It started with a cast-off bedroom furniture set spotted on the curb.
Milwaukee sisters Svetlana Stanić ’08 ’13, Vesna Stanić ’08 and Duška Stanić hauled it back to their parents’ garage, determined to do something creative. They sanded, primed and painted until it looked like a whole new set — then quickly sold it on Facebook Marketplace.
That whim turned into a growing business known as Three Sisters Furniture. In their West Allis shop, the trio showcases their latest creations: side tables, nightstands and dressers in bold colors with artful detailing. In the back room, shelves overflow with sanders, paint brushes, furniture stain and a rainbow of paint cans, while decades-old furniture pieces await transformation.
The sisters know the power of reinvention. As Serbian children living in Bosnia during the country’s civil war in the 1990s, they spent 15 months in a concentration camp before they found a new life in Milwaukee. When they arrived in 1997, the girls spoke no English.
“We had to grow up much faster than your typical child, and living through that world and focusing on survival, we didn’t really get to do all the fun stuff, which makes us a little more childlike now,” Svetlana says. “It also made us much more resilient.”
Eventually, Svetlana and Vesna found themselves at Alverno thanks to the Mary Ann and Charles LaBahn Endowed Scholarship, which supports undergraduates of Serbian ethnicity. Svetlana intended to study nursing but found herself drawn to psychology and sociology and later returned for her master’s degree in community psychology. After graduation, she worked in health care and then social work at Children’s Wisconsin.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Svetlana felt the urge to make a change. “I decided to take some time off, reevaluate and focus on the [furniture] business so I can invest more time and build this up,” she says.
Vesna also joined Alverno with plans of studying nursing before deciding it wasn’t for her. Then a professor told her: “You’re really good at art. Why don’t you try art therapy?” After graduation, Vesna worked with people with disabilities as a case manager at Curative Care. While her career later moved in a different direction, she remains tied to her artistic roots.
The skills the sisters learned at Alverno have transferred well.
“Alverno helped me to be innovative and mindful — like speaking on your feet and using all your different skills in the moment,” Svetlana says.
Vesna says Alverno gave her the courage to speak up. “At Alverno, we did a lot of group work, and you couldn’t just stay quiet — everyone had to have input. So that helped me a lot,” she says.
“Also, taking art classes really helped me with creativity and how to express myself through art.”
They’ve learned how to work well as a team.
“We all have our strengths, so we try to focus on them,” Svetlana says. “Duška is the talker; she’s the marketing and salesperson. Vesna is the detail-oriented one, so she usually comes in at the end. I’m the muscle behind the operation and the jack of all trades.”
Alverno also helped the sisters become more conscious of their impact on the environment. They note that more than 80% of discarded furniture ends up in landfills — adding up to nearly 10 million tons of furniture every year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We’re trying to be more mindful by recycling this furniture and not ruining the environment that we live in further,” Svetlana explains.
They scavenge estate sales, thrift shops and street curbs for their next makeover project, and they also do home consultations when a client has a particular piece on hand or in mind.
“A lot of people have a very hard time articulating what they want,” Svetlana says. “Some people are more into keeping with the trends while other people are like, ‘I have this classic piece that was handed down to me from my great-grandma. I love the sentimental value of it, but I hate the look of it.’ So then we’ll come out, look at the entire space and bring it back to life.”
Duška and Vesna still have their day jobs but eventually hope to make the business a full-time job for all three sisters. Already clients from as far as Madison and Chicago have reached out with custom requests.
“I never thought about being an entrepreneur — it wasn’t one of those things that I grew up seeing possible,” Svetlana says. “But I’ve learned that with the proper tools and the right connections that you make through your education and your work, if you have a vision and you are passionate about something, you can make it happen. It’s amazing to show other people and our daughters that these things are possible.”