The founder of New York's premier prop rental shop talks about how she started the business while working as a stylist, why it's better to rent than to buy, and where she gets all that stuff.
This article has been contributed from the Fall 2010 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.
Photographs by Carolyn Fong.
Dyann Klein, former stylist and now CEO of Props For Today, owns the largest prop rental house in New York, catering to photo and film shoots, trade shows and events. Are you a stylist who needs to shape up that kooky set by using a guitar box as a coffee table? Need 11-foot faux elephant tusks in a jiffy? Perhaps a sepia-hued love letter still propped up inside a Smith Corona manual typewriter from the Roaring 20s would be your dig. Props For Today has what you need, whether it’s shabby-chic, new vintage, baroque, Art Deco, or any other period, including mid-century and contemporary. How about shooting right at Props For Today to avoid your trucking expenses? Need to paint a prop? Change it? Props For Today has you covered. Just make sure to ask for permission and restore it back before returning it.
Dyann’s showrooms are packed from floor to ceiling with anything between 600,000 to a million props, furniture, and other odds and ends tailored to a wide variety of tastes. She tells us how it all started with 500 feet worth of dinnerware.
Were you already working in the photo production industry before starting Props For Today? How did you start your company?
I began as a stylist, food stylist, and set decorator for TV commercials. I started Props For Today exactly in June 1980. I like being behind the scenes better than being the stylist. I like doing my own thing; I was the kid with the lemonade stand. I made jewelry to pay for my college. I’ve always been business-oriented in a creative way. I started Props For Today with renting out dinnerware for photography shoots. I had $5,000 and rented 500 square feet and filled them with white dinnerware—plain white, modern—because nobody had it. Food photography often focused on using white dinnerware. Being a food stylist, I knew it was really hard to get dinnerware for rental. You had to go to showrooms, or go to department stores and buy and return. It was very time consuming. Stylists could spend a whole day trying to get three white dishes for a shoot. It was also very costly to schlep around shopping bags from Bloomingdale’s to Macy’s to everywhere all day long. I saw a market possibility where there was a vacancy. So I decided to open up a resource where you could rent antique as well as contemporary dinnerware. I did everything. I was doing shipping, answering phones, buying and collecting. And over the years I bought other props companies. Now we have so many themes and time periods to choose from—anything from the Middle Ages all the way up to New Age.
Where do you find such a wide selection of props?
Trade secret! I get furniture honestly from all over the world, in all different ways. You know, from yard sales to manufacturers to import. We go to trade shows, antique shows, and all kinds of things. We have objects here from Morocco, England, France, Bali, Africa, Indonesia, and most recently, an absinthe cup from New Orleans. I recently went there and learned about absinthe. There’s a lot of interest in it right now in New Orleans, so I brought that back. I brought back some voodoo stuff too. I brought a lot back from India, China, wherever I go.
Do you follow design trends?
I can’t imagine where there would be a more fashion-forward prop house than Props For Today; we’re very much trend-oriented. There are pink and green items over there, which are very Lily Pulitzer: home follows fashion a lot and those are fashion colors right now. I also just went to Sweden so we’re going to showcase some of the Swedish lifestyle. I think with the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as all the Swedish films coming out, there’s going to be some interest in that as a trend. Most of it is really visualizing, seeing what people are interested in, seeing what interests me and finding ways to present props in a new inspiration. We’re very involved with creating inspiration for people. And our customers are well versed and they know design trends well. We do trust our customers, who are talented people.
How big is Props For Today compared to other prop rental companies around the city?
About twenty people are on staff at the moment. I would say we are probably the largest one. First of all, our staff is wonderful. When I opened this company you couldn’t go to a prop house where they were nice to you. That was one of the reasons I started my company. We offer snacks, and we have a lounge and WiFi for our customers because I know what it’s like as a stylist to not have anything [while you are running around]. You’re working hard all day and you have no time to stop to eat anything. Just putting out a little food and some drinks so people can do their work here is very important. I think that level of interest in the customer and having been a stylist myself differentiate Props For Today a lot. The founding idea of the company is to be nice to people and people will come. It’s really one of the major things for us.
It’s kind of like that movie, Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.” So is that your company motto? Be nice and they will come?
That’s what inspired me to start this company, along with offering tasteful modern décor. Be nice and they will come is a perfect theme for us. That’s another cultural thing. Neiman Marcus is known for customer service and really trying to understand what the customer’s needs are, and I think we’re like that. We’ll go over the top, we’ll email photos if people can’t come in; we’ll help them figure out a theme; and we’ll assist the newcomers who need a little help. Everyone here was trained and everyone knows the different style periods. They all have to take a test about design history when they come to work at Props For Today.