October 12, 2012
Text by Maria LaPiana
It’s hard to describe what we do,” says Mary Little, standing in her sewing room, her head tilted a bit to one side. “It’s not really upholstery.” She pauses, studying the pictures pinned to an inspiration board on the wall. Finally: “We create soft, functional, sculptural forms.” Then she laughs and adds, “No, that’s not quite it.”
The modern furnishings that Little makes with her husband and business partner, Peter Wheeler, are perhaps more art than furniture—but they’re exceedingly comfortable, too. They’ve been called organic, primordial, whimsical and opulent—and have won accolades; bius (pronounced “by us”) furniture is found in private collections throughout North America and Europe, and in museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Behind the scenes, Little and Wheeler couldn’t be more unassuming. They moved from London to San Francisco in 2001, then (finding the design aesthetic there out of sync with their own) to Connecticut seven years ago. Working out of their home, a small, brown cape in a modest North Haven neighborhood, they fabricate their furniture themselves, stepping over ottomans on the way to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. A well-worn worktable sits in the living room alongside a wildly imaginative asymmetrical chair Little made in art school (there are only two others like it; they are in museums). Her workroom and office are on the second floor. The neighbors are a bit bemused by it all.
On a late summer morning, Little is settled into a chunky porch chair in her leafy backyard, legs to one side, an arm draped over the back (her favorite way to sit). A slight woman who keeps her graying hair cropped and wears no makeup, she’s dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, jeans and sensible black shoes. She’s quick to note an irony that’s hard to miss. “I present myself as masculine,” she says, “but there is a decidedly feminine side to my work. It’s flamboyant and curvaceous.”
Little and Wheeler met some thirty years ago in the UK; both shared a love of art, a fascination with furniture as art, and after a while, a fascination with each other. Married now for twenty years, the couple’s collaboration was gradual at first. Simpatico in many ways—they have the same aesthetic, work ethic and style of problem solving—over time they’ve discovered that their unique talents dovetail perfectly.
Little is the visionary (although she hastens to add that her partner is a very good editor) and Wheeler is the technical guru. She makes sketches while he perfects mechanical drawings. She’s the face of the company, and he runs the business side.
Little’s design process always begins with an interview. “There’s a lot I need to know,” she says. “I measure clients, ask how they like to sit, whether they put their feet up, how high an arm they want. I ask where the chair will be placed, what else will be near it—including windows—and whether it will be viewed from more than one angle.”
Depending on the complexity of a project, sketches may evolve into scale models, then mockups. Little works with muslin toiles at first, while construction drawings are finessed. Some work is farmed out (any visible wood is crafted by area cabinetmakers), then the piece is assembled onsite. “Sometimes a piece is 98 percent there, but we know intuitively when it’s not right,” says Wheeler. “So we stop, step back, think it over.” Finally, Little “dresses” the piece with fabric (her favorite is felted wool), folding, fussing and tweaking it to her specifications.
Little believes that furniture should be “warm and approachable,” and until recently, strictly custom. But she’s blazing new territory. She’s currently developing designs for a chair, bench and ottoman that will be available to order. A few select ottomans are already offered in her online store, www.biusboutique.com.
Although they loved the Bay Area, the couple feels at home in New England. “The architecture and design scene is more minimal and straight-edged on the West Coast, more galvanized steel, more bolts,” says Little. Here, she finds her clients more focused on indoor spaces, more willing to surround themselves with expressive pieces. She says they seem to get it.
One look at her seductively soft and simple work, and you can see why.