If one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, then Kenyan Lewis has made a living from the latter. As a prop master in Warwick, New York, finding vintage typewriters, worn photographs, and antique tools for clients is all in a day’s work.
Prop masters like Lewis help market or brand a product or concept by discriminately selecting and delicately positioning items throughout a venue or at a photo shoot to create the specific atmosphere that their clients want to convey. Many fashion designers or retailers hire prop masters on a freelance basis, but they can also work full time for the company. While prop masters can work with all genres and aesthetics, Lewis and his crew of three employees, sell, rent, and refurbish antiques for large and small businesses and private collectors.
For example, when Andre Benjamin (formerly Andre 3000 of the hip-hop duo Outkast) launched, Benjamin Bixby, his line of menswear in 2007, he hired Lewis’s business, ByKenyan Props, to create a 1930s football theme at boutiques set up for the clothing line in Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Harrods, and Liberty in London. Lewis’ montages came complete with old scoreboards, wool jerseys, and leather helmets. He even tracked down hot air balloon baskets to match with Benjamin Bixby’s logo. Lewis sourced items that ran with an old 1910 German fighter pilot theme for Benjamin Bixby’s Red Baron theme the next season.
In the 12 years since the 38-year-old prop master started his own business, he has collected nearly 5,000 antiques. Even though he stays away from providing props for movies, celebrities often seek his help to decorate their homes in an early Americana aesthetic. Because of the recession, Lewis predicts that his revenue will be $80,000 in 2009, which is below average, but in a good year he normally makes $200,000. Last year he brought in $120,000 just from one designer who was launching a new brand.
BlackEnterprise.com talked with Lewis about his passion for props, the path that led him into the business, and his pointers for people who want to pursue his craft.
BlackEnteprise.com: What is a day in your life like?
Kenyan Lewis: It starts out with someone looking for something– a vintage ladder or bench, or old signage. My day consists of searching on the Internet, driving around town, calling sources, and at times reproducing items myself, which is a great joy because I am taking something new and giving it an old-world charm.
I travel at least three to four times a week. Sometimes I fly, but I have a huge old 1968 van, like an ice cream truck [that] I’ll take that to Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Florida, depending on where the antique markets are. I’m constantly looking for estate sales in newspapers and on the Web.