Eight years ago, Annie Modica was an art instructor at Bel Aire Elementary School in Tiburon.
Today, she runs a nationally recognized design studio with 12 employees, a roster of high-end clients and gross annual revenues approaching seven figures. "We knew that it would appeal to a lot of people," she said. "I think they have an appeal to a really wide range of people. She uses so many different types of patterns and images that they're evocative of different lifestyles. They can fit into many different home environments."
The keys to her success? Paper, scissors and glue.
"I've been self-trained," said Modica, a specialist in decoupage. "I was always kind of creative. I always had kind of a pent-up creative ability that seems to continue to come out."
Decoupage is the craft of cutting designs and images from paper, gluing them to surfaces and sealing them with lacquer or resin. The technique is used to produce decorative trays, stools and other home furnishings.
For Modica, it began as a hobby. At the time, she was going through a painful divorce and was seeking a distracting avocation and some extra money; coincidentally, a San Rafael business had donated a batch of paint to refurbish a Bel Aire classroom.
Modica went to pick up the paint, but it was far more than the school needed. Nonetheless, the donors insisted she haul off the entire pallet of paint cans.
"They put it on with a forklift and I was going around the corner and it spilled in the middle of the road," said Modica, 48, of Mill Valley.
The mess led police to cite Modica. But she took some of the extra paint home and found the hobby she was looking for - painting on glass, which led to her painting her first tray, which led to her first sale, which led to her painting another tray.
"It just grew from there," she said.
Now Modica and her crew, working out of a converted 2,000-square-foot Quonset hut in San Rafael's industrial Andersen Drive area, produce hundreds of pieces a year for retailers throughout the country, including Gump's and Saks Fifth Avenue. The studio's creations include butler-style trays, Lazy Susans, wastebaskets, tissue-box covers and stools.
Carmen Roberson, director of retail marketing for Gump's in San Francisco, said the most popular Annie Modica items are her trays. Modica designs a line of trays exclusively for Gump's, featuring images of San Francisco landmarks and old Gump's posters. Prices range from $175 to $295 for three sizes.
"They're beautiful, functional pieces," Roberson said. "You can actually use them, and they're very well made."
Modica's decoupage is also carried by smaller shops throughout the country. In Falmouth, Mass., Lisa Kerr carries Annie Modica trays and Lazy Susans at two stores she co-owns - Oolala, a high-end gift shop, and Oolala Home, an adjacent home furnishings store.
Kerr said she discovered Modica's work at the New York International Gift Fair and thought her work would be a good fit for the Cape Cod market, where some customers have contemporary, funky tastes and others are more traditional.
"It's gorgeous and it's unique," Carpenter said. "It's just so unique, and everybody knows she started out of her kitchen. She's almost like a superstar. You have no idea how many people say, 'Oh, I love Annie's stuff.'"
Maxine Lord, 78, of Tiburon was shopping for a gift for her daughter last Christmas and came upon a selection of Modica trays at Shorebirds. She bought one with a seashell theme in "beautiful colors."
(Note: Shorebirds has since closed. Please see the store locator to find Annie Modica products.
"I went, 'Oh, I gotta have that one,'" she said. "I don't have one yet, but I will. " They really are beautiful, there's no doubt about it."
The production process at Modica's studio is elaborate. The raw wooden furnishings are milled and assembled in large quantities at a nearby company, then stacked in Modica's warehouse on De Luca Place.
Modica designs the compositions herself, cutting images from old picture books and other sources. The compositions are then reproduced and attached to the furnishings by Modica's production workers.
"Every single work is different," said Susie Rivera, 25, of San Rafael, who joined the assembly staff five years ago. "You can use your imagination."
Each furnishing receives numerous layers of glue, paper, handpainting and, finally, resin sealant. The hand-mixed resin is applied is a special room called "the hole" - where the temperature is maintained at 83.7 degrees and the environment is kept free of hair and particles that might stick to the resin. The overall process takes about two weeks.
Modica says the thing that differentiates her decoupage from others is the attention to detail. Whereas many decoupage pieces are only sealed on the horizontal surfaces - the bottom of a tray or wastebasket, or the seat of a stool - Modica's staff meticulously applies resin to even the vertical surfaces.
The comprehensive resin finish enables to owner to clean or wash the entire object, Modica said.
"This is really what separates me from the rest of the pack," she said.
Modica estimated her company's gross annual revenues at about $800,000, and she hopes to reach $1 million this year.
Modica's sister, Cheryl Modica, recently opened a store called Modica Home in San Francisco.
"I've been very lucky," she said. "Most people like me have not been able to survive in the United States."