Photographs by Bob Rozycki
On a late-March morning, Samantha Knapp stands within her stunningly fresh booth at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show on Pier 94 in Manhattan.
With more than 400 exhibitors vying for attention on this preview day designated for press and trade members only, Tiger Lily’s has managed a rare feat.
The Greenwich design studio and custom workshop, showcasing an array of head-turning looks backed up by luxe materials and quality craftsmanship, has made a vivid impression in its debut at the prestigious show.
And that’s just what Knapp, herself a striking study of Boho-chic in animal prints, cobalt blue and sky-high funky heels, had hoped for.
“We’re just trying to go from local to a little broader customer base,” she says, pausing to catch her breath before an afternoon that finds Tiger Lily’s booth jam-packed with those eager to know more.
And what those visitors are seeing – from a geometric-shaped ottoman covered in Mongolian sheep skins to a classic slipper chair gone wild with hot-pink tufting to a studded bench boasting square nail heads, faux fur and a shimmering silver finish – has certainly caught their attention.
For Knapp, it’s rewarding that the drive behind Tiger Lily’s is being understood.
“It’s important to me to just make it really personal, that there’s still a real thought behind everything we do.”
For her, it was a bold move that ended up as mission accomplished.
A family affair
Catching up with Knapp at the company flagship, a burst of creativity tucked in an industrial section of town, a couple of weeks after the show, she is still buoyed by the show. It was a high-profile step on a road that finds her mixing an unwavering determination with a clear, artistic vision. And it’s one that’s shared.
Tiger Lily’s is a Knapp family affair, a company started by her mother, Betsy Knapp, more than 20 years ago.
“She was the original do-it-yourselfer,” Samantha says of her mother. “She’s got an eye.”
Her mother and stepfather, Robert Knapp, are actively involved in the business that outgrew a space on Putnam Avenue a few years ago.
“My support here is like second to none,” Samantha says. “I’m so blessed.”
Today, her mother keeps her finger on client relationships, and projects and is a great finder of vintage and antique pieces, with her stepfather handling everything from the financial side to the day-to-day details.
“I’m definitely running my side of the show,” Samantha says. “The diversification that we needed to keep going had to happen.”
And that drive seems innate.
“None of us are technically ASID or whatever,” Knapp says, referring to the American Society of Interior Designers. “We’re street designers.”
In fact, Knapp came to the business three years ago as a second act.
“It’s amazing for me because I’m self-taught,” she says. “I was a journalist.”
Broadcast stints at television stations around the country culminated with a move to WCBS-TV in New York.
“I had the dream job,” she says. “This is what I was waiting for my entire life.”
Six months later, with cutbacks and no contract, she was done.
Trying to decide what to do – and not moving forward – her stepfather encouraged her to join Tiger Lily’s, a career switch that still makes her laugh.
“I actually failed interior design in Greenwich High School.”
Hard at work
There’s no shortage of things being accomplished at Tiger Lily’s, itself a treat for the eyes with 3,700 square feet of activity. There are on-site custom upholstery and furniture design under way. Home accents and accessories fill the showroom, an airy space that includes surprises at every turn. The eye jumps from one vignette to another, an artful jumble of centuries and styles, fabrics and textures.
“We shop for vintage finds and we bring them in and refurbish them,” Knapp adds, selling them both in-house and online through a variety of sources. “You just try to pick things that you love and other people (will) appreciate.”
A vintage movie projector, for example, stands on a sleek nail-head accented buffet.
“I had dreams of turning that into a lamp,” Knapp says. Until then, it’s a quirky accent ideal for a film buff.
Steps away, a onetime Indian blanket has been turned into both a bolster and a pair of throws.
Mirrors, she says, always sell.
“I think people like to see themselves,” she notes.
A quick glance might yield a Colonial-style bench or Asian figurine, an anchor-themed Melamine plate or an oversize clock originally used at swimming meets.
There are rattan ceiling chairs and quirky sconces and the most formal of European chairs covered in cowhide.
“I really don’t like anything to match that well,” Knapp explains.
Customers can choose an accent or have an entire room done.
“If you’re designing for a room and the people have stuff already, we come from there,” she says of her starting point.
It’s not about Knapp: “I try to put myself in my clients’ shoes.”
When it comes to samples, it’s a never-ending array of fabrics and trims, wallpapers and carpets.
“We like to laugh ‘We’re the D&D of Fairfield,’” she says, referencing the noted Manhattan to-the-trade design resource formally known as the Decoration & Design Building. “All the sales reps come to see us and give us the latest and greatest.”
For Knapp, it simply fuels her imagination.
“I don’t do a lot of drawings. I visualize it.”
Doing the work
A large workshop with all work done on site is what makes Tiger Lily’s stand out, Knapp says.
A sofa in the workroom features not only a lushly textured fabric but a trim so sleek and slender it’s barely noticeable. But it is, a fine detail that sums up the whole approach here.
“This is what makes it go from something anybody can get to what makes it super personal, what nobody else has,” she says.
As Knapp walks visitors through the workroom, she chats with those involved in all kinds of projects. There are seamstresses working on upholstery projects, craftsmen at the hammer, others painting. There’s a sense of motion, an air of creativity.
“It’s a little organized chaos in here,” Knapp says. But it works. “We have a good energy together,” she says.
Some things await further work: “I still don’t love it,” she says of an unusual triple-tiered chair before she steps into a tiny room where some experiments are under way.
“This is kind of a fun area for me,” Knapp says. Mid-century chairs, lamp bases, vintage frames and other odds and ends are cluttered about.
“We do a bunch of stuff in here,” she says, motioning to a stack against a wall. “Right now, I’m into antique frames.”
Ready for her close-up
In the design industry, visibility is key.
To that end, Knapp continues to seek out chances to help spread Tiger Lily’s name.
She offers a glimpse into another high-profile project, Housing Works’ Design on a Dime 2013, a benefit held in Manhattan.
“It’s the reminder of being in the community and giving back,” she says.
Her vignette, officially billed as “Tiger Lily’s of Greenwich for Robert Allen,” a 75-year-old textile and design company, is to be a twist on “The Wizard of Oz,” a peek into Dorothy’s dressing room.
“She’s no longer upset about leaving home,” Knapp says. “She’s rocking it in Oz.”
Knapp is also a chair of the decorative arts committee of the National Arts Club in Manhattan, seeking out featured guests for a monthly series of design-themed lectures.
“I’ve got to find them,” she says, making a playful dig at the work it entails. “It’s another part of the drama, another part of the work.”
She’s also become an expert at staging, helping create inviting interiors for properties up for sale.
“At the end of the day, I’m trying to grow a brand. If you’ve got an idea, I’m down.”
And she’s also vocal, as in a provocative blog that traces the ups and downs of the business.
Every bit, after all, raises the exposure.
“We’re just trying to get people in and excited about what we do,” she says.
As she awaits her proverbial big break, Knapp realizes the design show in Manhattan was a huge step.
“It’s such an accomplishment for us,” she says. “I’m really so proud of us.”
And as she sits in the showroom, surrounded by her signature pillows – offbeat shapes in quirky patterns with bold lettering – it’s time to get back to business. This morning will turn into an afternoon that includes a television shoot and countless phone calls she’ll juggle from her balcony office perched over the showroom floor.
But on any day, clients are more than welcome to come in and browse.
“We like people to stroll in, see what it’s all about and then book,” she says, noting appointments ensure they get full attention.
After all, that’s what it’s about at Tiger Lily’s.
It’s like the signature pillows where words range from the unexpected, such as “Halo” or “Cosmic,” to those that seem to mirror what the company is all about – “Journey,” “Dream,” “Dazzle.”
And of course, Knapp’s favorite: “One Love.”
For more on Tiger Lily’s, at 154 Prospect St. in Greenwich, call (203) 629-6510 or visit tigerlilysgreenwich.com.