Keeping it Simple, in an Ornate World

Sandwiched between a residential area and the section of the Chicago River called Bubbly Creek (so-named from the bubbles created by the blood and other byproducts of the meat-slaughtering process), Decorators Supply Corporation is easy to miss. The business may fly under the radar of many Chicagoans, but to industry insiders–including those in upscale home building, TV and movie production, and theater restoration–it’s the only place to go for classical ornamental moldings. Inside, the warehouse, with all the handcrafted fleurs de lis, scrolls, and eagles, it’s hard not to get lost in the details.

Founded in 1893 near the corner of Van Buren and Michigan, the company supplied its plaster decorations for many of Chicago’s most opulent buildings , including, structures built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. They also crafted the ornamental plaster for movie palaces across the city, including the Ramova Theater in Bridgeport, the ceiling medallions at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas, and the decorations for galleries in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Now, much of their work involves producing set pieces and decorations for movies like “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “The Cotton Club,” and “The Untouchables.”

While the company has changed over the years to meet new demands, their process remains the same. While a recent order of columns and flourishes for a late-night TV set may not be equal to the resplendent White City, the decorations are hatched from the same hand-carved wood molds. Whether it’s a home fireplace mantel, or columns for a scene in “The Dark Knight,” Decorators Supply still creates their pieces from the patterns it used in the late-19th and early-20th century, according to its president, Steve Grage. This is in part because mold crafting is a disappearing art form, he says, but also because the designs are as historically accurate as they come.

“I still hear from customers who I remember ordering from our company 33 years ago,” Grage notes. He also points to the important role that family has played in the company throughout the years. Today, the third generation of Grages runs the business. Steve Grage fondly recalls when he first started at Decorators Supply, he worked and learned alongside his grandfather, who joined the company as a teenager and was still working at age 90.

Grage says that Bridgeport, where they moved in 1909 before settling in their current location in 1963, has been very important to the development of the company. “It made sense to be in Bridgeport–it’s an industrial neighborhood, and being near the railroad, river, and roads, it’s easy to get materials in and out. And it’s a tough blue collar area, where you could find a good workforce.”

There may be a touch of irony in the fact that these elaborate creations were constructed in a district not historically noted for its elegance. But in Bridgeport–once called Hardscrabble for its rough reputation–many local businesses have thrived. Old-school meatpacking plants like Chiappetti’s and Allen Brothers have found a more stable market in upscale restaurants, and while the recession hit 121- year-old Butler Street Foundry hard, it tried to reinvent itself as an artisanal metallurgy business, teaming up with the Art Institute for some projects.  Bridgeporters may not be born with silver spoons in their mouths, but they were probably the ones who made them.

Despite Decorators Supply’s upper-crust appeal, Grage says that they are still struggling to survive in this economy. “Our products go into buildings,” he says, but “even though they’re high end, there just aren’t that many houses that go up.”

When building does happen, Grage notes, the company is still battling a powerful sociological force–changing taste. Their finely crafted ornaments–once sought-after markers of wealth and glamour–have fallen out of fashion after modernism’s “less-is-more” aesthetic. “I’ve seen a change towards a modern style, away from the highly decorated. Every now and then you see people throw in a Corinthian column, as a little splash.”

The company is doing their best to keep up with the changing marketplace, producing and selling “transitional-style moldings” that aren’t overly florid. But without carving new patterns, the most the company can do to accommodate the trend is to find the least ornate templates out of a collection of around 12,000 designs.

But Grage says that the company is ready to adapt. He says he is underlining their biggest assets: the tremendous selection, high-quality products, superior customer service, and the company’s reputation as an environmentally friendly,  family-run business.

His strategy echoes a familiar refrain from a new class of businesses on the rise in Bridgeport–artsy, charming, green, and hyper-local. But while pasty shops, craft-whiskey bars, and organic restaurants have been saying it for months, only Decorators Supply can say they have been doing it for more than a century.

“It’s like classical music. Other music comes and goes, but classical, and its fans, stick around.”

Decorators Supply, 3610 S. Morgan St. (773)847-6300