Naturalist CEO has hospitality industry firmly in view

Naturalist Furniture
Naturalist Interiors is rolling out a new line of furniture geared for hotels. Image credit: Naturalist Interiors

Bringing a furniture design company into the hospitality market is never simple, but Kara Kelly, CEO of Hoboken, N.J.-based Naturalist Interiors, has experience that is making the company’s growth a little easier. 

At Johnson & Wales University, Kelly majored in business marketing with a focus on luxury retail market management, preparing for a career within the luxury industry. After graduation in 2011, she worked with a range of upscale retailers in management roles. While selling timepieces for Breitling in Miami two years ago, she met Serkan Yapicilar and Aytu Aksu, the co-owners of Flowerbox Wall Gardens, a vertical garden concept, and Naturalist, a wood- and clear-resin-based furniture line. Yapicilar, a design professional from Turkey, had been creating interiors in the U.S. for several years and was looking to expand the business into new markets. 

While the company was doing well, the team did not have sales experience and needed a sales director in order to grow. “I can take this business and I could do so much with it if you guys are willing to give me that opportunity,” she thought at the time. She moved to the New York area in 2017 and went from working with huge corporations to a growing startup. 

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“The first thing I saw was the opportunity to put [the two companies] under one roof and sell them as higher interior concepts,” she recalled of those early days. Over the ensuing months, Naturalist and Flowerbox began to formally merge, developing both vertical gardens and wooden furniture under the one brand name. “We use exactly the same product,” Kelly said. “We are the same people doing all the same things. It's just that we transitioned the name.” Some titles also transitioned: Kelly went from director of sales and business development to CEO, Yapicilar took the title of CEO/founder and Aksu has remained a silent partner.

Expansion Plans

Kara Kelly, CEO, Naturalist
Kara Kelly, CEO of Naturalist Interiors, helps
install Naturalist Wall Gardens. Photo credit:
Naturalist Interiors

While Naturalist has primarily targeted the residential market so far, Kelly thought the furniture pieces could do well in different segments. At the same time, she knew there were challenges involved in bringing the company’s furnishings to hotels “They need a little bit more care,” she said of the wooden pieces, “so hospitality gets challenging. But we have come up with ways to protect the resin [and] to protect the wood.” 

Kelly already had experience with hospitality, having worked for a time as a retail supervisor for the Loews Miami Beach Resort in Miami Beach, Fla., managing the entire retail department for the hotel and opening an additional store by the property’s pool. “It really helped me learn what guests are actually looking for when they come to these high-end hotels and what they actually value the most out of their experience,” she said. While service is at the top (“that’s a given”), the aesthetics of the property were right behind. “Spending time with the guests and also spending time with hotel management really gave me a lot of insight.” 

The company got a substantial boost when designer Barbara Carlson came by their booth at the ICFF show in South Florida. “She fell in love with a white credenza that we had on the floor,” Kelly recalled. Carlson was working on designing a Hilton in Fort Worth, Texas, and wanted the credenzas for the hotel’s reception area. “And then once her creative juices started flowing, she thought, ‘Could I use just the doors and put them on the wall as an art piece?’ And I was like, ‘Of course we can make it!’” Carlson commissioned two 12-foot-by-6-foot pieces for the hotel’s lobby.

As Naturalist expands its hospitality business, Kelly acknowledges that the transition has been “quite the change” from her days in luxury retail. “But sales is sales, and I carried over all of the experience I have from the luxury retail market and it just matched perfectly,” she said. “It's been a very easy transition to translate all of that experience into the furniture world.” 

Clicking with Clients

At BDNY in November, Naturalist will launch a new furniture collection for hotels, Root & Repose, as part of a collaboration with hospitality designer Beth Donner of Beth Donner Design. “She's got a lot of experience in hospitality with restaurants and hotels,” Kelly said. “She was really able to add in a lot of value on how we need to design the pieces to be most functional for a hotel space.” More than that, she added, working with Donner—who has designed Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses across the country as well as The Inn at Fox Hollow in Woodbury, N.Y., and the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas—also helped forge new connections for the Naturalist team. 

Logic in Logistics

“I take care of all of the sales by myself. I have an assistant that helps and then I have somebody that helps with administrative tasks. That allows Serkan to be completely [focused on] our production facility here in Hoboken, N.J., which is where he creates all of our wall gardens. It's where we assemble and ship all of our tables from ... We have at least three to four projects for wall gardens in production at all times. And then our production facility and our showroom are actually located in the same building. So it's really great that everything is centrally located. I run all the sales out of the showroom and then Serkan has a team over in the warehouse. But [because] we're in the same building, we're able to meet throughout the day. We're a small team. It helps keep us all close-knit and everybody on the same page.”

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