Sally Linville’s business was hatched from a childhood birthday gift and a flock of faux sheep.
“The day before one of my middle school birthdays, my parents didn’t have a great gift idea for me, so they thought, ‘Well, let’s just get Sally some baby chicks,’ ” she recalled. “I loved watching them. They’re so awkward and always picking at the ground, I just had so much fun with them.”
Years later, she was a student at Kansas State University. For the final project of her furniture design studio class, she created Henny and Penny chicken stools — the sort you can plunk your feet on after settling into a cushy arm chair.
“I looked around and all my classmates were making beautiful tables and chairs and special pieces of furniture,” she said. “So when I got a semester to spend creating whatever I wanted, I wanted to explore my love of chickens. And I knew about the Lalanne sheep ottoman so I started with that.”
The iconic and lifelike Lalanne sheep were created more than 40 years ago by the French artist Francois-Xavier Lalanne, using actual sheepskins for the sculptures’ coats; the feet and faces were cast in bronze. Knock-offs sell for several hundred dollars while the originals have been auctioned for sums of six and even seven figures.
Linville approached her instructor, Steve Davidson, with the idea to make Henny and Penny. She worried that he’d shut down her eccentric proposal.
“Instead, he said, ‘What is the essence of a chicken?’ ” she recalled. “If he had said no, this would have never happened, so I am always thankful to him and the program.”
She graduated in 2010 with a masters in interior architecture and product design. And “this” is TheCityGirlFarm studio, which she recently moved from rural Lyons, Kan., to the cluster of antiques shops along West 45th Street.
It’s where she gives life to whimsical chicken stools with names like Little Perris, Owen, Berkeley, Phoebe, Ophelia and Royce.
After Linville finished Henny and Penny, she took them out on campus and was amazed by the reactions of other students and faculty.
“They would smile and laugh and then someone asked if I was making these to sell because they wanted one in their home,” she said. Not long after, she was accepted to show her chickens at the New York International Gift Fair.
She had so many retailers from across the country interested in selling them that she was forced to pull back and figure out a business plan that would allow her to have a hand in making each chicken.
“So that was a learning experience,” she said. “It takes a lot of hours to make one.”
The chickens, which come in two sizes, cost about $950 to $1,650. They can be purchased in her studio by appointment only; at George, A Lifestyle Store in Crestwood; and at thecitygirlfarm.com.
Connie Beall says George, A Lifestyle Store has adopted out several dozen chickens since it began carrying them three years ago.
“Because the chickens are usually in the front part of store, they bring a lot of people in because they want to see what they are,” saysBeall, the manager of George.
When Linville started designing Henny and Penny, they had feet the size of real chickens. But Linville quickly realized she had to super-size them to support the girth of the plump chickens, which are built around solid wood eggs the size of melons.
“Conceptually, that was important to me, so if someone squeezes it, they can feel the egg,” Linville said.
She hand-turned the wooden cores for Henny and Penny, but has since relinquished that duty to her father. Ad Astra Art Bronze in Lawrence casts the feet and beaks in bronze. Each beak is attached to a long spring that serves as a bouncy neck.
Where she attaches the feet and springy neck determines the demeanor of the chicken. Attach them one way and the chicken looks like it’s strutting. Attach them another way and it looks like it’s eating or pecking at the ground.
Linville then covers the wood egg with batting and fabric, to which she attaches the plumage, made by either hand-felting merino wool or hand-knitting hair from goats or alpacas. She uses natural materials in a wide assortment of hues and textures. Sometimes she adds floral or embroidered flourishes.
Beall says all types of people are drawn to the stools.
“We’ve had men love them, women love them, all ages, and they’ve bought them for all styles of home — traditional, modern, even minimalist,” she added. “They’ve gone in sophisticated somewhat dressy living rooms and into casual family rooms or kitchens. And they’re more than just chickens; they come with personalities. We’ve had people place special orders in specific colors with the head up or head down.”
Working the wool
Linville gave a tour of the studio recently, pointing out the wheel where she hand-spins goat and alpaca hair into the yarn she uses to knit swatches of curly plumage.
Then she led the way to a back room that housed a machine with what looked like an extra large round hairbrush. It’s a drum carder that cleans and combs the merino wool fibers so they’re all going in the same direction, or what is known in felting parlance as batt.
Linville hopes to get her own sheep for wool one day, but for the time being she gets it from organically raised sheep in Northern California.
“You can feel the lanolin on it,” she said, holding out a puff of fibers that felt oily, like human hair that needs a good shampoo.
She moved on to a large felting table that looked like a flat metal sink lined with bubble wrap. She wet the batt with hot water then squirted dish soap onto it.
“Hot water shocks the fibers into compressing,” she said, rubbing the layers of wet fibers over the bubble wrap.
“Anything with texture will agitate it,” she said. “Every felter has their own process but this is what we have found works.”
After a minute or two, she had a solid swatch of felted wool. Shelves in the studio are filled with similar swatches in all colors of the rainbow.
The next step in creating the chicken stools is to hand-stitch the felted or knitted plumage swatches onto the padded eggs. Linville has hired help to do this. She calls them her chickeners.
No two chickens are alike, though they all have one thing in common: a bright red comb atop their heads.
“You know a chicken is finished when we put her red comb on,” Linville said. “That’s when her personality comes out and is solidified and that’s when the name comes to me.”
1807 W. 45th St. thecitygirlfarm.com; 316-285-0435