Brad Cates: The artist in Sarreid’s C-suite

When Brad Cates joined high-end furniture producer Sarreid Ltd. in 2019, he knew he wanted to be involved in all aspects of the Wilson, North Carolina-based company, far beyond the responsibilities traditionally attached to his initial role as chief operating officer — and even beyond those of his current roles as president and CEO. Product development. Showroom design. Brand identity. Marketing. He wanted to have a hand in it all.

Movement is an essential element in Cates’ work. He often pours paint — and then waits to see what form it takes.

It wasn’t long before “all” included hanging Cates’ original paintings on the walls of the company’s High Point Market showroom. Well, that wasn’t part of Cates’ original plan. That came after a nudge from Mickey Sharpe, a Lexington, North Carolina-based designer who helps create Sarreid’s showroom for each market.

Cates and Sharpe have known each other for years, and Sharpe was among those who first encouraged Cates to show and sell his work. Thinking of Cates’ art library, Sharpe approached him about hanging some pieces — large-scale abstracts — in the showroom.

“It was quite uncomfortable for me at first because this isn’t about me,” Cates says. “The artwork is there to complement and enhance the mood of Sarreid. But the paintings have become a good conversation piece with customers coming through, as we talk about them and what they mean on a deeper level to who we are. I look at product from an artist’s standpoint: This is the right finish. This is why this hardware goes with this piece. This is a little bit of contrast in color that can make a room sing.”

Cates uses conversations about his paintings to talk with Sarreid customers about the company’s design process and aesthetic.

The path to home furnishings

There was a time when Cates thought he might pursue art as a career. He showed early promise in junior high school, earning some awards. When he started at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, North Carolina, he found himself in an art class taught by Jane Averill (now owner of Serendipity Art School in nearby Greensboro). “The second week, she called me to her desk and said, ‘You don’t belong here.’ I was freaking out. I thought she was kicking me out of class. Well, she moved me to senior-level work and, for four years, she let me do what I wanted to do. No assignments. Just paint and create. That was very formative to how I work today.”

Cates had a different experience when he headed to East Carolina University. “My first day in class, the professor said, ‘Find a tree on campus and show me its whole life in charcoal. It’s due Wednesday.’ I promptly got up, walked out of class, went to the registrar’s office and change my major to business.”

Cates (here cleaned up and free of paint flecks for market) joined Sarreid Ltd. in 2019 and added president to his chief executive officer title in 2021.

That led him to a lengthy career in the home furnishings sector, from director of sales for Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams to executive posts with Natuzzi, Phillips Collection and Curate Home Collection, among others.

About 20 years ago, Cates began painting again, and Averill, his high school art teacher, remains an adviser and supporter to this day.

“It’s an escape for me,” he says. “I have to find time and space to clear my head.”

Cates kept his work private for awhile but then a designer friend visiting his house encouraged him to show his work. “The first time I had a showing, I sold 10 paintings,” he says, “and that, of course, got my attention.”

‘Covered in inspiration’

Cates’ work is large scale and abstract. “I don’t paint things,” he says, and “I don’t ever get a canvas smaller than 4 feet by 4 feet. I like to paint big. I like to splash paint around.” (He’s done one portrait, he says. The painting of his wife and two daughters is in his office but even that “is very abstract.”)

Cates prefers to work on large canvases, at least 4 feet by 4 feet.

He tends to paint in sporadic, marathon sessions, letting ideas and stress build up until it all has to come out in art. “My wife can just tell when I’ve got to go be with the canvas,” he explains.

“I’ll set the studio up, and I’ll paint at very weird times. I’ll paint from two o’clock in the morning until seven o’clock in the morning — just because it’s inside me and it has to get out.”

But Cates can paint on demand, too, particularly when creating art that will hang in the Sarreid showroom.

Ahead of the High Point Market in April, Cates got a call from Sharpe. “He said, ‘I need two paintings for market.’ And I said, “Yeah, OK.’ Then he called me the next day and said, ‘I really need four.’ So, I love the guy, and I said, ‘OK, Mickey. Let’s stop bullshitting each other. How many do you really need?’ and he said, ‘At least six.’”

So, into the studio Cates went, painting “night and day, covered in inspiration, music blaring.” Four days later, he’d completed seven paintings.

In a video of Cates at work, you get a glimpse of his process. He’s pouring paint on series of canvases and rotating them to watch the paint flow. He stands back. He sits. He stares. (His faithful assistant, a goldendoodle named Lucy, is a huge fan of Cates’ work. Lucy’s father, Samson, a grand standard poodle, spends less time in the studio, but Decor News Now is sure he appreciates the art, too.) 

“I’m really working a lot with the movement of paint … letting it run, letting it find its own space and then finding the composition as those colors and forms meld. And then going, ‘Stop. That’s it.’ You’ll see me sitting there watching it. That’s literally what I’m doing. The paint is running together and I’m waiting for that moment to see the composition,” he says.

“I may be sitting there five minutes or an hour. But I’m waiting for the right time,” he continues. “And while I feel like my eyes are concentrated on the painting, I know that my brain is elsewhere, working on a problem I may not even know I have.”

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Cates favors acrylics and oils, sometimes mixing them on the same canvas. “I’ve gone into my shop and gotten a handful of wood shavings and thrown them on the gesso for texture. I’ve thrown nuts and bolts onto a painting. I’m completely unafraid because it’s not my only source of income and I can scrape it off if it doesn’t work. I’m working a painting right now where I’ve got a big piece of canvas soaking in a 5-gallon vat that I’m going to wrap around another canvas and let harden. Then I’ll paint that hyper-textural surface. For me, it’s all experimentation — just like it is with furniture. We’ll look at a piece of furniture and we think the consumer is going to love it. But we’ve got to experiment to get that right.”

Sometimes Cates will think he’s finished with a painting, head to bed and then return to the studio, wipe the canvas clean and start over. “Jane (his former art teacher and current mentor) would say that’s my fearless nature, being able to say, ‘That’s not good enough. That’s not right. We can do better.’ That carries across to the entire business — not being afraid to shut down a product, to change a sales strategy, to wipe down the canvas, if you will, and start over.”

Cates likes to be involved in the design of the Sarreid showroom for each High Point Market, where his paintings complement the furniture introductions.

‘We intend to delight’

As he set out to do when he went to work for Sarreid, Cates says he is “extraordinarily involved in everything that we do,” from the financials and sales to product development and showroom design to marketing — especially, these days, the marketing.

“I’m involved in anything graphic, whether that be printed material, social media posts, email blasts, blogs, newsletters. I truly believe that Sarreid is a media company that happens to trade in furniture,” he says. “We are a high-end brand and we have to portray an image of a high-end brand.” The company recently revamped its brand imagery and its communications to make them more consistent, compelling and easy to understand.

Cates eyes the company’s marketing materials the same way he does Sarreid’s products and his own paintings: focused on composition, color, scale.

Although he paints during sporadic marathons, Cates’ approach to product development is more methodical. He and his team are working 18 months ahead, with “a steady cadence of new product coming in” that allows the company to introduce and sell between major furniture markets.

Goldendoodle Lucy likes to be in Cates’ art studio. He works in acrylics and oils. Lucy prefers rubber balls.

That means Sarreid’s High Point showroom is evolving, too. It will be less centered on a display hundreds of new products and more focused on a lifestyle statement. “We want people to come in and say, ‘Oh, I would love to live here. My client would love this,’” Cates says. “We want to be a great partner to our customers, and our constant message is that we intend to delight.”

Cates is delighted when he sells one of his paintings to buyer who intends to pair it with Sarreid furnishings. “I’ve sold pieces to customers, who say, ‘This is going to go into Mrs. Smith’s house. We’re going to do it with this and this and these pieces.’ That just makes my day because those paintings were designed to go with the Sarreid palette and look.”

“My favorite thing is when somebody sends me a picture of a painting in their space or their client’s space after installation,” he adds. “It’s really nice to able to trust that paintings will go where they’ll be safe and in a beautiful place.”

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