When he’s not hauling in deep bombs or planting crushing blocks, San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis finds himself in a rather unusual place for a 6-foot-3, 250-pound Pro Bowler: a design studio.
Yes, Davis is co-founder of Modern Class Design alongside former record executive Antone Barnes.
The seeds were planted in college; although he’d never done anything involving art before then, he decided to break a bit from the jock stereotype -- much as artist/photographer/writer/Pittsburgh Steelers running back Baron Batch has -- and major in studio art at the University of Maryland.
“I just followed my heart,” he said, “and never looked back.” That meant continuing to paint and visit museums after college (he’s been to the Louvre, although the Young Museum in San Francisco remains his preference -- as is abstract art, with Todd Clark as his favorite artist).
Still, Davis’ passion for art was restricted to recreation until he became friends with Barnes. Davis and Barnes -- who has collaborated with the likes of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Prince and Stevie Wonder -- had crossed paths for years, but it was a party at Barnes’ house that led to their eventual business.
Davis was so impressed by the stylish design of Barnes’ home that he immediately offered Barnes the opportunity to design his brother’s house. Vontae, now with the Indianapolis Colts, had just been drafted by the Miami Dolphins, and not long after his South Florida home was complete, teammates Sean Smith and Reshad Jones asked Barnes to design their homes as well.
A business was in the works. Then, in 2011, Davis and Barnes took their mutual passions for art and design and formed their company.
“We’re breaking the stereotype,” Barnes says. “Everybody has a certain image of what an interior designer looks like and what interior designers do. As young African-American men, we’re breaking down those walls.”
The business model: working with athletes and other high-end clientele to customize their homes with unique design and artwork. And when describing it, Davis puts on his salesman hat:
“Every client is different, so every design has to be different,” he says.
Barnes echoes this sentiment, saying: “We take pride in our self-taught approach. We set trends. We do not follow them.”
MCD took off right away but wanted more. Enter Sean Spanek and SportStar Relocation, the top national athlete relocation company (a lucrative business when it comes to athletes, what with sports’ constant player movement). Davis met Spanek at the 2009 birthday party for 49ers running back Frank Gore; Spanek, based in the Bay Area, had secured the luxury home for the event.
Later, when MCD started growing, Spanek, Davis and Barnes recognized an obvious synergy. MCD was looking to tap into the vast network of athlete homeowners, and SportStar was uniquely positioned to help grow their business.
So they partnered up, with Spanek saying the move will “allow us to take the company to a whole ‘nother level.”
And so there they stand.
As for Davis’ recreational art, that’s simply a hobby at this point -- especially when the games begin.
“I want to work as hard as I possibly can and help my team win,” Davis says. “During the season, football is my art. I can’t walk away from a painting until the canvas is complete. Just like I can’t walk away from the football field ‘til I get it right.”
But although some teammates offer good-natured trash talk toward Davis about his abstract-inspired style -- “Justin Smith teases me all the time, saying, ‘Man, that’s not nothing; my son could do this!’” he says -- Davis does have an idea that maybe, like Modern Class Design, his own work could eventually be a business itself.
“I haven’t put my art out commercially yet,” he says, “but maybe one day.”