Sferra Through the Years
Home Textiles Today Staff -- Home Textiles Today, 5/24/2011 8:38:24 AM
EDISON, N.J. - Back in the day, Sferra's table linens were made of Irish linen and hand-embroidered or embellished with hand-hooked lace by nuns and other Italian ladies doing piecework.
Gennaro Sferra opened his factory in 1905 in Venice at 5007 San Severo, near the Rialto Bridge. Seven years later, he moved his family to New York and opened a shop on Fifth Avenue.
His sons, Enrico and Albert, expanded the line to include other fine European linens of the era, including double damask from Ireland, Alençon laces from France and embroideries from Belgium and Switzerland.
In 1956, Enrico was planning his returning to the United States after loading up on merchandise from the factory. Inez Rampine, who oversaw the operation in Venice, encouraged him to take some time off and suggested he sail over rather than fly.
He did, booking passage aboard the Andrea Doria, which sank off the coast of Nantucket after colliding with another ship. Sferra survived; his trunks filled with linens went down with the ship.
When current president Paul Hooker bought the business in 1977, Albert Sferra agreed to stay on for a year. The company was doing $250,000 in annual sales, and Sferra was fairly set in his ways.
"The paint was actually curling off the wall. I said, ‘Can't we paint this place?' and Albert said, ‘You can paint if you want, but here's the thing. You're just going to have to paint it again in 30 or 40 years,'" Hooker said.
If Hooker moved a stapler two inches to the right, Sferra would move it back, saying, "It's been there since 1915."
Sferra also had an idiosyncratic pricing system. Linens were folded into boxes, which were stored in a hulking Mosler safe. Each box was marked with three letters, each letter corresponding to a number. That way, Sferra could raise or lower the price with the buyer being none the wiser.
"When I opened the safe - I was 25 at the time - I just saw a blur of letters," said Hooker. Sferra wondered aloud how a college-educated man could be so dense.
"I would just go home at night and cry. ‘What have I gotten myself into!' I marked off every day," Hooker laughed.
Albert Sferra lived long enough to join the celebration for the company's 100th anniversary. "He lived a long life, and he was proud to see the family name live on," said Hooker.
After acquiring the company, Hooker expanded into bedding and bath, and in recent years has partnered with design luminaries including Kelly Wearstler and Peter Som. The company now does in excess of $25 million annually.
"I think one of the things I'm most proud of is that we have stayed in our niche," said Hooker. "We haven't sold out the brand. We always think of the brand first."
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