At the edge of a farm near the path to the raspberries is a small outbuilding. It’s an unassuming shack treated to fresh coats of white paint; the diagonal braces of its two wide-open doors, left natural, form a welcoming and rustic double Z. Sitting on a raised platform, humble chairs flank each side of the entrance, and a wavy tin overhang extends from the roof; the faint scent of lavender and citrusy bergamot entices from within. This idyllic cottage is the Farmaesthetics pop-up shop at Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, and like this former tool shed turned apothecary, there’s more to this endeavor than meets the eye.
For the uninitiated, Farmaesthetics is a line of all-natural skincare made right here in Rhode Island with organically grown herbs and flowers. It was founded by Brenda Brock, now an acclaimed leader in sustainable beauty, then an actress on the soap opera One Life to Live, who spent her down-time mixing herbal formulas into soaps and lotions to show her young daughter Lela Barclay de Tolly that products “don’t grow on shelves.”
By the summer of 1999, Brock had enough inventory to sell her mixtures. The family, which includes husband Paul Barclay de Tolly, a noted furniture maker, relocated a 1920s pie stand from Charlestown to Wapping Road in Middletown as their first retail space. Lela was six years old. “She would help pack goodie bags,” Brock recounts. “Lela has been there every step of the way.”
Like her parents, Barclay de Tolly is artistically inclined. She graduated from RISD with a degree in furniture design and headed west where she worked in Los Angeles doing set design and props. When the pandemic hit, she suggested her mother shutter the Farmaesthetics flagship store in Newport, which had been on Bellevue Avenue for 13 years. “It was time for a fresh vision,” says Barclay de Tolly of the brand and, as it turns out, her own life. “The foothills were on fire, it was raining ash, and it was 100 degrees. Plus COVID. It was a lot and I wanted to be near family and the ocean.”
Barclay de Tolly returned to the Ocean State. Brock was thrilled and installed her daughter as the company’s first-ever art director. “It made perfect sense,” says Brock. “She knows the business inside and out.”
It was Barclay de Tolly who came up with the idea of the pop-up. “I knew immediately I wanted to do it at Sweet Berry Farm given the parallels in the two entrepreneurs’ businesses, having both started at farm stands in 1999 on Wapping Road in Middletown,” she explains, referencing longtime friends and neighbors Jan and Michelle Eckhart, who own Sweet Berry, originally a hobby farm that has grown to a pick-your-own destination with a cafe and market.
The Farmaesthetics pop-up at Sweet Berry Farm would be Barclay de Tolly’s solo project. “Brenda has her fingerprint on everything,” says Barclay de Tolly. “She’s the formulator, designs the packaging. This was the first time she completely let go.” Brock confirms, “I didn’t even want to visit [the site] because I didn’t want to interfere with her vision.”
This vision started with taking a second look at a “really dirty” tool shed on the Sweet Berry Farm property. “I wanted to keep the pop-up sustainable and local, supporting local creators and artists.” For three months, Barclay de Tolly planned, researched, and did technical drawings. The porch was cleaned and built out, and electricity was put in; then, over the course of two weeks, it was painted and decorated. A sink, reclaimed from a Newport mansion that had been in the Bellevue shop, was installed, and furniture was sourced from thrift stores. Finally, shelves were lined with signature small-batch goods housed in frosted glass bottles, jars, or wrapped in luxe paper, with simple and effective labels, drawing on a font suite that resembles typewriting paired with cursive.
“I love the white walls with exposed beams,” Barclay de Tolly says with a sunny smile. “There’s a bright, fresh feeling with the rustic tones of the building. The dried and hanging lavender comes from my coworker’s garden, the ceramic bowls were made by a local potter, the sign was hand-painted in Providence, the tables were designed and built by my father, the paintings were my great grandmother’s. It was heartwarming being able to reimagine my mother’s original farm stand, creating a modern-day iteration of what her business has grown to be.”
And what does mom think? “It’s a new vision but the heart of the brand is the same,” says Brock. “High-end in a little shed. We’re going back to the farm.”
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