Nov. 30, 2005, 11:30PM
Business rises up out of the ashes
Nassau Bay couple's furniture company a direct result of fire that burned their home

Chronicle Correspondent

Some people are, by nature, a jack-of-all-trades.

Take Joe Marcinkowski. The 64-year-old Nassau Bay resident worked overseas in the oil industry for years, claiming such companies as Kellogg Brown & Root on his résumé.

For a while, he sold anatomy and physiology software to colleges with medical schools. Before that, he marketed inter-active CD ROM software.

"Most of the time, I've been told I'm ahead of my time," Marcinkowski said. "But this time, I think I've hit it just about right."

What he's doing now happened quite by accident. Eight years ago, he and his wife Laura lost their possessions when their Clear Lake condominium burned down.

When they found a new place to live, they decided to refurbish it in the Bauhaus style, which originated in Germany in the 1920s and which emphasizes function over form.

Instead of only scouring antique shops, Marcinkowski also turned to eBay, a move which would have a dramatic consequence on he and his wife's lives.

"We bought twice as much as we needed," Marcinkowski said, laughing. "What happens to you is you get hooked."

His wife told him to stop, warning him the furniture would overwhelm their home.

"He was going crazy," she said. "I said, 'What do you think we have? A castle?' "

Marcinkowski, however, started buying more and discovered he could sell them.

"When I saw what I could sell these pieces for on eBay, I got excited," he said. "I said, 'This is a business.' "

And so Metro Retro Furniture was born.

Marcinkowski searched for furniture from the '40s and '50s and put it up on eBay. His wife handled the accounting.

"I knew there was a pent-up demand for these pieces," Marcinkowski said of his calculated risk. "Younger people are getting tired of furniture you can just throw away. Plus, these pieces look different from their mothers' antiques."

He said eBay provided just the right touch to his business venture, mostly because, "you can reach people all over the world all the time."

Soon, his two-person company had expanded and Marcinkowski bought a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Pasadena, where all the furniture is stored and refurbished. He opened a store on Westheimer in Houston, but still does the majority of his business online, where customers from Los Angeles, New York, Prague and Tokyo buy most of his ware.

Marcinkowski fields never-ending calls from interested buyers and sellers and handles customers who pop in to view the more than 3,000 pieces of furniture in the warehouse.

His office is crammed with books about designers and the walls are plastered with posters about design and art events. As he tours his warehouse, Marcinkowski touches a white table, feels the lines of a smooth red couch and waxes lyrically about the beauty of a large, clean wooden desk.

"That's a rosewood desk," he said, pausing as he felt the fine grain of wood. "You can't get rosewood anymore."

Bauhaus, he said, caught his fancy because, "there's a school of thought behind it. It's a level of design that's never been seen before."

He loves his job — and is good at it — because he works hard. He reads design books frantically. He researches pieces.

He uses his seemingly natural eye for good design.

His house, he said, is his artwork.

"I eat at a Florence Knoll table, sit on an Eames soft pad chair, my lounge chair is Zapf, and I play chess on a stool by Eames," he said. "They're all my favorite pieces. It's hard to pick just one out."

His work is his hobby — and a passionate one.

"You're studying a new field, you're learning," he said. "It's exciting."

It doesn't hurt that it pays well. One of his best sales was an Eero Saarinen table, which sold for $4,800. Mostly, though, it's the passion that keeps him going.

As he gushes over some of his favorite pieces in a pile of design books, he pauses for a second, a faraway look in his eyes.

"I would have made a good architect," he said.