Co-founder Chris Lobato has moved his built environment manufacturer to Denver and rebranded as its offerings continue to grow.

Photos Jonathan Castner

The company, which Lobato founded with his wife, Michelle, was originally called Old World Designs, reflecting their work with imported Venetian plaster and U.S.-made architectural limestone. Michelle, he explains, was his first student in learning how to apply Venetian plaster finishes but left the company in 2012 for a corporate career.

“It was a blessing because had she not got that corporate job to support us financially we would not have survived,” Lobato states. “She was a vital part of the company even though she wasn’t active in the company since 2012.”

In 2018, they moved the then-13-year-old business to Denver and rebranded it as Aria Custom Design.

The rebranding was meant to sidestep preconceptions about the name, Old World. “We would make solicitation phone calls sometimes or introductions and you would get the reaction that, ‘We don’t do old world, we’re strictly modern design.’ Before you can get to anything outside of that they would really kind of cut you off,” Lobato explains.

The company does more than just recreate classic finishes, friezes, and columns. It makes contemporary fireplaces, does custom design work and gives those classic materials a place in contemporary, high-end residential and commercial design.

Lobato has created marble-like finishes and finishes one would find on ancient Roman structures. He’s also used architectural limestone — a composite of the right gradient crushed limestone — to create columns and other architectural pieces for his clients. Structural pieces, filled with a foam core are custom cast for clients. “They’re not solid-cast either because we wanted to eliminate a lot of the weight,” he explains.

The combination of old-world styling, with newer techniques and Aria’s ability to make contemporary pieces and elements is why its client list includes The Broadmoor, award-winning golf clubs, and high-end custom home builders.

An array of offerings gives Aria another advantage. “There are many fireplace stores, and then there are other companies that design and manufacture mantelpieces and surrounds, and then there are other individuals that do finish some plastering, but there’s not another company like ours that has the three elements together,” Lobato says. “Oftentimes we’ll be doing all three things on a project.”

Lobato started the company in Colorado Springs, but he increasingly found business coming from metro Denver. “In 2017 and 2018, about 70 percent to 80 percent of our business was here,” he says. “We were all tired of commuting, myself and my installation team. It was not fun.”

Another reason for moving the business to Denver was to allow Michelle to return to working with the business. She currently works at Aria part-time but plans to resume working with it full-time.

The move to Denver took some time. An initial search for space in the Denver area in 2017 wasn’t fruitful, according to Lobato. He couldn’t find the right location or pricing for his needs.

Then he “got a call out of the blue from the developers here of the International Design Collection Building. They invited us to come up and take a look at what they were doing. And, oh boy, it was a great location. It was just perfect timing and the right location.”

He moved the business in 2018. “We’re housed in a three-story building with other supply companies that are in the high-end building segment as well,” Lobato says

The open floor plan at the IDC Building allows potential customers to look for kitchen designs and flooring at the same time they’re consulting with Aria, or vice versa. “You freely flow from one business to the other and you hardly even know that you’ve exited one into the other. So it’s really a great concept and we share customers all the time.” With 3,000 square feet, Aria also has a bigger showroom than it did in Colorado Springs, allowing it to show more off more of its custom fireplace designs.

“We sold very little in the way of fireplaces in Colorado Springs, but actually all three elements of the business are moving together now at about the same pace,” Lobato notes.

Another benefit of being in Denver is increased reach. “We now have access to the mountain communities of Vail, Aspen and beyond,” says Lobato. “The people there will drive down to Denver to look at material and get high-quality stuff, but they would not go down to Colorado Springs.” And while most of Aria’s work is in Colorado, Lobato says the company has recently completed projects as far away as Houston and Las Vegas.

All that has led to increased revenues for the company in the past few years. For instance, in 2020, Lobato estimates that sales were up roughly 75 percent over last year. A large part of that is a growth in commercial restaurant and hospitality projects, which he estimates grew by 150 percent in 2020 over previous years.

That’s allowed Lobato to bring on a design assistant in 2020. “Something I’ve been wanting to have for a long time because product design just takes so much of my time. It’s been a great addition to the team,” he says. He hopes to make additional hires in sales, administration and installation in 2021 as well.

Challenges: “Being able to assemble the team that can come alongside me to assist me so that I can free up my time to continue with product development,” Lobato says. “I have a lot of product ideas that I’ve wanted to develop for the last six to eight years.”

Opportunities: “A wonderful opportunity is to just continue to expand our market reach,” Lobato says. “We’re gaining more presence in the mountain communities and more commercial projects. That’s the other thing that’s been pretty nice up here, access to and securing more commercial projects.”

Needs: “To remain focused on what we do best and, and secure the projects that we’re targeting,” says Lobato. “It’s just really expanding and expanding our relationship building and securing and nurturing those, those relationships.”