Ottoman Empire 

For one Richmond woman, building her brand of ottomans is a spiritual thing.

And the idea for the specialty ottomans came to Kent a year and a half ago when she bought a basswood box from a thrift store. Kent's mother had asked her for an ottoman. Kent, who calls herself "innovative," was searching for something she could use to make one. Seeing the crate was like a revelation, she recalls. "All of a sudden I had a vision of how to design my ottoman in that box."

Since then, the 50-year-old former dental assistant has created 21 of the things. Each made-from-scratch ottoman is different. But what makes Kent's footrests unique may have more to do with versatility and pure will than providence. In fact, the ottoman's design soon could become Kent's proprietary invention.

Recently, Kent received official notice from the United States Patent and Trademark Office that her application to patent her ottoman had been approved. She holds up a letter from her lawyer as if it were a prize. "Congratulations! The patent office has agreed to issue a patent for a combined ottoman, table and storage chest," the missive informs.

Kent has waited nearly eight years to get this kind of confirmation.

Twice Kent has failed to receive patents for ideas she hoped would help make a name — and, who knows, possibly a fortune — for her interior-design business. Kent's first idea was to imitate a Palladian-style window with a cutout of thick white cardboard. She demonstrates:

Her dining room is resplendent in mirrors and green Depression glass. The table is set for six, and the smell of citrus candles seems to waft serendipity. Kent stands poised on tiptoes beneath her drapes and gently removes an oval-shaped faux frame secured to the dining room window with Velcro. But, alas. An inventor in California came up with the idea and patented it a year before, she says.

A few years later, Kent thought of a way to make her deck more delicate and private. She enclosed it in a shower-curtainlike manner with white gauzy fabric. This time, a creative West Virginian had submitted the notion first, she says. Though she admits it had drawbacks. "My neighbors were laughing at me, seeing me trying to pull those curtains together in the wind," she says amusedly.

Some might think it remarkable that, apparently, no one else has conjured Kent's precise ottoman design and requested a patent before now. Its three-function use is simple, really. Mostly, it serves as a footrest. There is a 4-inch, hand-stitched cushion on top. Turn the cushion over and it's a table. Lift the lid and put something in it — Kent keeps a blanket in one of hers — and it's a storage chest, too.

The lip around its edge is important, Kent explains. Without it the top wouldn't fit right and the ottoman or its flip-side table would wobble. So Kent carefully measures each strip of wood before she cuts and nails it. Then there's all the sewing to do. Kent's white Singer faces a window in her small upstairs workshop. Stencils are taped to the door. Bolts of fabric, slabs of green foam and tubes of paint are everywhere.

She gets most of her supplies on sale at discount shops. "I'm good with a penny," she asserts. And with pennies that add up like the 60 to 80 hours it takes to make each one, Kent multiplies her dream, one ottoman at a time.

Each year, thousands of people share Kent's dream of obtaining a patent and becoming bona-fide inventors. Last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office received 344,717 applications for patents; 187,824 were granted, says Maria Hernandez, a representative with the federal office's processing department. Now that Kent has received her "notice of allowance" that her patent application has been approved, she says it will likely take 19 to 21 months for Kent's official patent to be granted.

Kent's patent attorney, Norman Rainer, says it might take as few as three months. "I've been associated with inventions from a number of angles," says Rainer, a former chemist with DuPont, Philip Morris and Allied Signal. Rainer has 50 to 60 patents himself, he estimates. Rainer has been a patent lawyer for 30 years and currently has 100 active clients from around the world, he says.

A patent "is valuable in terms of protecting how an idea is made, used or sold," Rainer explains. And, he notes, seemingly simple ideas like Kent's often are the ones that need protecting. "I've made a good number of millionaires," says Rainer, citing a client in Ohio who invented a cardboard protector that prevents damage to printed materials. "He set up a factory. He can't make enough."

With any luck, Kent figures plenty of people will demand more from footrests once they've seen hers. And she hopes they'll pay $700 to $1,100 apiece to have one.

So far, the process of hiring a patent attorney and applying for the patent has cost her $2,500. Kent justifies the investment. "I really see the ottomans taking off dramatically," she predicts. "I see it as being very profitable." One of them is for sale at the Painted Attic in Carytown. She plans to put more of them in shops around town and display them at craft fairs.

Kent gushes with pride when she talks about her ottomans. Room by room she points them out. Some are stowed away; some are in plain view. They are, veritably, everywhere. One has a pink, rose-patterned velvet cushion with a big button in the middle.

Another is embellished with black satin Oriental fabric inside and out, and with upholstery tacks. "This is the dream, the dream one," Kent muses. It was her first. The tabletop is an intricate mosaic of a tiger. The cushion side has a tiger stenciled in paint on black velvet. There are handles on the sides and fringe allaround it.

"I'm getting more sophisticated," she professes. "But this was my naked box," she adds fondly, as if recalling her revelation in the thrift store long ago. "Idealistically, this is one of a kind. This is my baby. And I give Jesus all the praise." S


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