Ben Ralston (MBA ’11) and his wife Viive open Smart Deco in Cornelius, N.C.

8.18.2011 Alumni News, Article, Capitalism

Reposted from | By Christina Ritchie Rogers

Viive Ralston has always had an eye for little touches that make a big difference. As a child, she loved to make breakfast in bed for her mother. Even then, the tray was not complete without a small vase of freshly picked flowers, she said, and she’d walk down her street in New York City to “borrow” a few stems from an unknowing neighbor’s window box.

Now, as co-owner of Smart Deco Home Furnishings and Consignment in Cornelius, which opens this weekend, Ms. Ralston (whose name is pronounced “VEE-va”) approaches her new business as she once did her mother’s breakfast – always looking for the perfect, beautiful accent or splash of color that turns something nice into something special.

“Viive can see the beauty in everything, and what I bring to the table is I can see the value in it,” said her husband and business partner, Ben Ralston. “There’s a very practical side to decor.”

And that focus on practicality as well as aesthetic value puts the “smart” – and the “art” – in Smart Deco. The Ralstons carefully select pieces that are functional as well as good looking, and won’t break the bank.

The Smart Deco space, in Kenton Place off West Catawba Avenue, near Lowes Food, combines new furniture, accessories, rugs and lighting with carefully-selected consignment items. Original artwork by Lake Norman-area artists also is for sale.

The couple chose to combine new and consignment items because it is a realistic, eco-friendly business model that’s accessible to people shopping at all price points, they said.

“We decorate the store the way people decorate their houses,” Ms. Ralston said.

And the couple chose to spotlight the work of local artists because “there are so many talented artists in the area that need a space to display their work,” Mr. Ralston said. There was no need to look elsewhere for high-quality, original pieces, he said.

“If you’re looking for a unique look for your home, having unique art is one way to get there,” he said.

“It’s a chance for you to go in any direction design-wise,” Ms. Ralston said, “and it’s also great for renters who can’t paint their walls.”

From art to furniture and everything in between, the couple selects only those pieces that fit with their style and meet their high standards of quality, whether they are new pieces or consigned items.

“I’m trying to design the way I think consignment should be,” Ms. Ralston said. “I want people to shop consignment with a boutique experience.”

The couple, both 28, began dating nearly 10 years ago as freshmen at Davidson College and married a little over two years ago. While at Davidson, Ms. Ralston studied art history and studio art and Mr. Ralston majored in economics. He later earned an MBA from Wake Forest.

Ms. Ralston’s arts background and Mr. Ralston’s economics background complement each other – after all, they are in the business of aesthetics.

And while starting a new business is always daunting, the couple believes that Lake Norman is the perfect place to do it. They are thrilled to return “home” to the area.

“Our decision about the location had two sides,” Mr. Ralston said – an emotional one and a practical one.

“We love it here,” he said. “We met here, and it was one of the first places we looked at for the business.”

But emotions aside, “it’s a developing area with an artistic culture that appreciates design,” he said.

Though their skill sets may be different, the Ralstons share an important motivation: a desire to help people. It’s at the heart of their business philosophy.

“I’ve always liked to please people and help make their lives easier,” Ms. Ralston said. She sees herself, as a buyer, as the “first line of defense” for customers, responsible for making sure they know what is available from wholesalers and seeing that they get what they want.

“My favorite thing about it is finding solutions for people,” said Mr. Ralston, who sees himself as more of a problem-solver than a salesman.

Giving back to the community is also part of the Ralstons’ business model. And they’re wasting no time getting started: They will donate 10 percent of sales from their grand opening weekend to Great Dane Rescue of the Carolinas, and some of the adoptable dogs will be at the opening.

“We wanted to plant ourselves in a real community where people take an interest in what’s going on around them,” Ms. Ralston said. “This is where we want to start our livelihood and start our family.”

The store is located in Kenton Place near Lowes Food, at 17015 Kenton Drive in Cornelius.