museums&MORE Fall 2011
Give an Iota

It’s always about the little things

Often it’s the little things that mean the most, something Kelly Alford, sole designer and vice president of design for iota, took to heart when creating the company in 2003.

“Our corporate identity, iota, is named for the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet – a word of Phoenician origin meaning ‘a very small amount or thing, a jot, a whit,'” Alford said. “Its simple, yet powerful character is infused in every aspect of our business, from our trademark innovative design and bold colors to our quality and affordable price points.”

Iota offers a mix of paper and textile-based product in a variety of categories such as baby and women’s accessories, social stationery, eco-fashionable totes, kitchen collections, tabletop as well as gifting items.

In 2008, the company attracted the attention of CSS Industries and was officially acquired under a CSS Industries affiliate, C.R. Gibson. Today iota products can be found in more than 3,100 specialty retail stores across the country and in various countries around the world.

“Since the beginning, I have always held iota in my own mind as a lifestyle brand,” Alford said. “After only our second year, in addition to our core paper and stationery lines, we formed relationships with licensing partners that put the iota designs on fabric, leather and ceramics. Most recently, we found one of our patterns on a Victorinox Swiss Army knife, as licensed through Victorinox Belgium, and we are certainly tickled by that.”

Pattern of Success
Prior to focusing on iota full time, Alford had a traditional day job – she was a private client graphic designer for 20 years. Self-taught, she was always inspired and intrigued by font, color and pattern.

“Born of a wish to be my own client, I began iota as a wholesale stationery and greeting card designer/manufacturer in 2003, incorporating some of the ideas that were left on the table by my graphic design clients,” Alford said. “In my graphic design business, I had specialized in branding and identity creation, which proved valuable experience for my role with iota.”

Armed with digital mock-ups of notecards and greeting cards at the National Stationery Show in New York, she officially put the idea of iota into motion.

Encountering a market hungry for colorful, bold, contemporary patterns at affordable price points, iota stationery essentials were an immediate hit with buyers and retail customers. Ever since, the design studio has experienced energetic growth and developed an enthusiastic fan base.

A reason for that success is that they’re able to bring original, fresh patterns to the market and work to keep their color palette(s) and patterns looking different than anything else out there.

“I am the sole designer of the iota patterns and tend to focus on bold, deeply saturated color, highly stylized and abstracted pattern and I’m thoroughly drawn to typography,” Alford said. “I also paint and sew as often as I can, and I must confess, sewing is my first love. I sew fun and funky apparel for myself and for my family, as well as items that adorn my home.”

All year long, she make sketches and keeps a journal of ideas, starting with a color palette – nine colors, plus a ‘black’ and a ‘white’- and then going into regular periods of creative isolation in order to design the iota patterns, which are the lifeblood of the iota brand.

“Color is tied to emotion,” Alford said. “It is the palette for iota that I consider to be the pièce de résistance of each season. To see those colors quivering together on the page, newly acquainted, fills my heart with joy. The patterns and designs are the vehicles of the colors, the concrete expression of a fleeting idea.”

Alford said patterns evolve and often literally grow out of each other. Once the strongest patterns are chosen each season, they are applied to various product formats and/or are added to their expanding archive of patterns for future use, or for licensing opportunities.

“In college, I was a religion major where I explored our human yearning for meaning and how it is expressed in symbols and patterns,” Alford said. “This connection, this sturdy thread, runs through ‘the religion’ of color and pattern that is iota today.”

Early Inspiration
Alford also spends time focusing on designing new product and original packaging and developing the iota brand through catalogues, the iota website and social media and public relations opportunities.

Because of their high design aesthetic, iota products have always done well in museum gift shops and paper stores. As they move more into textiles, their products are branching out into broader-focused gift stores, baby boutiques, hospital gift shops and more.

“For specialty shop owners, I would get to know the story behind the companies, the brands, the designers they carry in their stores,” Alford said. “People, consumers, want to connect with stories. It makes a deeper, more loyal connection that proves more fruitful in the long term.”

Alford’s own story can be traced back to childhood with a thread of influence stemming from the kinds of things she was surrounded by growing up, like Marimekko textiles, Pucci dresses and her mother’s Vera scarves. Noting her interest in art and design (drawing, painting, art, fabrics, and sewing), her mom was relentless in her efforts to get her to art museums and art classes of all kinds – something Alford said she soaked up like a sponge.

“As I grow older, I have seemed to discover my youth, my childhood inspirations, all over again,” Alford said. “I recently unpacked a bunch of boxes and discovered a set of dishes I was given at age 12 – they are full of color and pattern in a very modern, very timeless way. They remind me of iota patterns!

“I distinctly remember not knowing what ‘design’ really meant back then,” she continued, “but today, I absolutely see what an impression these things made on me.”

Living high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Alford said she now finds inspiration in simple places – vegetables stacked at the grocery store, wet grass, puddles. Sometimes she takes a long view of things; sometimes she gets up close to study them. Inspiration can come from anywhere.

“For aspiring artists, I offer this advice: work to create something every day,” Alford said. “Find a way to carve out the space every single day, all year round, to make your art.”

There is the daily challenge of striking a proper balance between the more mundane, administrative and technical parts of the job and the purely creative side of it, but Alford said creating for iota makes her calm and centered and reminds her that she “has the best job in the world.”

She’s currently working to creating the new patterns for iota’s 2012 line and would like to expand iota patterns into more apparel and home décor categories in the future, which are natural extensions for iota’s design aesthetic. They are also reinvigorating their paper line with brand new formats for the paper enthusiast.

“I have created iota to be a wake up call to beauty, to fun, to being bold and taking a chance, and to remind you that this is and can be a well designed world, if we allow ourselves a colorful life,” Alford said. “Our hope is iota designs – on any surface – will encourage you to think about the little things. And how, if they are recognized, treasured and combined properly, in time, they might just move mountains.”

By Abby Heugel
Managing Editor

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