The messes were mounting, and Debbie Wiener was seething.
“It all started when I married a slob and then gave birth to two more slobs,” she said.
Her husband, she said, made such a mess when he ate that she had begun cleaning him off with a hand-held vacuum cleaner before bed. Her two boys were not much better.
“I’d come home, and there’d be food all over the kitchen floor and counters, the sofa would be stained, and the cushions would be in the backyard somewhere,” said Wiener, who owns the interior design firm Designing Solutions and lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. The walls were orange from Cheetos-covered fingerprints and the drapes were filthy, she said, because her husband frequently used them to clean his hands.
“I didn’t want to be the screaming wife and mother — ‘Take off your shoes! Wipe your feet! Don’t eat in the family room!’ ” she said. “I finally just thought, ‘I’m going to find a way to outsmart them.’ ”
Outsmarting her family has meant creating Slobproof, a line of furniture that is childproof, pet-proof — and, as Wiener would say, husband-proof — that last year brought in sales of nearly $1 million. She now employs one of those slobs — her 26-year-old son — to help her run her growing business.
She recently appeared on “Blue Collar Millionaires,” a CNBC show narrated by country singer Tim McGraw, to promote her growing business. “While most moms get mad when you made a mess, this one just gets rich,” McGraw says in the opening teaser.
Wiener demonstrates the resilience of her Slobproof furniture by squeezing mustard on a red sofa, then wiping it clean.
The business has netted her $3.5 million, McGraw says, before showing footage of her $500,000 Chesapeake Bay vacation home and $60,000 designer handbag collection.
“I still can’t believe this is what I do for work,” Wiener, who is in her 50s, says on the show.
In the years since she unwittingly started her own furniture line, Wiener has become something of a local personality. She has written a book about family-friendly decorating and appears frequently on the “Steve Harvey Show” to advise female entrepreneurs.
Wiener stumbled into the furniture business by accident. All she wanted to do, she said, was to redecorate her living room with durable furniture.
“The only way for me to maintain some level of sanity was to refurbish and replace my furniture with things that were indestructible,” she said. “Every time I thought, ‘How do I make this sofa outlast my husband and kids?’ ”
She found a company that makes fabrics for the health care industry — “They were used to dealing with bodily fluids” — and asked whether they could help her create a softer moisture-proof, odor-proof, antimicrobial fabric appropriate for her home. Then she tracked down a furniture manufacturer in North Carolina and asked them to create custom couches and chairs for her four-bedroom house in Silver Spring, Maryland. She paid for them using a $40,000 settlement from a car accident.
The resulting sofas were made of hardwood frames that were glued, screwed and double-doweled. They had reinforced arms that would not loosen when her sons wrestled on the sofa and seat cushions that would stay clipped in place. In place of fabric skirts, her pieces had exposed wooden legs she could easily touch up with permanent markers.
“I’ve reinforced all of the stress points, like when a kid coils up in a chair, pushing his feet against the arm — I’ve tried to anticipate that,” she said. “I was inspired by the slobs I love.”
She put the furniture in her family room and waited. About a week in, she went to clean up fruit punch and peanut butter stains and was amazed when they actually came out.
“I started thinking to myself, ‘If I think this is so great, I bet other people in similar slob situations are going to think it’s equally great,’ ” she said. “Honestly, that’s how I started the furniture line. I just did it for my own sanity.”
She furnished her best friend’s house, too, and shortly after that, headed to New York to show off her designs at the Architectural Digest Design Show. She took along a couch and a few chairs to display at her booth. When she arrived, she was assigned a space twice as large as she had anticipated.
“I literally called (my husband) Jim and said, ‘Go to the UPS store and overnight me every piece of furniture we have in our house,’ ” she said. “He had nothing to sit on, but we filled the booth.”
At the trade show, she demonstrated her wares by inviting participants to douse them with chocolate syrup, then wiping the surfaces clean with paper towels. (“I think this is why they have yet to invite us back,” she said.) She ended up selling every sample and left with about $75,000 in orders.
After that, her business was in full swing. She sold her line of chairs, sofas and ottomans to local families, condominium buildings and the Smithsonian Institution. The University of Maryland uses Wiener’s furniture in its student lounges, as well as in the wedding chapel.
In addition to sofas, which are priced between $1,599 and $2,199, Wiener also sells sectionals (starting at $3,199), dining chairs (starting at $399), gliders ($1,399) and ottomans ($249 to $899).
“Every new mess is a challenge,” Wiener said. “If I lose my cool momentarily, my husband will say to me, ‘Maybe you can invent something.’ ”
Wiener, a former stay-at-home mom, now makes a salary in the high six figures. “Blue Collar Millionaires” estimates her net worth at $3.5 million. But, she says, that was never the point.
“I wasn’t trying to be rich,” she said. “I was just trying to be stress-free.”