Making Their Mark
For hand-made artisans, having a showroom at a major market is seemingly unattainable dream. This summer, a new showroom made its debut at AmericasMart Atlanta. The Wild Rumpus Room was an amazing success, according to founder Martha Bennington, owner of The 3 Sisters Design Company.
“For small production studios coming to market, it can be a costly and overwhelming effort to be seen and stand out,” Bennington said. “This innovative cooperative model we came up with allows us to band together, have strength and purchasing power in numbers (for promotion, advertising, marketing) and most importantly become a one-stop shopping experience for our buyers of handmade, made in America products.”
The idea of a cooperative showroom model came about out of the frustration of handmade makers. Traveling, freighting displays and goods, setting up and tearing down and all of the other work that comes from working the temp markets led Bennington to be the “captain of her own ship” and seek out ways to get established at AmericasMart Atlanta. She reached out to Erin Smith to ask her some questions about the Atlanta market and caught her as she was setting up her first showroom. It turns out the space directly across from her was available.
“Having known and worked with Erin for years, I jumped at the opportunity to share space with her,” Bennington said. “The next step was curating a group of people that would share the space and be ‘urban pioneers’ …trying a cooperative showroom model that has not been tried before. I foresee more showroom models like ours in the future. The Wild Rumpus Room name and our fabulous Unicorn logo reflects the creative energy, outside the box thinking and unique products that artists bring to market. Buying directly from the artists should be a fun, innovative and dynamic experience.”
Currently all of the participants in the Wild Rumpus Room are women, but that may not always be so. “It just happened that at this point it was a female dominated showroom, which in itself was pretty spectacular,” Bennington said.
We talked with some of the women who are making their mark in the hand-made-in-America gift scene. They all share a resounding similarity: a love of creating. Their passion is inspiring, much like the products they are making. And they are banding together for a common goal: to get their products in the hands of appreciative consumers.
Q&A with Martha Bennington, The 3 Sisters Design Company
What inspired you to start creating? Laughingly, I don’t know how to do anything else! Everybody has a super power, mine is looking at something and seeing how I can create something unique and different out of it. I’m inspired by upcycling and recycling, particularly old, vintage items that have out-lived their usefulness. It’s fun and rewarding to reinvent them and give them new life. And it is equally satisfying to watch customers revel in the nostalgia.
What makes you happiest about your work? I get to do what I love all day, everyday. I get to make up the rules as I go along, and I’m so lucky that it doesn’t feel like ‘work’.
Describe your product line… The 3 Sisters Design Co., makes jewelry, accessories and home décor from found and recycled items. I use fire hose, record albums, license plates, bicycle rubber, game pieces, vintage ephemera and turn them into necklaces, earrings, purses, beer and wine coozies, night lights, buckles, belts, and anything else I can think of. Our latest best-selling item is reinventing the old plastic motel key fobs with new, updated, and completely made up in our silly mind locales, from sci-fi and comic book lairs, to route 66 locales and bawdy businesses.
What are your plans for your company in the near future? To continue to grow and market our unique product line at the major market centers, particularly in the cooperative showroom model. To continue to create unique handmade gifts and decor out of recycled and repurposed items. Who knows what we’ll come up with next!
What is the biggest challenge to making gift products in the USA? Our personal biggest challenge is raw material sourcing, and the bigger more important challenge for all handmade, made in America artists, is conveying how important buying made in the USA products is. Purchasing from me not only supports my US-based business, but also offers jobs to fellow Americans and revenue to the American companies I use for raw material. It’s a perfect circle of supporting our American economy.
What would you like potential customers to know about your company or products? I want my customers to know that every product that they purchase from The 3 Sisters Design Co., was made with by me, Big Sister. That all of our creations are made from recycled materials. We take pride not only in our craft, but also in the fact that we’re a green product, recycled, making the planet a better, cleaner place.
Q&A with Amy McDonald, Sugarhouse Greetings DBA Bottman Design
What inspired you to start creating? I started working for Bottman Design right after graduate school in Ceramic Arts. I was out of school but had no idea what to do with that degree. The Bottmans were potters at the time so I started working for them wedging clay and working part time teaching at the University of Utah. I gradually worked into a sales management job with the greeting card end of their business that they started up to replace doing handmade and very labor intensive clay work. I was their sales manager for 26 years! When the owners wanted to retire, I thought what am I going to do now? So I bought the company from them. I have changed the name to Sugarhouse Greetings – a little neighborhood near where I live.
What makes you happiest about your work? When our greeting cards make people smile. And when I come up with a greeting card that really ‘feels’ right….the image and the message work well together.
Describe your product line and how long you’ve been in business… Our lines are artist driven so to speak. We take an artist work and put it on greeting cards and other paper gifts like fridge pads and matchbook notes. We currently represent six artists; two are now created in-house. We have been in business for 28 years.
What are your plans for your company in the near future? To bring on a few more artists work
What is the biggest challenge to making gift products in the USA? Finding sources for some of the gift lines, especially napkins and tea towels (which I now don’t do because I can’t find reasonable resources for them)
What would you like potential customers to know about your company or products? We use high quality papers for a very reasonable price. We tend to go a little more toward the artsy side of the greeting card business.
Q&A with Laurie Freivogel, Kiku Handmade
What inspired you to start creating? I have been creating as long as I remember (remember latch hook rugs?). After about 2 years of being a full-time mom of two small children, I had a need to start creating again. I bought a small kiln (toaster-oven size), some scrap glass and some books and started experimenting, and found that I LOVED glass. After a year or so, I needed more than melted blobs and forged ahead to see if I could combine my art-school drawing and printmaking education with the glass, and never looked back.
What makes you happiest about your work? I love seeing how I can push the glass with printmaking, layers of color and pattern, and coming up with new designs. Opening the kiln to see a new design or experiment is my favorite time in my studio.
Describe your product line and how long you’ve been in business… I started Kiku 12 and a half years ago, in spring of 2001. Initially I worked small due to the constraints of my small kiln, mostly necklaces and belt buckles. Over the years I have acquired three larger kilns and my work keeps getting bigger with them. I still make buckles and little necklaces, but the focus of my work is functional, tabletop design pieces. My biggest sellers are coasters and little catch-all dishes, but I also make larger serving platters and bowls, with the design focusing on things like pop-culture icons and objects, heavy pattern-based nature designs, straight pattern inspired by Japanese and mid-century modern Scandinavian graphics, and my most popular city-centric designs featuring skylines and local landmarks. Since customization is something I love to do, I can find something for my stores across the country that will sell well for them.
What are your plans for your company in the near future? Keep on keeping on. I have my eyes and ears open to try and hit on any design trends as they are beginning to happen, and my desire to always experiment with the media will guarantee new styles of pieces for the next few years at least. Eventually I suppose I’d like to get an assistant, but I do love the total immersion of working solo in my studio.
What is the biggest challenge to making gift products in the USA? Easily it’s the cost. I use the best glass I can find, made in Portland, Oregon, but the best comes at a cost. My margins are slim and my products are pricey, but the goal is to educate the buying public about the virtues of buying handmade, made-in-America goods.
What would you like potential customers to know about your company or products? That I love every moment of making them, down to the many cuts I get. And that I have fancy band-aids.
Q&A with Erin Smith, Erin Smith Art
What inspired you to start creating? The current artwork that I create that combines artwork with prose, was, funnily enough, inspired by wine reviews. I was working at a high-end restaurant that had a substantial wine list, and we had wine tastings all of the time for education purposes. I would read the reviews of the wine and think they were just hysterical; “bright cherry that kisses you on the back of the lips”…being one example. I started combining my own family photos with painting and snarky sayings, and Erin Smith Art, and Holy Crap greeting cards were born.
What makes you happiest about your work? I love getting emails from people about how my cards have impacted them and their lives in a way that I never imagined. Apparently, there are a lot of people out there fighting cancer and having really difficult times in general, and my cards can put a smile on their faces. That makes me super happy. We have a wall in our studio with all of the emails and letters we receive, just to reiterate on a daily basis the impact we’re making.
Describe your product line and how long you’ve been in business… We have been in business for close to 12 years now. The product line has grown tremendously. I started out doing hand-stretched canvases, and then introduced greeting cards. The demand was so great for additional products that we started carrying our cocktail napkins, which are now one of our biggest sellers. We also offer Holy Crap tiaras, stainless steel travel mugs, charms, baby onesies. I also license a few items with Ephemera and High Cotton, and have been with them for years.
What are your plans for your company in the near future? We recently introduced a new card line called “Glinda.” It uses mixed media collage from my art journals and prose that I love. It has taken off in a huge way and I’d love to grow the line into gift as well. We have opened a permanent showroom in Atlanta, and have plans to expand to a permanent in Las Vegas Market as well.
What is the biggest challenge to making gift products in the USA? The price point. Everyone WANTS made in the USA, but your price point is going to be higher, obviously, than something produced in China. That’s a deal breaker for a lot of buyers. The market is definitely there for people that want to support companies producing not only by hand, but made in the USA.
What would you like potential customers to know about your company or products? We touch everything. Literally! Our warehouse is not some huge mega structure out in the boondocks. We actually make stuff. We are dedicated to made in the USA for the products that we provide directly to our customers. We have very loyal buyers that are very passionate about our products…and we love them for that.
Q&A with Lisa Regan, Garden Deva
What inspired you to start creating? I was making ceramic sculptures and I kept breaking everything. A friend in art school introduced me to a plasma torch and I never made a ceramic sculpture again.
What makes you happiest about your work? I love teaching others my craft. I have taught metalworking workshops in my studio for the last 10 years. The joy people get from doing what I do is wonderful!
Describe your product line and how long you’ve been in business… I make whimsical metal sculpture that blends the lines of functional and fine craft. “Deva” means “happy spirit” and that is the intention of my pieces. I have been in business 20 years.
What are your plans for your company in the near future? To always be making new items and have fun doing it.
What is the biggest challenge to making gift products in the USA? My biggest challenge is competing with China.
What would you like potential customers to know about your company or products? My work is all made in small batches and with love!
Q&A with Naomi Celestin, ReStrung Jewelry
What inspired you to start creating? I’ve been “making” my entire life. Whether constructing pocketbooks out of paper or making clay beaded necklaces, I grew up designing things. I was born into a family of creatives — musicians, artists and writers — so I think it’s just always been a part of my life.
What makes you happiest about your work? I love to sit down and make new pieces. After 4.5 years, I am still inspired to create jewelry with guitar strings. And beyond actually making jewelry, I am really proud of the brand that we’ve built with ReStrung. I never imagined that through this idea, I would be able to build a company that allows me to use my creativity, while supporting local women, and a cause that I believe in. I’m very proud of the fact that we employ an amazing team of a dozen local women, and we’ve got a solid base of loyal fans and customers, who provide me with so much inspiration. This is my daily dose of happy!
Describe your product line and how long you’ve been in business… ReStrung is handcrafted jewelry, made with recycled strings donated from musicians across the globe. I design the collection, and pieces are hand made by our team of local women at our New Orleans studio. Conceived in 2011, ReStrung is now available online and at over 350 fine retailers worldwide.
What are your plans for your company in the near future? 2016 was our “year of exploration.” My staff and I traveled all over the U.S. participating in different retail and wholesale events. We exhibited at music festivals, fine art fairs, trade shows and other events to find out where we fit. Based on our experiences, we are refining our events calendar and targeting our marketing efforts to grow smarter in 2017. We are very excited about our new permanent gallery space with The Wild Rumpus Room in America’s Mart, and expect to that exposure will help us increase our wholesale business!
What is the biggest challenge to making gift products in the USA? Well, of course our production costs for handmade in the USA are higher than if we were outsourcing, so our price points are higher than if we were made in China or Mexico. That can be a challenge when selling wholesale, but feel like our clientele understands and appreciates the quality of our work and the significance of our story.
What would you like potential customers to know about your company or products? I like for them to know that ReStrung is a recycled and ethically produced product. Our jewelry is handcrafted by stay-at-home and local women in New Orleans, and that we give back 5 percent of our profits to two amazing organizations: The New Orleans Musicians Clinic and The Roots of Music. On top of that, my team and I are truly passionate about creating ReStrung, and we love to hear from our fans and customers all over the world who give us daily inspiration.