By Brian Mastroianni, Berkshire Eagle Staff
First published August 15, 2013
SHEFFIELD –– Stacks of colorful binders full of fabric and design samples line the walls of M Designs Custom Sewing and Re-upholstery in Sheffield. It’s a kaleidoscopic array of colors all mixed together — reds, golds and regal blues combine to make an eclectic, makeshift tapestry.
An older couple walks into the store, and the pair is greeted with a friendly hello from owner Michael Subklew.
“I have this chair that is bonded leather, and it’s peeling — I don’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it,” said the older man, wearing a dark blue baseball hat with “United States Marines” proudly emblazoned on its front.
Subklew knows what to do. He asks the couple to come back with a photo of the chair so that he can properly assess how to restore it. He then lists potential problems with the chair and explains how he could fix it. It feels like listening to a doctor’s prognosis — this is what is wrong with this particular piece of furniture, and here are the steps you need to take to revive it.
This desire to find the beauty in things that are fading away has driven Subklew all his life. With the reupholstery trade stretching back to his family’s roots in Europe, Subklew learned how to strip and refurbish furniture from his parents, who owned Kent Upholstery, the earlier incarnation of M Designs in Kent, Conn. He also learned how to sew from his grandmother, which fostered within him a love of clothing design.
Subklew went to college in Miami and worked there as a nurse. While working as a nurse he met his partner of 18 years, Rudy Molina, a physician. Dissatisfied because he was not pursuing his creative passions, Subklew moved back to New England to take over the family business, running what was then called D & M Designs with his mother, before taking over the business himself.
Today, Subklew fits both his family trade and his interest in design into his life. He runs M Designs with a business partner, Jose Lucas Barriales, while pursuing his dream to make his mark on the fashion world. Subklew has auditioned five times for Lifetime’s popular design reality show, “Project Runway.” He has made it past the preliminary audition phase, and he plans on auditioning again this spring.
“It’s a complicated process, where you are talking about thousands of people going into auditions. There were about 2,800 people at the last round,” Subklew said. “I know I could rock that show, absolutely.”
Subklew is an artist proud of his ability to transform everything from a drab chair to a dress and make it his own.
He has also dabbled in interior decorating.
“I’ve done some celebrity homes that you just can’t say no to, but it’s hard when you own the company that produced the products for interior design, which is a lot of work on its own, and then have to go and do the decorating side of it,” Subklew said.
How does he balance both? He said that he just has to “make it work,” as “Project Runway’s” Tim Gunn often says.
What helps Subklew make everything work is his staff of upholsterers and design consultants. M Designs employs 16 full-time workers, many of whom are immigrants to the United States who have learned a new trade. Subklew has something of an unofficial reupholstery school in Sheffield. He said he has taught his team “a dying art.”
One who has reinvented himself through M Designs is Barriales. Born and raised in Spain, Barriales was a biochemist researcher at Queen’s College in New York. He left for a quieter pace of life. A friend of Subklew’s for 12 years, Barriales was looking for a career change and eventually became Subklew’s business partner.
“I was confined to a closed space, and got bored of doing that kind of research,” Barriales said.
While Barriales handles the office management and sales side of things, he said it is inspiring to work alongside the M Designs team.
“It is a real skill. They are very proud of what they do,” Barriales said. “It’s a great feeling to have a piece and bring it back to life.”
For Subklew, bringing pieces of furniture back to life is in his blood — a skill set in which he is confident.
“In my mind I consider myself to be the most famous person I know,” Subklew joked. “But I think everyone should feel that way. If you walk out the door in the morning and put on the best face possible, have the best attitude and just go for it, you feel like the king.”
If you go …
What: M Designs Custom Sewing and Re-upholstery
When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; Saturdays and Sundays by appointment.
Where: 44 South Main St., Sheffield.
Information: (413) 229-0404 or mdesignscustominteriors.com