THERE ARE FAMILIAR things that Essex is known for.  There’s clamming and fishing, shipbuilding and design, there’s farming and crafts.  Of course, there are restaurants, especially seafood, and getting out on the water.

But one of the biggies?  Antiques.

Recently, a new list of businesses have arrived in Essex that could give the town’s “things for home” reputation a boost.  They aren’t retail shops, per se, although many sell items for the home.  Instead, it’s a new architecture firm, several interior designers, or landscape design company.  And yes, there are also new home accessories shops that blend design with retail, all adding to the area’s center of gravity for antiques, entrepreneurship and creativity.

Red Barn Architecture moved in just last year, headed up by husband-wife partners Ryan and Caitlin McShera.  Ryan is a registered architect with 15 years’ experience.  Caitlin is the firm’s creative director and manages client service.  The couple met at a Boston architecture firm and decided to go out on their own five years ago, setting up shop in a renovated historic barn on their property in Ipswich.  They built the business serving clients who are not too different from themselves: young families drawn to the patina of a historic home, but who wanted a customized renovation to suit a busy family life.

During COVID, the couple made a move to Essex.  After looking at options that mimicked their Ipswich office—a work-and-live set up with an outbuilding—the McSheras purchased a home for them and their youngsters (two and four years old) and settled into office space close by on Martin Street that better suited their business, which now has six employees.

“We tripled our commute,” laughs Caitlin.  It’s true.  What was a two-minute commute to their barn is now a whopping seven-minute walk to the Red Barn Architecture office next to the post office.

Ryan and Caitlin’s story isn’t unusual.  They are part of an influx of new people moving to Cape Ann, including Essex.  Demand is bursting for homes, and renovation.  In 2019, 17 properties in Essex sold with a median price of $610,000 and an average of 32 days on the market.  Through October 2021, 18 properties have sold at a median price of $812,000 and an average of just 18 days on the market.  COVID made Essex appealing, especially for families.

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The team at Red Barn Architecture, from left, Timothy Allen, Alix Israel, Caitlin McShera, Ryan McShera, Victoria Flahive and Hunter Schutte.  (Photo: Rick Mansfield)

“The walkability of Essex is amazing,” said Caitlin.  “The parks, for the kids and their friends.  School is walkable.  We love to walk to dinner, or to the water.  We’re near friends.  It’s a nice life.”

An early example of Essex’s design mission is Andrew Spindler Antiques & Design, which opened as a jewel box-like retail space on Main Street in 1998.  From the beginning, Spindler said, he considered his shop different than a traditional antique store.

“I’ve always viewed antiques as objects of design,” he said.  So, instead of specializing in period antiques, like Chinese export period porcelain, Spindler mixed items from wildly different periods—like a 60’s Lucite chair with an 19th Century side table—and featured them, together.  What did they have in common?  Spindler considered them beautiful.

“(Crossover in collecting) is what makes it all interesting and that is what my shop is all about,” he said.

Today, clients come to Spindler for objects and design expertise, and his projects have been featured in The World Of Interiors, Architectural Digest, and the New York Times Home section.

Rob MacNeille of Carpenter & MacNeille (C&M) is another company early to make Essex home.  Founded in 1996, C&M began in Beverly Farms, but with growth, the company moved in 2005 to a 17,425 square foot historic brick building near Apple Street that was the Essex Falls Trolley Barn, used to store and repair trolleys and power the Cape Ann trolley line.  It was a totally unique work environment, and one that offered space for growth.  Today, C&M’s 55 employees are based there, servicing clients with architecture, interior design, and construction management.  There are offices, a showroom and a full custom woodworking shop, all on site.  The company could have moved to Boston.  But being in Essex is important.

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Rob MacNeille and Michael Gray of Carpenter & MacNeille.  The company could choose to be headquartered in Boston.  Instead, it operated from a large renovated brick trolley barn Essex. (Courtesy photo)

“Our roots in Cape Ann run deep and being here is what sets our company apart,” said MacNeille.

Anna Hardy moved In Home Design Center, her 12-year-old interior design firm and showroom-slash-retail store last year from Amesbury to Essex.  A native of the UK, Hardy grew up in a small town (in a 500-year-old house) where her father and mother ran an antique shop and her mother was an artist.  She was surrounded by design, antiques, renovation, and art. 

Hardy last month completed a 1,700 square foot addition to the showroom for clients and two-floor retail store that is open to the public three days a week, and by appointment.  The shop is warm, eclectic and features furnishings and hard-to-find product lines, like fabrics from Abraham Moon & Sons, Liberty of London, and Lewis & Wood.

Hardy’s design business focuses on residential projects, and her passion is renovating old homes.  Often, she said, projects start with a room, and go from there.  She has long time clients, helping them as they move or migrate in their life or style.

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In Home Design Center, which moved to Essex last year.  From left, company founder Anna Hardy, kitchen designer Stephanie Brillant, and Catherine Fenn-Smith, art and client services specialist (Photo: Kirk Williamson)

Right now, one of Hardy’s team projects is a home renovation for a New Hampshire family with two busy physicians and their daughters.  The project started with renovating a children’s bedroom and bathroom.  Then came the couple’s primary bedroom.  Two years later, Hardy’s team has moved through much of the home, operating as owner’s project manager as well as designer-decorator.  The latest chapter?  Building a kitchen and morning room inspired by an “orangery” (a glass room, popular in England) which will serve as an extended family room, with lemon trees and a palm tree.

What drew Hardy to Essex?  She liked the community as a visitor over the years.  And then decided her business might thrive here.

“I went to the town to get our permit, and we were literally ‘welcomed’ to town as a business,” she said.  “It’s not that we didn’t already know and love Essex.  I know the stores because I’ve shopped here for years, and we love to eat at CK Pearl and other restaurants.  It’s lovely here.”

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This antique walnut table from Muzio Designs in Essex was the centerpiece to a kitchen design for a client at In Home Design Center, also in Essex.  (Courtesy photo)

And Hardy likes being part of a larger antiques and home design community.  Earlier this year, for a client, she customized a large farmhouse style kitchen island from Muzio Designs on John Wise Avenue, a design store with home furniture, accessories and design services.  And two weeks ago, Hardy saw a block print Drusus Tabor pillow at Andrew Spindler’s shop that she wants to use in a client project.  Then she went next door to Diamonds & Rust, a new pop-up shop on Main Street with curated vintage and new home accessories.  She purchased a wool blanket.

“Both are going right into client projects of ours,” said Hardy.

In the end, for whatever reason, Essex has seen an energy uptick in home design, especially in the last 18 months.  Caitlin McShera believes there may be more to it.  The town, she said, just attracts “a creative, artistic type of small business owner.”  That feels true to Andrew Spindler.

“I think anyone who is independent and creative and entrepreneurial would do well here in Essex,” he said.  “I’m totally for it.  Bravo.”

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Andrew Spindler opened his antique shop in 1998, freely mixing antiques from all eras as design objects.  (Courtesy photo)