucial for our online store to accurately reflect our physical inventory collection, and we are fortunate and lucky to have an amazing group of people who work hard at photographing, cataloging, and uploading new items in a timely manner.
What are your top three favorite pieces currently for sale in your Chairish shop?
What kinds of pieces is your team currently sourcing?
We are always trying to grow our 30,000+ inventory collection. At Newel, our #1 priority is quality. With that being said, when sourcing new items we are less concerned about specific styles or periods, but rather focused on the quality of the piece and making sure they live up to our standards.
What have you been doing with up-and-coming interior designers?
Due to current Covid restrictions, we have had to rely on our blog and social media to maintain our relationships with interior designers. We have a weekly interview series where we spotlight interior designers and showcase some of their favorite projects. With so many people spending the majority of time at home (and on Instagram), we wanted to use this time to highlight industry professionals as a way to bring the community closer together.
What are you looking forward to next for the design industry?
I am looking forward to seeing more eclectic designs and interiors, especially by my fellow millennials. I am a big proponent of blending different styles together and I am excited to see more and more people begin to mix modern and antique pieces throughout their homes.
Lastly, what do you love most about Newel?
There are many things I love most about Newel. First and foremost, what I love most is the people. Newel would not be the company it is today without my amazing team of hardworking, visionary, and supportive employees. They are the reason I look forward to coming to work every day and I can’t wait to see everyone again once we are able to safely reunite.
In addition to our incredible staff, I love how unique and unparalleled our inventory collection is. Every time I walk up and down the aisles of our warehouse, I am constantly blown away by the quality and variety of furnishings and decor we have amassed over the years.
All images courtesy of Newel