Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Art Matters

I was recently asked to speak to a group of artists creating products for Demdaco. This is a wonderful company with inspired products based here in Kansas City and every two years they have a creative conference to keep their designers motivated and encouraged to create new, fresh product. I was honored to speak to them and share with them a retailers point of view. I came away with much more than I gave. Based on the questions that were asked at the end of my presentation, I thought other shop owners and creative types might like to read what I talked about. Keep in mind I was to adhere to an outline for my 30 minutes and discuss the topic for the event: Why Art Matters.


I have to be honest with you. Last night I decided to rehearse this presentation because I wanted to time myself more than anything and make sure I
didn’t rattle on for hours. Well 10 minutes into a candid conversation in my living room with only my dog Pearl as the audience, I became really bored with myself (Pearl fell asleep!) So I decided I better write a few things down to stay on point. You will be seeing me read a little and talk a little. I will also show you some slides of my store and then we will discuss the ever important state of retail and open up for any questions. But please feel free to interrupt me if you have a thought.

First off, I am really grateful to be here and share my retail story with you. Never in a million years did I think I would be talking to a group of artists about my small business. So this is a first for me. I am thankful a Kansas City based company is giving me my big break. I actually did some styling for a House of Lloyd catalogue many years ago, so this is somewhat of a full circle moment for me.

I was born and raised in Kansas City and have lived here all my life. My interests as a child always had to do with something artistic. From theatre to commercial art to photography it had to be visual and it had to be hands on or I
wasn’t interested.

After some college I made my living as a production artist and landed a job in the advertising department of Macy's which lead to learning about fashion and still-photography and print advertising. Eventually, I went to work with a local photo studio for two years and later began my career as a freelance photo stylist doing film, TV and print.

For over 19 years I made my living making pictures look good- with people in them and without. From ironing sheets and basting turkeys, to tabletop design and room sets for fashion catalogues, TV commercials, Industrial videos and an occasional movie. I also did a lot of makeup and wardrobe on actors, models and TV personalities.

Although I was self employed, I found myself needing a diversion from my job and decided to pursue my love of junking by renting a space from a local antique mall. I basically sold stuff that was overflowing from my house. A year later a friend asked me to move into a new shop she was opening and for the first time I invested into a line of furniture and began my retail education on the buying and selling of new goods. I attended the High Point Market for the first time and was once again, like a child in a souvenir shop, was mesmerized with the amount of stuff available out there.

After two years, not being in complete control of the appearance and operations of someone else’s shop, I began to desire my own place. I searched and pondered and daydreamed about my own store not knowing how, when or where it might be. One day I finally admitted my frustration to a close friend saying that I was 43 years old and I finally know what I want to do with my life and I haven’t a dime to do it. “Well that’s how artists are”, she said. “They are always creating so they do not have time to think about that other stuff”. Her comment that I was an artist stopped me in my tracks as I had never thought of myself as one before. I was creative, I had been blessed with many talents, but I could not draw or paint so therefore I never thought of myself as an artist. My friends random analogy suddenly made my life make sense. Was this the reason I was never happy with my efforts as I was always looking, doing, seeing and trying to create something differently than others?

Still working my day job in photography along with the constant quest for a store I found myself praying for God to take away the desire for a shop as I was making myself crazy wondering how. The desire never left and days later I found the building that would become my first store. I think it is amazing how a thought can stir a desire, the desire makes us start seeing something differently and seeing makes us start doing. The natural progression starts to manifest itself into reality.

With an SBA loan in hand, I found the name for my store from a book written in 1961 by Edward Gorey and Curious Sofa opened on S.W. Blvd on September 16, 2000. I designed it to be a mix of new and old merchandise. A mix of flea market style and affordable goods. Similar to the stores I had found on my trips to New York and
San Francisco. An array of painted antique furniture with easy slipcovered sofas, offbeat objects and unusual gifts. I wanted to carry a bit of everything from bedding and stationery to jewelry and chandeliers. I went to the Dallas Market and bought things I loved- keeping the Curious Sofa aesthetic in mind. I created a neutral store, nothing too colorful; I felt it was easier on the eyes with so much product on the floor. A collection of timeless pieces with an antique and informal feel about them. A little country, a little urban, something feminine, something utilitarian. THIS WAS CURIOUS SOFA STYLE.

At that time, carrying seasonal merchandise never crossed my mind except for some Xmas decorations, that is how naive I was in the beginning. And it never occurred to me to be prepared to reorder something! I had just enough product to be stocked for about a month! My confidence was with making the store look good. That is all I knew. I learned a lot those first 4 years.

I was not sure the store would support me, but I knew it could support itself. From day one, I never went back to my freelance job and ran the shop alone for 6 months, bought and sold and fixed antiques, paid the bills, redecorated, mopped the floor, shoveled snow, waited on customers and lived and breathed shop owning 24/7. I still do.

I started to receive national press just months after opening from Country Home, Elle magazine, Victoria and Travel and Leisure. Press is a glorious thing and can really put your business on the map but you must be doing something unusual and better than anyone else to warrant it. People were suddenly talking about this funky, cool little shop off the beaten path. A destination location. Little did I know, I would eventually become a full-on retailer.

After 4 1/2 successful years at my downtown location my mind started to wander. It was the summer of 2004 and August is not a good time for a retailer to make a drastic decision! My only employee had quit after 2 years, I was running the shop alone again, sales were slow and I began to blame my location. It was time to jump in or jump out if I was going to stay in this business. This was my job of choice. I knew I
couldn’t work for anyone ever again. I needed to get serious.

After being courted by a commercial realtor, in February of 2005 I closed my 1500 square foot bohemian, downtown location and reopened in an outdoor shopping center in an old suburban neighborhood. 7 miles away. My new store was once a former GAP with 3700 square feet. I was nervous and excited all at the same time. Hiring 5 employees, paying health insurance and
workmans comp. Signing a 16 page, 10 year, high dollar lease, - so off I went. I redesigned the space, went to two markets and slowly the new store came to life. Little did I know the lessons ahead for me.


I learned that demographics are everything. Where you are located and who shops your store determines what you carry. My newer location warrants smaller, less expensive items as we get many people dropping in running a basic errand close to home. We are next to a grocery store and drug store so customers just pop in to see what’s new- not always wanting a sofa. Other shops around us might carry similar lines so I have to hunt for fresher product. I have more seasonal items as my customers decorate their homes and entertain more than my former location. In the beginning this was a struggle as I was stubborn and
didn’t want to be one of those kind of stores. But things have to sell. So I have to compromise. Compromise is not a word artist like to hear. The Curious Sofa aesthetic, or my brand, is always first in my mind, but what will sell runs a close second. When I find the right combination, this is when retail is rewarding.

Having a new business takes a couple of years to fall into place. Reordering, learning the customers, giving up on the lines you love but are not selling, finding what works. Little did I know in the midst of all of this something else was changing- consumer behavior.

I do not think of myself as a well seasoned retailer. I am not sure I ever will as the lessons keep coming everyday. Once you think you’
ve got it, something changes it. Now approaching my 7th year I am starting to see changes outside my store I cannot control but need to change with them. I have seen changes with lifestyle, spending habits and outside interests.

I have learned consumers are affected by three things:

External factors:
Lifestyle (computers, accessibility, laziness, stress)
Current events (war,
politics, local tragedies, natural disasters)
Economy (jobs, salaries, demotions, interest rates, stock markets)

Internal factors:
The source of the purchase, the store, the employees, unique salesmanship, the experience!!! MAKING IT EMOTIONAL. For all of you in manufacturing and design, this can be used when showcasing items for retailers or at market or for artists when you make a presentation.

Product (what is it),
function (uses),
price (value),

Let’s talk about price. Because right now, price is everything. Or almost everything.
What will customers pay for? What will customers pay MORE for?
They will pay more for great customer service.
They will pay more for convenience.
They will pay more if you’re nice.
They will pay more if you make it personal, create a relationship.

I will have to say that when I put an item on my floor that I know is unique, I can charge what it is worth. Not less. I do not have to stop and think, “will I get this for it?” I know it is worth it. Not worth it in the sense it took so much time to create or the cost of materials are rare but because aesthetically IT IS WORTH IT. This is my new goal as a retailer. I need to find goods that are worth it. The customer always cares about price for everyday, common or not so common goods, but they will pay more for something if it is really unique or if it creates an emotional reaction.

Which leads me to discuss why we’re here.
IT’S ALL ABOUT DESIGN. You are artists. I’m an artist. Creating your style, your design or your BRAND IS EVERYTHING. It is who you are.

Most buyers at the Atlanta market are already dreading it. Why? Because there is so much stuff to look at! There is a lot of bad design. We all know it when we see it right? The color is not right, the shape is wrong, the proportion is off, it’s made badly or displayed badly.

In my early years I used to try and see every single floor and every single showroom! Can you imagine? Now I have got my routine. I go to the showrooms that inspire. I go where the showrooms have great displays. Unusual props, antiques and funky items mixed in because
1. That is my kind of store.
2. I need ideas. I need to get recharged. The professional showrooms that bring in the A-Team to twirl their ordinary goods into an extraordinary display because I HAVE TO DO THIS TOO!!! I know my customers expect it and want to see it as well.

Design is important in everything because as artists we can create beautiful things that evoke emotion, tell stories, make people see something for the first time in a way they had not imagined. And hopefully, in the process of creating it, we can see something different. This is why keeping our eyes fresh is so important.

Right now, I need to see something new!! If you wake up each day and do the same routine, go to the same coffee shop, read the same magazines, watch the same shows- you will most likely continue to create the same stuff. We need to keep the visual stimuli coming or else we will become boring. I see it in my store. If we do not continue to change displays, move furniture, add new product, light a different candle, change the color palette, have an event- I lose my customer. Because there are a lot of people out there trying to get her attention. I lose my staff too. They get bored. In this day and age of high speed
Internet, information at our fingertips on any subject, anytime; we have to stay fresh, new and exciting. We have to work at it. There is too much competition. Someone is copying someone else as we speak, someone is making it better, cheaper and faster.

So to keep from going crazy in the
midst of running a business and being an artist, I do a few things.
1. I pray a lot: "God show me something NEW". CREATE in me NEW ART!
2. Go back to the beginning. What did you love about art? What did you love about your art? What makes you different, what is your talent?
3. Remember the rules- then break them. When I was a photography student I picked up a magazine that said: The photography basics were: focus, center the subject, light it well. NOW CHANGE THEM: Don’t light it perfectly, don’t shoot it in focus, don’t crop it evenly.... do it different.
4. Change something.
I LOVE interior design magazines. Especially European design magazines. Also graphic design, fashion, food- it is all art. It is all design. Pictures of how other people do things should trigger you to steal a portion and make it your own. Remember the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin William's made everyone stand up on their desks? This is a perfect example of trying to see things from a different perspective. Stand up in your chair if this is what it takes. Look at the Shatto Milk Co. Had they kept doing what they were doing they would be closed by now. But they did a 180 and looked at something differently.

When you begin designing a new line, where do you start? Do you grab the same pad and pencil? Sit in the same chair at the same desk? Listen to the same music? Do you always use the same colored pens? Have you tried changing your medium? If you work in clay try wood. If in wood try glass. If in glass try fabric. It may never end up a masterpiece but it could change the way you are doing something for the better.

Design is everywhere. Apple took a piece of metal and plastic and made it art. Art matters because it is a way to see the ordinary less ordinary. It is our job to make the average person stop and look. They may not know why or what it is but it is your job to make them take notice. It is the only way we can stand out from the crowd. It is the only way we can succeed to share the talent we’
ve been given. So I encourage you to keep creating, keep educated and keep seeing the unusual in the usual.

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