Robert Mogel is no artist, but his business caters to those who are.
Mogel started French Canvas in 2005 with Franck Moeglen, a friend who is both French and an artist, to produce high-quality stretcher frames, canvases, and wood panels for professional artists. Moeglen, Mogel says, “felt the products here were far inferior to the quality you find in Europe. We offer really good prices, and our products are made in America—we use American wood and manufacture the wood ourselves.”
As to how Mogel gained expertise in the manufacture of frames and canvases, he says, “through my partner and through trial and error and experience, and working with artists who helped us understand what they want and what they need.” Mogel bought out his partner in 2010 when he returned to France.
Mogel grew up in Manalapan. His now-retired father, who was an art director for Phillip Morris, is actually a painter, although Mogel says, “I inherited none of his talent.” Mogel is happy that he can supply his dad with canvases for his paintings of horses and portraits of his grandchildren and others.
The “French” aspect of the business is actually “the French tradition of stretching and folding in a special way so that the canvases can easily be re-stretched in the future,” said Mogel, a Lawrence resident, in an email.
The business offers custom frame sizes, which can be quite large, contrasted to most art supply stores, which sell frames in only a dozen or so standard sizes. Whereas stores offer frames that usually have been made overseas months before they are sold, French Canvas actually creates a frame right after an order is placed. Many of his competitors use softwoods, which retain more water and hence are more likely to warp, but French Canvas uses only hardwoods in its frames.
French Canvas has a couple thousand customers, largely gallery artists, including some of America’s leading artists, like contemporary painters Peter Max and Peter Sacks, as well as local artists like Jannick Wildeberg, Wendy Vroom, and Geoffrey Dorfman.
Mogel and his five employees produce about 100 frames a week in his 10,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility at 200 Whitehead Road in Hamilton. The raw wood, which comes from forests in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is cut, stripped, then molded into a specific shape with a lip on it. The cotton canvas comes from Marietta, Georgia, in 100-yard rolls that can be up to 12 feet wide.
In the last couple of years, Mogel has added two new products playing off of the recent adult coloring trend and “art therapy” coloring books. He offers canvases printed with a mandala, which in the Hindu spiritual tradition means “universe” and serves as a tool for establishing a sacred space and as an aid to meditation. “Color by numbers has a calming affect on people,” Mogels says.
Another new product is canvases printed with child-themed pictures, like Aesop’s fables, with dogs and princesses. “You can give it to a child, and they can paint it or do it with magic markers, then can hang it up on a wall,” Mogel said.
Mogel himself came to the arts and crafts market from a career in international business. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1988 from Brandeis University, he received a master’s degree in international business from the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs in 1990.
During the ’90s, Mogel oversaw international sales for the Niagara Falls, New York, medical products company Silipos, whose gel technology is used in orthopedics, prosthetics, health and beauty aids, and he was always on the road. In 1999, the company was sold, and shortly after that he and his partner started a family, so it was time for a change. “I wanted something where I wouldn’t have to travel,” he says.
Describing his family as French-American, they moved to Lawrence from Montclair in 2004 when their oldest daughter was two, to be closer to the French American School in Princeton. His older daughter, now 14, and her 12-year-old twin sisters spent time at both the French American School and in the Lawrence Public Schools. Busy with his family and his business, Mogel says he does not have much free time for other activities.
Contrasting his current business with his earlier experience in international sales, Mogel said, “There is a lot of stress in being an entrepreneur—the pressure of running a company versus being an employee.”
But he also enjoys what he does. “I like the fact that we’re doing something that is unique, that we’re making products here in the States,” he said. “It’s easier to buy something that someone else is making. I’m glad we made the decision [to make products locally] because it has been financially rewarding and gives us more control of the quality of the product and is thus more rewarding.”