Making Good Manors

Art is the foundation of everything this woman does

by Phyl Newbeck

stowe_craft1216Stephen and Susan Bayer-Fishman are the owners of Stowe Craft & Design, the parent company of Stowe Craft Gallery and Interior Design Center in separate Stowe locations.

Susan Bayer-Fishman doesn’t do anything half way. Her career, as the owner of Stowe Craft & Design, has taken a number of twists and turns, but these days she is happy to be presiding over a dual business that consists of a gallery and a design center in separate locations.

Born and raised in Claremont, New Hampshire, Bayer-Fishman showed her creative streak early in life. Her parents owned a small department store and she helped out as a child by designing window displays. Later, she went on buying trips for the store, introducing more-modern clothing items like leather gauchos to the conservative region.

She studied special education at Boston University, taking time off from her studies to work at the Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts, and for an art program in Dorchester. “I graduated college in ’73, put my degree in my pocket, and said, ‘What did you always want to do that you never did?’”

She worked for a while on a horse farm in Middlebury with famed equestrian Doris Eddy, and then was hired to work in a behavior modification program at the Brandon Training School. There she met her husband-to-be, Stephen Fishman, who ran the program.

Bayer-Fishman had a longtime desire to build her own home with stained-glass windows. To that end, she found a stained-glass teacher in Cuttingsville, and eventually approached a bank for a loan. She was turned down. “The bank wasn’t going to give a woman with no experience money to build a house,” she says.

“I went to the local lumber yard in Brandon, and the guys thought it was so amusing that I was building my own home that they fronted me the lumber.” Using green wood and reclaimed materials (including windows from an old synagogue), she built her home on a hilltop in Forest Dale.

She and Fishman married in 1976. When he was offered another position by the state, they moved to Waterbury in ’78, where Bayer-Fishman opened Shimmering Glass Studio in a small building attached to the house.

She did only commissions and had a small sign at the beginning of the road, but people stopped by and were surprised to see that there was very little to display because no work was done on speculation. This led her to supplement her work with other people’s creations.

Because the studio was quite small, she turned one room in the house into a gallery. But the kids were still young, she says, “and it got so busy, and their vacations were our vacations, and it grew too much to be in the house anymore.”

Green Mountain Chocolates and the Cabot Cheese Annex Store had just moved to Vermont 100 so Bayer-Fishman relocated Shimmering Glass Studio into the downstairs of that building in 1993 — her first retail location.

“Even with people coming into my gallery I’d always been very isolated,” she says. “The move was very scary.” She carried only glass items and found that there was some dissonance between people eating cheese and chocolate upstairs and then coming down to a pristine, high-end glass shop. “It was out of context,” she says.

Still seeking independence, she sought her own spot and quickly settled on one location. The downside was that it wasn’t for sale. A Realtor took her to several locations but she had made up her mind, as well as determined what her offer would be. The building eventually went on the market, and she and Stephen purchased it in 1995. It’s been home to the Stowe Craft Gallery ever since.

Initially, she tried to keep her home studio going but as the gallery began to take on a life of its own she had less time to spend there. She hired personnel for the studio but found that she was playing the role of director rather than doing the hands-on work she loved.

In 2002, the couple found a second location in Stowe that became the Design Center. They moved the glass studio to the basement and Bayer-Fishman continued to do commissions. Eventually, though, she became so caught up in the design work that she had to give up making stained glass.

Stowe Craft & Design is really two businesses: the design shop and the gallery, which sells jewelry, kaleidoscopes, clothing, kitchen accessories, and gifts. “We always were well known for kaleidoscopes,” Bayer-Fishman says. “We used to have a festival every year but it got too big. We still have a really fun collection.”

Bayer-Fishman is involved in the purchasing part of the business but at this point she leaves much of the day-to-day work to her six employees. Her husband is also involved, and the two have very different views of the inventory.

“In the old days I would get rid of something if I was bored with it, even if it was selling well,” she says. “My husband is the good financial person. We have a manager who is responsible for being between us: some adventure with me and common sense with Stephen.”

“I went to the local lumber yard in Brandon, and the guys thought it was so amusing that I was building my own home that they fronted me the lumber.”
— Susan Bayer-Fishman of Stowe Craft & Design

The Craft Gallery is 1,200 square feet with offices and a receiving area below the main space, and an Airbnb run by one of Bayer-Fishman’s two sons upstairs. In 2007, the couple built a deck overlooking the river. “The building has a very old feeling with modern touches,” she says. “It’s rustic modern.”

The design part of the company is Bayer-Fishman’s major focus at this point. It started taking off when people who had hired designers but were unhappy with the work would call her to help move things around to make them flow better.

She soon became known for designing furniture, and the 1,800-square-foot Interior Design Center, with additional space downstairs, was opened in part so she could display that furniture and accessories. “The interior design is more about me,” she says. “I love working with other people but I sometimes feel that’s its better if I work with clients alone.”

Jobs involve everything from paint selection to furniture and appliances. “It’s very detail oriented,” she says “and a lot of my clients don’t live here so I end up managing small construction projects. I pride myself on detail and I’ve been told that I care more about the homes than my clients do.”

When Gloria Mindel and her husband moved to Vermont from Texas 11 years ago, she was confounded with the setup for her new home and couldn’t figure out where to hang her photos. She remembered seeing Bayer-Fishman’s sign and called her.

“She and a friend came over and they did it all,” Mindel recalls. “It was such a relief.” Over the years, Mindel and her husband have called Bayer-Fishman for a number of jobs and referrals. “We didn’t do any traveling this summer,” Mindel says, “so we decided to do something with the front of the house and now we have a delightful painting by our front door and a nine-foot moose coming out of the woods.”

A similar story is told by Sam and Sue Philbrick, who purchased a 1980s contemporary ski house in Stowe in 2013. “Nothing had been done to it since 1983,” Sam recalls. “It had white shag carpets and avocado appliances, and there were some structural issues.” After finding a builder for the structural issues, Bayer-Fishman methodically went through each room and helped the Philbricks pick out wall colors, light fixtures, appliances, and furniture. “She got to know us very well,” Sam says. “She has the ability to find unique design elements and she even designed and built the fireplace screen.”

Bayer-Fishman’s next project involves her sons, Noah, 34, and Ari, 38, who are starting a restaurant that will be called Zenbarn in the building that used to house Tanglewoods in Waterbury Center. Ari bought the property and has been renovating it, and Noah’s wife will offer yoga, tai chi, and other disciplines upstairs.

Noah spent some time living in Africa, and Ari lived on a Navajo reservation. The two have returned to Vermont where Noah and his wife have two young sons, and Ari has a girlfriend. “We’re really all together as a clan,” Bayer-Fishman says.

Although she no longer makes stained glass, Bayer-Fishman misses the art world. She has no aversion to moving heavy objects and fixing things but she is hoping to take some art classes and get back to painting with acrylics.

“I love what I do,” she says. “When it’s all going well, it’s awesome. There is artistic expression in interior design working with my clients, and I just want to make sure I hear my voice in whatever I’m doing.”