A chat with Beth Berke, sole proprietress and Chicago-based entrepreneur of the collectible design world.
Tell us how you started your business.
South Loop Loft started in my living room of my historic Loft apartment in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. After a first career as a social worker, I found myself in a cross country move where I was furnishing a new home. I was refinishing furniture in my apartment and selling it on Instagram – at the 3 month mark I realized it was time to make a career change into this creative field. I didn’t start with a business plan and I also didn’t have any concept of what South Loop Loft could become and things have developed as we’ve evolved.
You call yourself a “treasure hunter” and you frequently travel to Italy and France to source more design and furniture. Tell us more!
One of the highlights of my job is sourcing unique vintage furniture, art and decor for our showroom, it’s the heart of what we do. My buying trips to Europe are fast, furious and each one is it’s own adventure. Most days require a 6am start, waiting in line and then running through the flea markets for several hours trying to scout and buy the best pieces before they get scooped up. I’ve developed a wonderful network of people I work with and each trip I build in some time to explore a new region and find new resources. These trips are not for the faint of heart in terms of pace and how much the itinerary comes together on the fly. Every trip has some surprises, too.
What are some of the top pieces you are coveting right now?
Currently our highlight reel includes a set of 4 De Sede DS-1025 sofas by Ubald Klug who was inspired by the terraced hills of the Alps. The Terrazza sofa is a true icon of 1970’s design and many celebrities and musicians of the era, most notably Mick Jagger, were photographed lounging on it. We’re also excited to currently have two three seater Soriana Sofas by Afra and Tobia Scarpa for Cassina. This has always been a personal favorite of mine because it’s incredibly comfortable and I consider the design timeless. The Soriana is effortless and elegant.
What are some obstacles along the way of creating your own business?
I’ve viewed my obstacles as two fold: Internal and External. I have found myself to be my own obstacle at times, especially more in the early years when I was hesitant to reach out for help, I had a less developed sense of self and I cared a lot more about what other people were doing and how others perceived my choices. As I’ve really discovered my voice in this process I’ve been able to build a stronger business, be a better leader for my team and ultimately find more joy and success in the business. It took time to trust my intuition as a strength and commodity.
Externally, As a business owner you are always problem solving things out of your area of expertise: from accounting and admin, to renovations and hiring you are not only a specialist in your niche but you become a logistics expert in the process. We’ve spent years navigating the ins and outs of international container shipping, which has been challenging in recent times with recent rising shipping costs and international shipping delays.
Do you have any pieces of advice for other entrepreneurial women out there?
Yes, I have a lot! Where to start… if you can, I advise building your business off of your natural strengths and passions. Take some time to reflect on what those are and then focus on that as you build – I think we often look to formulas on what “competitors” are doing or what’s “trending” but I think it’s important to build something that you will ultimately enjoy and therefore can be sustainable for the long haul.
Secondly, get a strong team around you and hire people to help you with your blind spots. I work closely with a business consultant and an HR coach who I jokingly call my Board of Directors. At about year 4-5, I recognized it was important to engage people with a different set of skills to help me scale the business in a smart way. Using your resources to hire people who can manage the areas you are not naturally strong is one of the best ways you can use your resources. Outsource and focus your time on using your natural strengths and bringing your valuable point of view to your business.
What is a typical day like for you in Chicago?
I start most days around 7am working across time zones and connect with our European contacts about possible purchases. I work from home in the morning and make sure to get through my non-negotiables for the day, often it’s business admin, business development and sourcing inventory. I head to the showroom in the afternoon where I work with our team on merchandising, inventory management, sales and connecting with clients. No two days are the same.
Who are some artists you currently have your eye on?
It’s hard to narrow it down but we are avidly watching and supporting the work of Erin Vincent and Monical Curiel. We love the experimental materials Erin works with out of her Toronto studio which result in lively sculptures. Abject and discarded objects have always fascinated Vincent as she de-categorizes them, removing their established hierarchies. Vincent explores themes of emotional intensity, intuition and the relationship between things – we find it utterly compelling.
Monica Curiel is making big moves as she shares her story as a cancer survivor and Mexican American through highly textural mixed media work. Curiel is a Dallas native born to immigrants from Western Mexico. Curiel’s experience as a first-generation Mexican American is at the core of her work. She intentionally manipulates non-traditional materials such as grouting tools, plaster, wood stain, and house paints – construction materials commonly used by the Latino labor force – to create pieces that draw Curiel back to her cultural roots.
What has been the highlight of your journey in the antique and design world?
Being a part of the community of female entrepreneurs is the most notable highlight. Owning a business can be an isolating experience- if you’re a sole owner, you carry the entire responsibility of it on your shoulders and it’s extremely encouraging to have a community where you find mutual support. Over the years I’ve developed lifelong friendships with other female business owners. We troubleshoot, brainstorm, provide honest feedback and cheer each other on.