Blackbarn is a design firm, a retail shop, a restaurant and a passion a project of husband-and-wife team Mark and Kristen Zeff. The Chelsea Market spot, co-founded by Chef John Doherty, was inspired by the couple’s East Hampton family home, Blackbarn, a city loft–style country house. Today, it is an umbrella brand that includes product, interiors and more. The Zeffs share with BOH their lessons learned and the secrets to working well together.
How has your business partnership evolved?
Mark: When we first started, our work together consisted of running around the world and seeking out special objects and manufacturers with a history, many of them multiple generations old and working in remote locations. When we opened the Chelsea Market location, we transformed this concept to include product development, and we both learned a great deal and grew from this process. Now we work together on many levels, both operationally and creatively.
Kristen: We both have a good eye when looking for things that will fit in the space, and unique perspectives that push each other to think outside the box. People like Blackbarn because of the personal touch Mark described, us as a team being totally involved in the process and literally getting on a plane to go buy one-of-a-kind pieces from faraway places. We have a great personal relationship, which leads to a great business relationship when collaborating, and we have fun learning together along the way.
Who handles what aspects of the business?
Kristen: I have a background in business, and have an analytical approach. I like to work with numbers and research, and I pick products based on this. I look for things that work with the brand, but are also marketable. Mark is more instinctual when searching; he’s a designer, so he’s naturally creative and likes to ideate. Our strengths balance each other out.
Mark: We’re always learning from one another. Kristen runs spreadsheets and discovers market trends that influence our selections, whereas I’m always pushing to take risks and try new things. You need this push and pull to run a brand.
Share your advice for designers who want to collaborate with their other half.
Mark: You need to know someone very well and have a solid foundation before getting into a work relationship. If you’re not on the same page, it will be a disaster for both your business and your personal relationship.
Kristen: If you collaborate with a significant other, setting aside time where you don’t talk about business together will keep the relationship healthy outside of work. Mark and I designate times to discuss business, and outside of that enjoy each other’s company without stressing out. Otherwise, it would become a 24-hour work cycle and be too overwhelming for both of us.