Things were decidedly more serendipitous for Serena Armstrong’s FarmHouseUrban.
“The plan with the popups wasn’t to test those areas for a permanent brick and mortar – it was to interface with customers and see what people were gravitating to,” Armstrong says. “But there’s just something about the Mill Valley Lumber Yard – there’s magic there – and every customer seems to see that and mention it. It seems like history has left its mark there, and you can feel it.”
After opening a one-month pop-up at the Lumber Yard in July, Armstrong was hooked, and next week she’s opening a permanent space there, where customers will get a taste of an aesthetic that she calls “fresh, modern interpretations of a traditional aesthetic.” The products aren’t mass produced and span home furnishings like tabletops, entertaining pieces, bedding, accessories, pillows, books, throws, baskets, chairs and small tables, as well as clothing and jewelry.
Armstrong grew up in New York City and later Seattle, but always had ties to Marin via her grandparents, who live in Strawberry. Armstrong credits her grandfather, a structural engineer, with exposing her to design at a young age, taking her to places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York and later the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin Center in San Rafael.
“He gave me my first camera at 7 and really helped me appreciate architecture and design,” she says.
Armstrong, her then0husband and two kids moved to Marin in 2007, buying a house in Kentfield that would eventually inspire the birth of FarmHouse Urban. When they arrived in Marin, Armstrong fully immersed herself in getting her kids settled in a new school and focusing on their new house.
“The house we bought was a total dump and the market crashed the year we got here,” she says. “We’d planned to renovate but I had to spiff it up in the least expensive way I could.”
As she did so, friends started to praise her design choices and seek her advice for their own farmhouse-inspired homes.
“When we got our permit and were in front of the design review board, we found out that ours was widely known as ‘the ugliest house in Kentfield,” she says with a laugh. “But we loved it and I saw the bones and thought we could make it work. I got creative with how to put it together and how to make it a nice family home.”
As friends took note of her creative, Armstrong began helping them out with their own interior design, and the scope of those projects grew. So she decided to put together a portfolio and a website and began taking paid jobs. With multiple pets, two kids and a house in the midst of change, Armstrong sought space away from home to show – and sell – clients product samples, vintage items and things she had made custom to show to clients.
She took her first pop-up spot in Ross for one month in 2008.
“I have no idea what really went through my head at the time because if I knew then what I know now, I would have thought i was crazy,” she says. “Dumb luck – ignorance was bliss.”
But Armstrong, whose work has appeared in Better Homes & Gardens and California Home & Design, quickly realized she was onto something, as she sold out the inventory in less than a month.
“I actually had to ask clients if I could keep the product they bought for a while – otherwise I would’ve looked like the last hour of a garage sale,” she says. That one-month pop-up “sent the design side of my business through the roof.”
Armstrong, who also launched and continues to run a popular blog focused on design, fashion, food and travel, then rented a space in Larkspur as a design studio in the back with a small store up front. With little foot traffic coming her way, she turned it into a full design shop, moved her retail shop online and did pop-up shops in the space a few times a year.
With plenty of design projects coming her way, both residential and corporate, Armstrong didn’t take another space until 2013, when she opened another spot in Larkspur, staying there for three years until she began opening a series of pop-up shops, culminating when a friend connected her to Matt and Jan Mathews and she opened for one month at the Mill Valley Lumber Yard.
And then she was hooked, both because of the space itself and the character of her fellow tenants, which include Ambatalia, Bloomingayles, Flour Craft Bakery, Makers Market as well as upcoming additions Watershed restaurant, The Edit, BŌL and more.
“Everyone here is super passionate about their craft and their business,” she says. “ We’re not just throwing stuff on a table to sell. We’re really into what we sell and have a passion for it.