DERRY, NH – On June 19, Lori Morgan quietly opened her first small business at the former Association Hall building at 1 Pinkerton Street in Derry.
Morgan, a longtime interior designer for various companies including F.W. Webb and the Boston Design Center, has found her niche as a custom furniture painter, working by commission on pieces large and small.
Her new shop space, called Tom&Chickpea, is a place to showcase and sell some of her work, as well as other Bohemian-themed accessories she’s sourced from other producers.
While the mother of two has lived in Derry for about half a dozen years or so, this is her first entrepreneurial venture. She has a degree in interior design from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and years of experience designing items for other companies.
But in 2017, tragedy struck when her husband Tom Morgan suddenly died. She stopped working for about a year and discovered a new hobby that helped her process her grief.
“I started painting as a form of therapy, in the largest sense of the word,” Morgan said.
She had always been an artist but had never painted before. The process proved to be an outlet for creative expression, a distraction from her pain, and, eventually, a new source of independent revenue.
While she does some canvas paintings — such as the painting of her late husband’s work boot that serves as the company logo — her preferred medium is furniture. And for Morgan it’s a very organic process. The shapes and contours of each piece guide her hand and inform how the work will evolve.
Some clients may hire her to spruce up an old piece of furniture with sentimental value, or to make an entertainment center match the new color scheme of a living room. But she never knows exactly what the end result will be before she starts.
Morgan specializes in a style that often reveals the texture of the brushwork as well as different colors underneath each layer of paint as the item becomes naturally dinged and distressed from use.
“I aim to paint furniture that, the more love you show it, the better it looks,” Morgan said.
So far, the response has been very encouraging, and Morgan says she seems to have struck upon a relatively untapped market with a lot of demand.
Her rates vary based on a number of factors. A small end table may cost $75, and a large buffet may cost up to $500.
Morgan says she occasionally makes house visits if the furniture is too big to move, but she’s setting up a studio space in the rear of her shop where she hopes to do most of her work. So far, she’s been working primarily out of her home.
Morgan is the first commercial tenant in recent years to move into the historic building that owner Muharem Mahmutovic is in the process of renovating in phases. He also added a front deck area leading to the storefront.
Some sections are used for apartments, the rents for which helped fund the restoration of the front retail spaces for Tom&Chickpea and its neighbor, which will soon be the new home of renowned artist Dennis Sheehan, according to Mahmutovic. He said Sheehan is losing his current studio space in Manchester and expects he will move into the new Derry space by September.
In May, the Association Hall building was added to the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places. According to the register submission documents provided by local historian Mark Mastromarino, the three-story structure with its signature mansard roof was originally built to offer storage space in the basement, retail on the first floor, the titular gathering hall on the second floor (for dances, banquets, theatrical performances and lectures), and the third floor was purpose-built as the St. Mark’s Lodge of Freemasons.
The building was created by a group of investors including dairy magnate Harvey Perley Hood I, mill owner Hazen Underhill and prominent lawyer Greenleaf Bartlett, who together formed the Derry Building Company.
Over the years, the building had many commercial tenants, including a bakery, drug store, dressmaker shops and millineries (makers of women’s hats), a bicycle shop, furniture store and antiques store (the sign for which remains on the building).
The second floor was used for Pinkerton Academy student and alumni gatherings, and lectures featuring Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was also the first place anyone heard a poem by a 31-year-old poultry farmer and aspiring poet named Robert Frost – who was too shy to read his work aloud and had someone else do it for him. But that reading of “A Tuft of Flowers,” was the same event which earned him a teaching job at Pinkerton.
After the banks foreclosed on the building in 2017, they were unable to find a new buyer at auction and it remained neglected and empty for about a year. Muhmutovic bought it in November 2018 for $116,000, a little over half of the original asking price, and has committed to restoring the building.