Woman With
a Mission ...

... and a Country ... and an Art Deco ... and a Contemporary ...

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

design_matt0412About five years ago, Annette Besaw took her interior design business, Design Matters, out of her home and into the back third of a building on Dorset Street in South Burlington. It wasn’t long before she bought the building, knocked through the walls, and opened in 8,000 square feet of showroom.

My dad was a builder, my husband was a builder; I feel like I had a hard hat on my head when I was born.”

That’s the voice of Annette Besaw, the owner of Design Matters in South Burlington and a woman passionate about design in every aspect.

Besaw laughs heartily as she recalls how she — then Annette Giroux — and her future husband, Leo Besaw, connected 40 years ago while dancing at the Old Board in South Burlington. They started dating.

“My mother kept saying, ‘We’ve got this really nice young man you should meet,’” Besaw says. “Then Leo and I were driving somewhere, and he was talking about the guy he was working with. He named my father, and I said, ‘That’s my dad!’ He said, ‘What? You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Come to find out, he was the one my parents were talking about.”

She and Leo married in May 1975, and he has been her best supporter and cheerleader ever since. “He’s phenomenal,” she says.

Besaw is Vermont born and bred, the middle child of seven who grew up in Hinesburg. “I’ve lived within seven miles of here all my life,” she says, speaking from her shop on Dorset Street.

Following graduation from Champlain Valley Union High School, she landed a job working for four doctors at the Thomas Chittenden Health Center in Williston. “I left there because I was offered a better paying job for Healthco New England (then called New England Hospital Supply) as the president’s secretary.” Offered yet another better paying job, with contractor Wright & Morrissey, she worked with that company’s project managers.

She and Leo had been married about four years — “Let’s see, Eric’s 34 and he was a toddler,” says Besaw — when she decided to open Annette’s Playschool in Hinesburg, “because I didn’t want to give my kids to somebody else.” Her children, Eric, Lance, 30, and Ashley, 26, were all shepherded through the Playschool.

Typical of Besaw’s approach to things she sets her mind on, she built a business of which she could be proud. “We were accredited through the Vermont Department of Education,” she says, “so we were also a private school. The teachers were always certified. We were the first in Vermont to receive accreditation from the National Association for Education of Young Children, and the only school in the U.S. with a perfect score.

“Then Gov. Kunin gave us an award congratulating us on being a pioneer. And what the general public didn’t know at the time was that Vermont ETV did a program on quality early-education programs and we were in that.” Over the years, the business grew to the point where she had 20 employees serving 165 families from 13 towns. “I absolutely loved it,” she says. “It was a happy business.”

Illness forced her to reconsider her life. “I was very, very sick,” she says, “but they didn’t know what it was.” She sold the business 18 years ago to a psychologist who left his practice to run it.

Eventually she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Relieved once the diagnosis was made, Besaw approached it much as she seems to approach everything important in her life. “I’ve been a support person for some women with fibromyalgia,” Besaw says. “I say, ‘Anybody you know with it, send them to me.’”

She has no symptoms now, but it took her a long time to get back on her feet. During her recovery period, she took stock and realized that she wanted to study design.

“My mother told me that when I was a little girl, I used to sit on my butt and push furniture around; always changing things. She said I did it so much there were grooves in the tile floor.”

She enrolled in an interior design program through the Sheffield School in Manhattan. Using video and cassette tapes, students did the work and were critiqued by the professors, she says.

“It was a two-year course if you worked full time, year-round. I did it in less than that. It was probably part of my getting better. I was in heaven; this was my passion, and it still is.”

Besaw began doing design work part time from home, but about five years ago, she realized she couldn’t do it from home any more. “I didn’t have the resources,” she says. “Everything I wanted to do with my customers I couldn’t get. You have to have a storefront to buy furniture at wholesale, and not all retail stores will work with you because they have their inside designers.” She needed a store.

“Three times one Sunday, I said, ‘I have to make a decision!’ and my husband said, ‘Oh, no! Here we go!’”

She began looking for space and settled on leasing a small area at the rear of her current location on Dorset Street. The Salvation Army was leasing two-thirds of the building, and Besaw, one-third. “I ran that for three and a half to four years,” she says, “but people were complaining they couldn’t find me.”

She contacted the landlord and offered to buy the building. He agreed. “We gave notice to the Salvation Army, and after they left, we broke through, renovated, and tripled our space to 8,000 square feet.”

Leo retired the week renovations began, says Besaw, adding, “He went from command chief of the Vermont Air National Guard base to builder.”

Besaw calls Design Matters “a one-stop shop. We sell everything to furnish the home: furniture, accessories, lighting, area rugs, art; we have over 500 fabric books, custom window treatments, bedding, shades and blinds, you name it — even a little wallpaper.”

She has developed a working relationship with Vermont Paint Co. and uses only Benjamin Moore Paints. Each of the sample rooms in the store is decorated in different styles and colors. “Our store has 12 colors in it,” she says. “Most furniture stores generally use all neutral tones; we didn’t. We wanted people to experience color, because they are afraid of it. We have a room that’s dark brown, one a beautiful sky blue, reds, greens ...”

Customers asked about those room colors so often, Besaw put tags on each wall identifying the paint used and referring them to Vermont Paint Co.

Full-time designer Alison Jette, a graduate of New England School of Art & Design, works closely with Besaw, and decorator Susan Ducharme comes in three days a week and every second Saturday. Besaw contracts out other work. “We’ve got our own truck now,” she says, “and we have people who deliver for us, although we use Chase Moving Co. at times.”

Ed Schlak of Vermont Interior Painting is the painter and window treatment installer. He has worked with her since the beginning. “She notifies me when a customer has ordered, and again when the order is in,” says Schlak. “I contact the customer and schedule an appointment for the installation.”

Besaw is always “cognizant of her customers,” Schlak says. “She always knows what’s going on.”

Being cognizant of her customers has generated some creative solutions. For example, she wanted to find an easier way to send rugs home on spec with clients, short of their “lugging it in the car.” She decided to make a collection of “samples” by buying 2- by 3-foot rugs in every design her 12 rug companies carried. “I had a custom rack made and purchased about 400 rugs for people to take home,” she says.

She also acts as a consultant to others such as Realtor Carol Audette of Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty, for whom she stages homes for sale. “The first thing I do is sit down and teach the client what staging requires — the concepts and the psychology. They do everything, because they understand why.”

The first time she worked for Audette, she insisted that Audette accompany her so she could learn what Besaw does. “After we were finished, Carol went to her car — I thought she was going to write me a check. But she picked up her phone, made a call, and said to everybody in her company, ‘If you don’t hire this woman at least once, you’re crazy!”

Besaw has not forgotten her early challenges, and sees herself as a mentor to the many interior designers who continue to work from their homes. “We have other designers who buy from us,” she says. “No one would do it for me, and I was determined I’d do it for others. We give them deep, deep discounts so they can mark it up and sell to their clients.” She thinks of these designers as family.

Family is very important to her. She and Leo have dined out together every Saturday night for 30 years, and the shop is closed Sundays, “because that’s family day.” She realizes she might be missing Sunday shoppers, but she’s adamant.

Although she and Leo get away now and then, and she still gardens, the store is her life. “They say if your work is your passion, you never work a day in your life. That’s me 150 percent.” •