Artist at work: Details made all the difference for upholstery business
Lori and Mark Madonna met on a blind date in high school.
Mark was shy, so friends set them up. But unlike most teen romances, this one worked. Apparently luck was on Mark’s side because about that same time, he landed a $3 an hour job in his neighbor’s Riverside garage, where he began learning the basics of upholstery.
He discovered he had a knack for it, and soon he was asked to reupholster a neighbor’s chairs, then his high school teacher’s bucket seats. But the ultimate test came when his brother hired him to do his cherished Mustang.
This early experience led to a string of related jobs, including working in a vinyl repair shop and refurbishing street hot rod cars. But it wasn’t until Mark’s custom craftsmanship appeared in the centerfold of a hot rod magazine that people really began taking notice. He landed a job as manager of an upholstery shop, where he was finally able to make a living wage.
But by the mid-80s, Lori and Mark were eager to get out of Southern California and raise a family in the Sierra foothills. In 1985, they moved north, where Mark opened his first shop, Artist Upholstery, in Auburn. A year later, they moved it to Grass Valley.
“Business was good everywhere,” said Mark. “I knew I’d fallen into a really good trade.”
Mark’s successful business streak has continued through the years. In June, Mark and Lori celebrated their 33rd year in business. While Mark works solo in the large work space in the rear of their Idaho Maryland Road shop, Lori oversees the front office and showroom, where hundreds of samples are on hand for would-be customers.
Sample books, which can be checked out and taken home by customers, include leather, vinyl and a seemingly endless selection of fabric. Additionally, customers can choose from a variety of high quality foam densities, which have been carefully selected to endure many years of use.
“My job requires a little bit of drafting, math, construction, staining, fabrication, welding and more,” said Mark. “That keeps it interesting.”
Picky customers seek out Mark because they know he’s a stickler when it comes to fine detail and perfection. That’s why they come to him with their beloved vintage cars, boats, RVs, antique furniture — and even airplanes. He’s also done John Deere tractor seats, convertible tops, custom motorcycle seats and more.
“Memorable jobs include an airplane that was towed right into the shop without wings and a ‘46 Ford with leather upholstery and a black widow theme,” said Mark. “The car took me 300 hours. The plane won an award at the Oshkosh air show for overall design.”
Determined to meet agreed-upon deadlines, Mark has been known to go the extra mile. When Sergio Martignago hired Artist Upholstery to upgrade his booths at Sergio’s Caffè in Grass Valley, the objective was not to disrupt business hours. As a result, Mark worked nights and mornings so that each day when the restaurant opened there would always be the full number of booths to accommodate customers.
While Lori is the master scheduler, Mark says he makes it a priority to get things done on time.
“I always keep up with the schedule — and we never turn work away,” said Mark. “It might mean I’m working a 75 hour week occasionally, but I get things done on time. When I start a job, I push myself. I always do the hardest thing first.”
Last week Mark finished custom made cushions for a large sunken living room, owned by Nevada City resident Jeannie Wood. The job required 45 yards of fabric.
“I’m very happy with their work,” Wood said. “They were meticulous and had great attention to details. I would recommend them in a heart beat.”
Lori says she and Mark complement each other’s strengths, that’s why the husband-wife business partnership works so well. Having made the decision to reserve weekends for family, the couple now enjoys spending time with their three grandchildren, all of whom live nearby.
“We’re a good team, but really it’s about Mark’s work,” said Lori. “He’s truly an artist. The name of the company says it all.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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