09/07/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Judi Boisson admits she has a quilt complex. It dates back to 1976 and a New York City-to-Dallas road trip. Packed into a rusty Oldsmobile in 110-degree heat with two friends and her two adolescent daughters, Boisson still couldn't resist stopping at a run-down Texarkana antique store. Inside, she remembers, she was drawn to "the cutest little patchwork." Price: $5. Thrilled by the find, she began searching for more. By trip's end, she'd piled some 20 quilts on top of her suitcases—and her kids. From then on, recalls Boisson's daughter Baret: "Wherever we went, there was always another boring flea market or antique store. I hated it. But now we know she's a genius."
She's certainly savvy. In 1979, Boisson began peddling vintage quilts at a shop she opened in Southampton, N.Y. Nineteen years later, she's running an $8 million-a-year business creating and manufacturing her own designs. To produce her line, which also includes pillows and rugs (priced from $20 for a baby heart pillow to $1,295 for a king-size Basket Trapunto quilt) and which are sold through her $10 Judi Boisson American Home Collection mail-order catalog, Boisson employs some 3,000 people in eight factories across China. "The way we make our quilts," she boasts of her hand-sewn creations, "is exactly the way they made them in the 1880s. You can almost look at an American quilt and imagine what a family was like."
Her exacting standards have helped the 57-year-old Boisson sew up a long list of Hollywood clients. Helen Hunt picked a white grape cluster throw ($595), while Kim Basinger chose Boisson's Galaxy quilt ($635). "The first one I got from Judi was actually an antique," says model Kathy Ireland, who owns 12 Boisson blankets. "Most of the ones I have now are new. They're much more affordable, and they're beautiful." Other celebs, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Spielberg, have bought Boisson blankets for their children. "They're giving the baby something that can be handed down from generation to generation," says Lisa Gorevitz, a vice president at Barneys New York, which sells Boisson's kids' covers. "We love her quilts."
Boisson's background is as colorful as one of her patchworks. The middle of three daughters of Edwin Schweig, a lawyer, and Sarah, a homemaker, she grew up in Wood-mere, N.Y., where, even as a child, she had a taste for homegrown art. "I loved creating sculptures with candies," she says. "I also painted frames around my pictures on the walls." Boisson studied art at Columbia University and at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. There, in 1962, she married fellow art student Bob Testen; daughter Baret was born in 1963 and Erin followed 18 months later. Soon after, they moved to Suriname, in South America, where Testen ran a shrimping company owned by Boisson's father and Judi raised their girls. In her free time she explored the jungles, observing the native Indians and collecting their artifacts.
After splitting from Testen in 1968, Judi met and married Philippe Boisson, a French lumber mill owner, the following year. In 1970 the family moved to Dallas, where Boisson took her first job, as a sales agent for a clothing company. Crisscrossing the South on business, she stopped at every yard sale she passed, always looking to add to her folk art and, later, quilt collections. "My taste was very unsophisticated. I bought what I loved," says Boisson. "At the time I was one of the only people who wanted the pastel mid western quilts. One woman thanked me for buying them. Nobody wanted them."
Boisson's prescience paid off when she opened her Southampton store after her second marriage ended in 1979. As her antique bedspreads quickly sold, she found replacing them increasingly difficult. "I just wasn't finding beautiful quilts," she says. "They were already in people's collections." And when she did find a gem, customers were often wary of buying it for fear it would fall apart when washed. "People wanted fresh quilts," she says. "I was missing a huge market."
So in 1991 Boisson began designing her own quilts. Sales proved so brisk that she closed her store three years later to devote herself to mailorder sales. To help handle the volume, daughter Baret took over the catalog division, while Erin began overseeing sales.
These days, Boisson spends hours on end sprawled on the hardwood floor of her 100-year-old Victorian Southampton home sketching new designs. She draws inspiration from her collection of Americana—including a model farm made from junk items and a hand-painted Mickey Mouse. "Many of them were made by fathers who wanted to make something for their children. They made them out of love," she says. "That's how I feel about my quilts."
Eve Heyn in Southampton