Julie K.L. Dam
May 21, 2001 12:00 PM

When Tracy Porter’s whimsical housewares got accepted by a major New York City trade show in January 1992, she could hardly believe it. After all, the invitation came just one month after she and her husband, John, both former models, had begun their arts-and-crafts enterprise in their Wisconsin farmhouse. Tracy, now 33, had no formal business or design training. “We were just winging it,” she says. So with $5,000 borrowed from her parents, the two worked night and day to produce 50 samples, from candleholders to armoires, many with floral prints, then filled a van and drove 18 hours to New York. At the show they pulled in $75,000 worth of orders. Back in their hotel room the couple leaped for joy. Literally. “We had all these order slips on the bed,” says John, now 39, “and we were jumping up and down on the bed.”

These days their order slips wouldn’t fit on a dozen beds. Tracy Porter the company has topped more than $25 million in annual retail sales of items ranging from $1.95 greeting cards to $17 glass bud vases and $8,500 bathtubs. And the fanciful furnishings have been snapped up by celebrities like Kirstie Alley and Paul McCartney. “They’re not pieces that you grow tired of,” says FOX News host Paula Zahn, who has an armoire.

Porter’s sense of style was developed as a painfully shy girl growing up on a Fond du Lac, Wis., farm. The second of three kids of aluminum-company owners David, 63, and Annette Schaberg, 59, Tracy spent her free time immersed in do-it-yourself projects. “My mom would take me down to the craft store and buy me paints, paper, ornament kits,” she says. “She really encouraged me. It helped build my confidence.”

So did getting tapped by a Milwaukee modeling agency when she was 16. After working in Paris for two years after high school, Tracy returned to Chicago, where she met John—who grew up in a Chicago suburb—while modeling sweat suits for a Montgomery Ward ad. “So glamorous,” she says jokingly.

Together ever since, they wed in August 1991. Four months later they moved into a century-old stone farmhouse in tiny Princeton, Wis. Looking for a way to make money, Tracy found inspiration in her childhood hobbies. She set up shop in a chicken coop and spent her hours painting giddily colorful floral and-nature-inspired designs on pieces made by local woodworkers. “It was serious labor!” she says.

The pair hired their first employee only when Neiman Marcus ordered 400 trays in 1992, due in six weeks. “We said, ‘Sure, we can do that,’ ” recalls John, who now handles the company’s legal and financial affairs. “Never mind that we hadn’t figured out how to ship yet.” By 1994 the company had expanded to 50, all working in a vast studio on the farm.

“Working at home is romantic and beautiful,” Tracy notes, “but it’s in your face all the time.” So three years ago, the couple built a two-story home in a nearby town, then filled it with an eclectic mix of antiques, overstuffed velvet chairs and Porter’s own designs. By 1998 they had handed over the manufacture of all their products to licensees. “The business was running us,” explains Tracy, who continues to design her line with a staff of 15. Having more personal time became even more essential when she gave birth to twin boys, Max and Fin, last May. Financial success, the Porters point out, isn’t as important as feeling as excited as they did when they began. “The day we’re not jumping on the beds,” says John, “we should all quit.”

Julie K. L. Dam

Kelly Williams in Princeton

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