Summer is here and the time is right for another intriguing installment of "A Crafty Life"! I'm Birdy27 and I'm at the helm of this in-depth interview series. For July, I decided to interview Etsy NY team member extraordinaire, Dina Lerman. If you frequent craft markets and street fairs, you've probably seen Dina, her colorful hair, her warm smile, and her whimsical designs. Dina is the creator, Chief Executive "Bug," and Chief "Bug" Officer of the wildly popular Bugged Out LLC. I met Dina at a local market in 2008, admired her designs, and got to know a little bit about her. I witnessed the Bugged Out brand growing over the years and I was pleasantly surprised to see her again after I joined the team. I didn't know the full Bugged Out story, so I was excited to ask Dina how she developed Bugged Out and how it became a bonafide phenomenon.
Where did you spend your formative years?
I grew up in Rome, New York, which is way upstate in the Adirondack region. I came to New York City--well, actually Brooklyn--to go to art school at Pratt Institute. And I never left! But even way before Pratt, my parents turned me on to New York. They owned a successful furniture business and made lots of buying trips here. I tagged along whenever I could and fell in love with the city. So when it came time to choose where to study, I decided on New York.
What was it about the city that resonated with you?
I loved going to the museums, and I was super excited about the buildings--the architecture. Plus,I shopped like crazy!
The architecture here is fantastic. And I don't think there is a better place to be if you like to shop. I can imagine you with lots of bags in your hands, just loving your life here.
LOL! Yes, lots of bags.
Please tell us about your studies at Pratt Institute.
I studied interior architecture at Pratt, but also took other courses in photography, illustration, screen printing, sculpture, fashion illustration, life study, jewelry, etc.
I knew you were an architect, but I didn't know what type. Interior architecture sounds intimidating. Can you share a little about your achievements?
I worked in my profession for about 20 years on many high-end residential and commercial projects, at well-known firms, and for well-known clients all over the world. Some of my commercial work includes shops at Rockefeller Center, in-store design at Bloomingdale's, showrooms in the Empire State Building, and interior and exterior work on the SONY IMAX + Cinema Complex in Berlin.
Among the high-end residential projects I’ve worked on are a triplex on Fifth Avenue, a condo in the Waldorf-Astoria, a waterfront mansion in West Palm Beach, and combining two old buildings in the West Village.
These designs are mind boggling! You were more successful than I imagined. So you were a successful architect, but had these little creatures inside "bugging you" (pun intended) to let them out. Do you feel your training as an architect and the other classes you took at Pratt contributed to the success of Bugged Out? It seems that every thing you studied you now use in your business.
Yes, definitely. I’ve had artistic interests since I was little; taking classes gave me more confidence and better tools to do something with them. So I think that part of my business success can definitely be traced back to my artistic interests.
I'm amazed at how many things I was exposed to early on that I now use in my business. Sounds like it was the same for you. How did you decide to focus on insects? Have you always loved bugs?
Yes, I always have been fascinated with bugs, starting as a little kid, because of their colorfulness and all the different shapes and sizes and intricate details of their bodies. I love their “bug homes,” like cocoons, wasp nests, and bee hives--bug architecture so-to-speak.
I see you had the eye of an architect even as a child. Dina, we have a lot in common; however, I don't like bugs at all. LOL! Well, butterflies are beautiful. Unfortunately I can't say the same about creepy crawlies. But I love your designs. You make bugs look adorable.
So nice of you to say.
I have to ask about the name "Bugged Out." It's perfect.
The name Bugged Out has a very personal meaning and has to do with my diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis in 1998. That really bugged me out!
I understand. Those two words must have been very difficult to hear.
You're right; those two words were forever life-changing. My grandmother had MS and died from complications.
I'm so sorry to hear that.
Yeah, that was awful. And she was very brave and fought hard. But when I was diagnosed, I made a decision right away: I wanted to do something meaningful.
Shortly after my diagnosis I formed a team for the MS Walk in April of 1998 and named it “Bugged Out." I designed team t-shirts for us with an ant design, and my friends, family, and complete strangers loved them.
For several years, the same thing happened with my other bug designs. Many people asked where they could get them and commented how great these designs would be on kids’ clothes. So in 2007 I started Bugged Out, the company.
What a great story! I’ve known you all these years and never knew the name had a deeper meaning. May I ask how your health is now?
Well, not so great; my MS is progressing. Among one of the worst things for me is that I’m blind in my right eye. The eye itself is fine, but the optical nerve is damaged from MS. In MS the body’s immune system eats away the insulation around nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Imagine an electrical wire without the plastic around it--you’ll get “short circuits," nerve signals don’t get transmitted correctly. Another symptom can be a “funny” feeling for which there is no reason (numbness, tingling, pain). I have that, too. In bad cases people with MS can become paralyzed, and they can even die from it.
I'm sorry to hear that it is progressing. Many of us know the term "MS," but don't understand the disease's many challenges. I hope there are new developments on the horizon that will help you.
It is hard to deal with this horrible disease. There is research happening and new treatments that slow down the progression of MS--no cure, though. I don't think I'll see a cure in my life time.
You're very courageous.
I want to focus on your designs for a bit. After I began my t-shirt business, I found a graphic designer who agreed to help me bring my slogans and concepts to life. I'm a writer and I'm always on a budget, so I had more slogans and concepts than I had money. My designer Sara insisted that I study graphic design and now I make a little extra cash.
Wow, I didn’t realize how you got into graphic design. It is always fascinating to me how people got to where they are now.
Yes! That's one reason I love doing this interview series; I love learning how creative entrepreneurs got their start. I mentioned my graphic design beginnings because I wondered if your situation was similar. You didn't mention graphic design when you listed the classes you took at Pratt, yet it is at the core of what you do.
I have no education in graphic design whatsoever, nor do I consider myself a graphic designer. But even though my formal education was in interior architecture, going to Pratt exposed me to so much art education. And I always liked to draw and even took art classes outside of school starting as a little kid. I have always enjoyed free hand sketching, drawing, and illustrating. I also approached architecture in a very artistic way. Some of my architecture clients were very eclectic and appreciated my style.
So you draw, but wouldn't consider yourself a fine artist?
I love to draw, and I took a lot of art classes. I don’t think that’s enough to call myself a fine artist, though. My mom is very artistic, too, more in an interior designer sort of way. So I would say it’s a mix of my upbringing, talents, interests and education that “made” me into this.
All my art is sketched on the computer. My entire Bugged Out bug line was created in my architectural program. CRAZY! Still to this day my graphic designer friends make fun of me for doing my bug designs in such a convoluted way.
You have a lot of designs. I understand you have three main collections: BO bugs, BO fruits and veggies, and now "Don't Bug Me" (DBM).
Well, so to speak. The Bugged Out line is 12 "standard" bug designs and 12 fruits and vegetables. And I recently created the "DBM" collection of "New Yorky" designs. It includes the bed bug, the cockroach, and three new designs: the mosquito “stinging New York, New York," the “I dove NY” pigeon, and the rat munching New York. It has really taken off!
I love your sense of humor. You bring a specific conceptual sensibility to Bugged Out. Your cartoon-style bug, fruit, and veggie faces have a lot of personality and you also use puns and other word play. How did you develop your signature style?
Thank you for the compliment about me and my designs. My design style is really based on my personality. I always have been a very colorful and happy kind of person. Even as a kid I stuck out with blue hair at age nine--with the encouragement of my family. My designs are geared toward “kids of all ages." I try to make them very kid-like, but I spend hours on details like the size of the eyes and placement of the pupils, the swirls of bug antennas or carrot greens, line weights and colors.
Do you try to keep the colors of the insects, produce, and animals true to life or do you go all "Picasso"?
For some bugs and critters, the color choices were obvious: red for the ladybug, yellow and black for the bumblebee, and grey for the pigeon. But for most of the others I picked colors that created a fun collection. I choose custom Pantone PMS Matching System (PMS) colors for all my designs. For the fruits and veggies I chose colors that are true to life.
How did you move from creating items by popular demand to a full-fledged business?
I started Bugged Out with my bug note card line in 2007. Among my first customers were
The NYBG shop is a great store, with a great selection of unique products.
You started out with a bang. How did you manage to snag these prestigious accounts?
I sent them samples, and they liked my products--very lucky!
It takes a lot of confidence in your product to just go for it. I applaud you. I first came to know you through your t-shirts and onuses. But now I see they didn't come first.
The cards were my first products and the t-shirts came later.
Actually, the BYOB: Bring Your Own Bug tote bags came even before the tees, in 2008.
Based on the reaction from the MS walk, you had a pretty good indication the public wanted to "bug out" more and more (again, pun intended).
The reaction to my MS Walk team t-shirts year after year–people wanting to buy them right then and there–gave me encouragement. Since then I have always tested new bug designs on note cards first.
And if my customers like them, then and only then do I put them on clothing, totes, and other Bugged Out products. The only design that hasn’t made it off the note cards is the bed bug; it just creeps too many people out! It might end up on night shirts and sheets one day, though.
That's very funny. There are a lot of t-shirt, card, and tote bag vendors out there. How do you deal with competition? You can just focus on t-shirts, if you like.
I don’t think of Bugged Out so much as a t-shirt business than as a line of my art.
That's a great distinction. I get that.
T-shirts are just one of the many products that I offer my designs on. I really look at other t-shirt vendors as peers rather than competitors. But, of course, selling at a huge market with 300 vendors which may include 30 t-shirt sellers is different than selling at a small quaint market with just 10 or 12 vendors. I would prefer to be the only one with t-shirts and onesies there. My unique design style and my business model of using only U.S.-made, natural, organic or recycled products and printing each one by hand here in NYC allows me to reach some very specific audiences. Also, it is important to a lot of my customers that a percentage of the proceeds from Bugged Out sales goes to Multiple Sclerosis research. I give to the MS Care Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. So, back to the competition: it is not really a concern.
I love your commitment to MS research.
Please tell us about how you moved from bugs to food.
The NYBG liked my bugs so much that they asked me to design a similarly whimsical and kid-friendly line of fruits and veggies on cards, totes, and t-shirts for their season-long Edible Garden Festivals in 2009 and 2010. They had the line exclusively for a while. But once their contract was up and we started selling it ourselves, it became as successful as my bug line at Bugged Out. A lot of vegetarians, chefs, gardeners, and “earthy” people love the fruits and veggies!
Since I am mostly vegan, I go nuts for the fruits and veggies, too.
Your produce designs work well with the current emphasis on health and well-being. Which designs--bugs or produce--are your biggest sellers?
The bugs and fruits and veggies are pretty much equally successful. Some individual designs are extra popular, like the cockroach and the apple, but all do very well. When I added the “I (heart) New York” cockroach in 2010, it became the most popular design in every product line.
The cockroach in New York City is the most popular design? Now that's interesting. LOL! What other products do you offer?
Over time we have added new product lines like our hoodies and long-sleeve items. And our Scrabble tile pendants came out of a collaboration with Linda from PurtyBird.
I've always admired Linda's tile pendants. How did this Etsy NY team collaboration come about?
I loved Linda’s whimsical style and colorful products from the first time I saw them at a holiday market in a church in Brooklyn in 2010. In 2011 we were both selling in the Etsy NY shop at Celebrate Brooklyn!, and later that summer she started making the Scrabble tile pendants with my designs for Bugged Out. We sell a lot of the pendants.
Which products--not designs--sell best?
Some days we sell lots of totes, other days lots of onesies or tees. And then there are seasonal differences--we sell more hoodies when it’s cooler. But overall all our product lines sell well.
With the banning of the use of plastic bags in more and more places around the country, we get more and more requests for our totes.
Again, you're right in step with the times. Is running BO now a full-time job?
When I started Bugged Out, it was as a side business and mostly on weekends. But it has grown so much that Gerd (the other half of Bugged Out and a solar engineer by profession) and myself nowadays both work full time running Bugged Out.
Congratulations! I know it's a lot of work, but it has to be incredibly rewarding to go from one design for a fundraising walk to a highly visible brand.
It is very rewarding, you’re so right. The fulfillment is all worth it. Plus, it’s lots of fun!
You've had some celebrity customers. Can you share the names of the celebs and what they purchased?
We are happy to have the occasional well-known customer at Bugged Out. Among them are Adam Sandler (t-shirts), Steven Tyler(cockroach stuff), Michael Moore (bumblebee tote), Chelsey Handler (grasshopper hoodie), Bethanny Frankel (many hoodies, she’s a repeat customer), Bobby Flay and his wife Stephanie March (t-shirts), SuChin Pak (onesies), Christine Quinn (t-shirts, also a repeat customer). And David Bowie!!
David Bowie. Nice! I believe I heard something about Angelina Jolie buying a tote bag. Is that true?
Well, almost. The set designer for the movie “SALT” bought it. Angelina Jolie’s husband in the movie is a bug expert and has it in his home office. Yeah, that was cool! Now we have a lot of ant business from that.
So many entrepreneurs strive for film product placement and you did it without even trying.
And all of this attention from celebrities and the media was a result of doing markets and street fairs?
Yes, thanks! It’s really nice when celebrities come by and shop and compliment me on my designs.
For sure. There's a strategic element to doing markets. I'm still trying to figure out which ones work best. How do you approach doing markets? What have you learned?
We tried a couple of different regular markets as well as some of the big street fairs when we first started. Over time we learned what works for us, factoring in things like neighborhoods, foot traffic, logistics (transportation and storage of our merchandise, hours, parking), and the cost of markets or events. We currently do a regular market in SoHo almost every Friday/ Saturday/ Sunday (weather permitting) and a market at the South Street Seaport most Saturdays and Sundays. In addition, we do some big once-a-year events. Right now we’re also in the Etsy NY shop at Celebrate Brooklyn! with 16 other Etsy NY members. And during the holiday season we do the Holiday Market at Columbus Circle.
How are the two of you in so many places at once? Do you have extra help?
Currently we don’t have extra help; it is just us handling everything, so we’re usually only in two places at a time. We do a couple of shared events where we don’t have to be there ourselves all the time like Celebrate Brooklyn! for the last three seasons and Governor’s Island last summer.
We do have the occasional market help from one or two of my family members. Also, I have one brother who is a year younger than me. We are very close and he advises us on all Bugged Out business. He ran my parents furniture business, and now he is a small business adviser. We are very lucky to have him on board.
Let's go back to Gerd. I've seen him in action. He is a master salesman. How do you two work together and split the work load? What does his help mean to your business?
Master salesman? Hahaha! In all seriousness, yes, Gerd is the other half of Bugged Out. I would not be able to run Bugged Out without Gerd, especially with my illness and its progression. I handle everything that has to do with design, the website, social media--so all the creative stuff--and I do sell at the occasional market. But it is getting harder and harder for me. So Gerd does more markets than I do, and he deals with the numbers, the inventory, production, and shipping. Although it can be tough at times--we basically never agree on anything. LOL! Yeah, we seem to make a pretty good team.
I agree. I'm familiar with silk screening, so I'd love to know about your printing process.
Do you silk screen all of your products by hand? What about the note cards? Do you use different printing methods for different products?
My cards were at first offset printed. Now we do all card printing ourselves out of the “bug studio” and all screen printing out of our shop in Long Island City, Queens.
Wow! Thank you for this glimpse into how the products come to life. You certainly have more control over your inventory when you do your own printing. Where do you live? You call your apartment "the bug studio." It's certainly bug infested. LOL! What goes on there?
We live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in a studio. Our home has really turned into the bug studio. We do all Bugged Out related work here--designing, production other than screen printing, shipping, and the occasional freaking out. Well, we actually do more than the occasional freaking out!
When you're an indie business owner there's always a lot to do. How do you manage your time?
Time management is hard. But we make it work. Our week is dedicated to studio production and printing time. And our weekends are all about markets. When holiday market season comes around it becomes grueling. We kind of expect to never get any sleep. It is all production and market time for about two months straight.
Yes. I understand that.
There's so much ground to cover with you! What about branding? One of my issues is that I don't have a recognizable brand. My designs/slogans/concepts are all over the place. But branding is so important, especially today. Did it come easily to you?
Branding can be super hard. In my case, the branding already started with the MS Walk team t-shirts. I had my team name Bugged Out and a few bug designs, and I created a team logo with a bug face and antennas incorporated into the “gg” of Bugged Out. Even though I didn’t have any plans of selling anything back then, I knew I wanted a consistent concept, something recognizable year after year at the MS Walks. This concept became the brand Bugged Out. I’ve copyrighted and trademarked the name, logo, and designs.
You're totally on top of the business end. How did you deal with the copyrights and trademarks?
When I started Bugged Out I worked with a patent attorney, the late dad of a friend of mine. He was also very knowledgeable in intellectual property law and helped me a lot. It was a years-long and complicated process.
It's an expensive process, too. And you continued the branding with your hang tags and pulp containers. Very smart.
We have to spend a little time on social media and its increasing importance. How do you deal with it? Has it helped your business? Do you have a blog?
I don’t blog, but I Facebook BIG TIME. And I tweet and Instagram quite a bit, too. We’re also on Pinterest and Flickr. I believe social media definitely helps our business; our Etsy shop statistics show it does. I find social media to be a great way to market and advertise my business for free. Nothing beats direct contact with our customers, though.
You mentioned the Columbus Circle Holiday Market. Is it a good one for you? I know the hours are incredibly long.
The Columbus Circle Holiday Market is great for us. We have a shop there called Lil’ New Yorker with kids and baby products by local designers from Etsy NY. It is a fun shop and people love it. Yes, from the stressful life of an architect to this. The long, long hours and hard work are not much different. But some how it is very fulfilling, and it pays off.
Look at how you managed to get so much into a small space! How do you pull it all together? Any advice for those of us--like me--who are "display-challenged"?
At any given venue I incorporate whatever I find, with my product always being the focus. I had to come up with a very simple basic setup. We have to fit all the equipment and merchandise for two markets in our little car--the bug truck!
So we use tables with colorful tablecloths, kids' clothing hung along the front and from a clothes line above. On the table we have some tote bags standing up, some flat, along with note cards in different packaging options, the pendants, and a couple of laminated sheets showing all my designs--SIMPLE!
Simple? LOL! Well, you obviously have an architect's eye for using space in an effective and eye-catching manner.
How do you fare on Etsy? What about direct sales from your website? Or do you do best at markets?
We don’t do badly on Etsy, considering that we don’t put a whole lot of effort into it--yet. We are learning about tagging, search-engine optimization (SEO), and promoting our Etsy shop. We are in the process of redoing it to make it more effective. We also have our own website; it’s not eCommerce yet, but has links to the Etsy shop. However, the biggest portion of all our sales happens at our markets and other events.
Besides the museum shops you mentioned earlier, do you have other wholesale accounts?
Yes, we do wholesale. And while we do appreciate our wholesale accounts, we prefer the retail route. We are finding the best way for Bugged Out is being out there selling in person to customers at markets.
I understand the NYBG approached you about creating another design.
Yes, in 2009 I also exclusively designed the “elf on a train” T-shirt for their Annual Holiday Train Show
And in 2012 I created a series of Pinocchio scenes to accompany an exhibition of Jim Dine's Pinocchio sculptures and illustrations at The Nassau County Museum of Art.
That's super exciting. So museums love you, celebrities love you, and regular folks love you. Do you have a "typical" customer?
Aww, that’s sweet of you! We don’t really have a typical customer. Our customers are all ages, nationalities, backgrounds–parents who are expecting and already-parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, people who care about the environment, people who want something unique and/or handmade, people with a Multiple Sclerosis connection, etc. About 3/4 of our customers are female. About 1/3 are New Yorkers or from the metro area, 1/3 are tourists from the U.S., and 1/3 are visitors from all over the world.
So everybody's buggin' out. (I couldn't resist.) I know some of your products are made from organic cotton. Which ones? How did you decide to go organic? Do you feel your customers make the decision to purchase based on a commitment to organics?
Our short-sleeve t-shirts and onesies are organic; for us it’s just the "environmentally responsible" thing to do. For the same reason our tote bags are made from 100% recycled cotton canvas. Our customers definitely appreciate the organic and recycled materials.
Most of my interviewees have pets, so I started asking about pets for each interview. Do you have any?
Well, kind of. I do, but not in my apartment here in the city anymore. I have a cat named Chaos who lived with us, but now lives the life of a princess with my parents in a big country setting with another cat and two dogs--all boys. I love animals!
I must be the only person without a pet. Where do you see your business in five years?
Totally Bugged Out in a good way. LOL! But seriously, hopefully soon we’ll have a small Bugged Out store.
A BO boutique is a great idea. Although I have so many other questions I'd love to ask you, it's time for the last one. How has being a member of Etsy NY helped you and your business?
I think Etsy NY is a great community. I learn so much from being a member. It is a wonderful platform for sharing ideas and learning more about small business from others in the same situation. I play an active role in Etsy NY.
Currently I am the Team Coordinator for the Hester Street Fair (HSF).
I publish the application forms and assign the spaces in the shared Etsy NY tent at HSF. I try to answer everybody’s questions about HSF and I’m the liaison for the organizers.
I also frequently design graphics for postcards, posters, web banners, etc. for Etsy NY events such as Crafts in Chelsea and Celebrate Brooklyn!
I want to thank Dina for "bug"-ceptional interview! Dina, Gerd, and Bugged Out show how inspiration, creativity, determination, and team work can turn one design into a true New York success story.
I hope you enjoyed this month's "A Crafty Life" and are inspired to make your own creative dreams come true. This is Birdy27 signing off. Please support the handmade community. Successful creative artisans can change the world! Chirp, chirp!
General Grant National Memorial
If you happen to be in this neighborhood, visit Grant's Tomb, Columbia's Campus, Tom's Restaurant and the Cathedral of St. John.
The Cloisters Courtyard
The closest thing to a castle in New York City.
An amazing place to bring out your inner Rousseau. Take your sketchbook and become inspired.
What are some of your favorite places in New York?
I'm Birdy27 and I'm so happy spring is here! Although the weather isn't consistently springlike, this month's "A Crafty Life" in-depth interview with Stephanie Maslow of Metalicious (and Metalicious on Etsy) will help you forget about the temperature. I connected with Stephanie through the Etsy NY team almost two years ago and I've been a huge fan ever since. She marries the modern with subtle traces of the traditional and creates distinct pieces that are unique and memorable. Originally born in Byram, New Jersey, Stephanie is industrious, focused, and innovative. She is just as accessible as she is lovely and I've been waiting for the chance to talk to her about her process, her designs, and so much more. I couldn't be happier that she agreed to be this month's interviewee.
What brought you to New York?
I moved to New York City after college in the '90s when there were still drive-by shootings where I lived in the West Village.
Drive-by shootings in the West Village? I didn't realize it was so dangerous in the Village back then.
Yep, but it was mostly awesome living in a part of the city where the buildings are low enough for you to see the sky. I lived in a 4th floor walk up as big as a shoebox. I loved it.
I'm sure a lot of our readers can identify with the shoebox-sized apartment. Sounds like you were determined to make New York your home no matter what.
I came here because everyone is accepted no matter who you believe in, what color you are or who you love. It's home and I'm proud to be raising my two boys here. I have a 3- and an 8-year-old. It's normal for us to see Barbara Corcoran, a drag queen and a mowhawk-wearing-punk on our walk to school. And we've been monitoring the progress of the Freedom Tower. While the boys don't know all the specifics of 9-11, they understand that it's a really important skyscraper to me.
Living in New York City certainly enriches one's life in so many ways. You mentioned attending college. What is your educational background?
I have a dual degree from Syracuse: English and Textual Studies, and Television, Radio and Film Production. Two of the longest named majors ever.
We have a lot of in common. Although deeply in love with the theater, I reluctantly enrolled in a mass communications program at a large university. Now we're both in very different places.
Yeah! I'm thankful for the experience of college. Well, it turns out that Syracuse has an amazing Metals program! But I had no clue back then it would become my life's work. I guess I wasn't ready for it at the time.
Wow! Timing is indeed everything. "Metalicious" is great name. Can you tell us how you knew this was THE name for you?
It's funny because once in a while I get people who think I chose the name because I was really into '80s heavy metal music. The truth is that I love to play with words and was trying to find a company name that expresses how I feel about jewelry and metalworking. Delicious. Metal.
It reminds me of the "licious" craze that started around the time of "Bootylicious" by Destiny's Child. It's perfect. When and how did you decide to become a silversmith? What was the process?
It was a complete accident. About 15 years ago I had a job working in TV and hated it. I wanted to work with my hands and needed a creative outlet and thought it was going to be ceramics. But that class was full and the only one they had left was "Intro to Jewelry." As soon as I sawed out my name from a sheet of copper, I was hooked. Tools are awesome. Being able to make something with my hands that came from my head and my heart was so fulfilling. For a few years I took a class after work at the local YWCA and made jewelry in every ounce of spare time I had. It was the only thing that made me forget about everything else, even eating. I'm Italian and nothing stops me from eating, so I knew I was onto something.
This is yet another story of the universe working to fulfill your dreams, even dreams you didn't know you had. Well, thank goodness for us that ceramics class WAS full. What happened next?
From there I changed careers, got out of TV, and went to work for a small designer helping her with the business side of jewelry. Then I went to work for a mass jewelry manufacturer where I worked my way up until I was in charge of merchandising one of their diamond jewelry lines. A few times a year they sent me to India, Thailand, and Hong Kong to work with the overseas factories, designers and model makers. It was an incredible experience involving a lot of hard work and long hours, but I loved it. Then I had kids and decided to stay home with them, so the travel and career had to go. I started Metalicious as a side project to keep me sane, knowing that I would grow it once the kids went to school. Over the past 7 years I've shaped my business to be flexible and I'm incredibly thankful to have customers who are so supportive and wonderful to work with. They make me love what I do.
It takes a lot of courage to go against the grain and build something for yourself. You knew you HAD to leave television. You knew you HAD to make jewelry. You could have continued in an unfulfilling job for security's sake, but you did what you felt was right for you and never looked back. That was very courageous. Earlier I identified you as a silversmith. Was I correct?
I was taught that a silversmith is someone who uses a hammer and sheet metal to forge and raise cups, bowls, silverware, etc. so I'm not sure that's the right term for me. I am able to "smith" as a technique, but I don't really fit the silversmith profile. I've always struggled with what to call myself. I didn't have any formal education in jewelry; I'm kind of a hack. So I just call myself a jeweler. I see what trained goldsmiths create who have been working as jewelers for 20 years and it brings tears to my eyes. It's so beautiful. I saw a Lalique exhibit years ago and literally was weeping looking at the brooches his team created (in addition to the beautiful glass work). I don't yet have the exquisite attention to detail that, to me, denotes a true goldsmith. So I'm a jeweler.
Ok, I've got it. Working with metals must be very labor intensive. Can you walk us through what you do for one design? Do you make your own molds? How long does it take to finish a typical piece?
I hand build all my models using fabrication and wax carving/lathing techniques. I don't use pre-made components in my work; it's all originally made with my own two hands. Then I have a mold made and have it cast into metal. I choose casting because there are certain things you can do in wax that you can't do in metal and vice versa. Casting also allows me to change the metal type with each order so I can customize my ring as needed. From there I get the raw metal casting. A new design can take anywhere from 5-40 hours of work to create. Then it takes a few hours of work to clean, set, and give each piece a final polish. I love the process and it works for me, but you'll find each jeweler has their own way of doing things. No one way is any better than another; the process is unique to the individual.
Fascinating! I was a very dramatic child who was always singing and dancing, so a creative path was pretty predictable. What about you? Would anyone have predicted you'd become a jeweler?
No. Honestly, I never wore a lot of fine jewelry. As a kid, I loved making mud pies, but I also loved figuring out how electronics worked. I was weird and nerdy (newsflash: I still am), but I was never very good at art. I always loved working with my hands and what resonates with me is that jewelry combines science with art and that I can use both sides of my brain to create meaningful work. I play with fire, carve wax, and use machines and hand tools every day. I love my job.
What's your favorite part?
My favorite part of making jewelry is when I work with someone to make a piece of jewelry as a symbol of a major event in their life. Moms have bought my Wrought birthstone necklace in the various birthstones of their babies. Men buy my Modern Rock ring to propose to their girlfriends. When customers write to me about such important milestones, I'm humbled and incredibly thankful. Making jewelry isn't saving lives or changing the world, but it's nice to know that my work is bringing a little bit of happiness or specialness to others.
Well, you are changing the customer's life in a way. As you mentioned, people use jewelry to create memories and to commemorate births and deaths. Receiving a treasured piece from a loved one can honor and/or cement a relationship. Life changing for sure. I assume you make prototypes. What do you do with them if they don't cut the mustard?
It took me a long time to learn to let them go. Like, 12 years. I used to work on a piece over and over and then it would come out looking forced. My best friend, Madelynn, of the Etsy shop One Garnet Girl, taught me that it's okay to let something go if it's not working. She's incredibly talented, successful, and smart. So now, if it doesn't work, I scrap it or melt it down. It's incredibly freeing to not be tied to the money and time I've put into something, once I recognized that the time I'm saving by letting it go and moving on is way more valuable. Because if I don't love it, my customers won't love it either.
Yes, I feel exactly the same way when I'm designing: if I love it, someone else will love it, too. For those of us who are new to metal work, can you tell us a little about the metals you use?
I love working with metal, all kinds of metal. I work with sterling silver, 10-22k golds in all colors, palladium and platinum. As a nerd, I know the different properties of each (melting point, weight, malleability) and each one has it's own challenges. Whether I'm working with sheet, wire or castings, I have a pretty good idea of how things will turn out. But nerds also know that experiments can go wrong. I have bad soldering days. I have porosity in castings. I can't figure out where to sprue a piece to get the metal to flow correctly. The fun part is experimenting, and sometimes coming up with new ways to do things. You learn from each success, but you learn more from each mistake. I don't know who said that, but it's this nerd's mantra.
You mentioned soldering. I'm intrigued by it, but it's looks dangerous. Is it? Is it something you like to do?
Yes, it's dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. I still sweat sometimes when I'm soldering something tricky, but not because I'm afraid I'll blow up. It's more out of fear that I'll melt a gold ring. Do I love it? I love soldering when soldering loves me back. But on the days when the torch and I aren't getting along... ugh.
Oh, I know what you mean! People always say that knitting and crocheting are relaxing, but they are very stressful if you make a mistake or things aren't going your way. I love the way you use gemstones. What is your fave?
I love faceted gemstones. Like an addict. Similar to metal, each gemstone has different properties. My main concern is hardness (hello, MOHS Scale of Hardness). The hardness of a stone will dictate whether I use it in a ring, a necklace or earrings. My favorite is sapphire--blue, pink, orange, green; it's beautiful and has a hardness of 9. (Diamonds are 10). I bought a stunning sapphire when my second son was born and made it into a ring so that I wouldn't eat it. It's so delicious.
Like a fashion designer, you create collections. How many collections do you have?
My collections come from my heart, which is hard to pin down to just one influence. I grew up in the country among dairy farms and cornfields. I can drive a tractor. But I also love cities and architecture and geometry (nerd). So I think it all goes into my creative blender and pours out in the collections you see in my shop: Wrought, Modern Rock, Raw, and Metropolis. Derivatives of the core design come from customer requests. I love making my own designs, but I also love the collaboration with my customers, I get a lot of satisfaction from that.
Your concepts are particularly strong. How do your designs come to you?
I'm a 3-dimensional thinker, so I'll take time to sit and imagine a design and turn it around in my head before I make a sketch. I want to make sure every angle will work first. That happens when I make time to sit and think, which isn't often. I usually have an idea that simmers in the back of my head for a while before I can make time to fully imagine it. And then even longer before I can make the model. I've had design inspiration while running on the treadmill, during dreams or while driving. If I'm open to it and make time to imagine, inspiration is always there.
I do the same thing. I call it "steeping," like one lets tea steep. Do you sketch your designs or, like me, just start creating after letting ideas steep for a while?
Oooh, I like the term "steeping." I've done it both ways, but the most successful for me is to sketch it out first. My jewelry is about dimensions, finger sizes, gemstone diameters, weight. So the best designs have been ones that I've at least roughly sketched out first so that everything is in balance.
You describe your work as eco-friendly. How so?
I work very hard to leave the smallest footprint I can. I use recycled boxes, recyclable mailers, and recycled metals. I also choose ethically-sourced gemstones whenever possible. I work mostly with U.S.-based companies. It's important to me to help my own economy even if it's more expensive. So sometimes I have to go the extra mile to research and ask questions, but it's worth it to me and it's important to my customers. Win-win.
That's a great selling point. I know you create necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, but your rings really stand out. Do you prefer making rings?
I personally love rings and would look like a crazy gypsy if I didn't have to work with my hands every day; every finger would have 2-3 rings on it. But I also like to wear earrings and necklaces since I don't have to take them off as often. I feel like my outfit isn't complete without earrings, a necklace and rings. Oh, and I love looking down at my wrist to see my silver and gold initial hearts that I made to remind me of my boys. So I love earrings, necklaces, rings and bracelets. Gypsy!
I feel the same way. If I could keep up with them, I'd have at least 3 rings on each hand at all times. What is your biggest seller?
My biggest seller is my Wrought wedding set. It's interesting because I've sold this to men who are buying it to propose with, or married women who are buying it as an alternative engagement ring set, and also single women who just want a cool gemstone ring without the matching band. It resonates with lots of people and that makes me extraordinarily happy.
Do you sell at craft fairs?
Last year I gave up doing craft fairs. It was really hard because I missed meeting my customers directly. But I realized that there was a disconnect between the lower-end work I sold at fairs and the higher-end work I sold online. No one wants to pay $300 for a ring at a craft fair, but those are the kinds of pieces I love to make. So I gave it up fully last year and worked really hard on building my online sales. It was a leap and I was nervous it wouldn't work. But once my focus was solely on my online business, my sales doubled and more than made up for the income I got from fairs. I feel so much happier making this kind of jewelry. Plus, I get to spend weekends with my family now.
That was another courageous move. You saw that something needed to change and you took a chance. Good for you! What about wholesale?
I still have some wholesale accounts, but selling direct to my customers and hearing their feedback is really what I love to do. I have a plan to design a wholesale line that doesn't compete with my online work, and roll that out in early 2014. It's written on a paper plate here somewhere...
Do you have a blog?
Yes, but it's woefully neglected. I prefer to talk to people on Facebook. We have a lot of fun there!
As you know, I visit your fan page often and share your designs with my fans. I prefer Facebook to a blog, too. This leads me to marketing. Marketing is always challenging. How do you approach marketing and advertising?
Ugh, I'm the worst. marketer. ever.
No, no, I think I am. Really.
It's so hard, isn't it? I hate talking about myself; I worry that promoting my work will seem like I'm bragging. But I also know that if I don't put my work out there, no one will know it exists. So I try to do it in a nice, happy way.
Marketing gurus always talk about knowing your customer. It seems you have figured that out. Can you describe one of your typical customers?
It took me a long time to figure that out. My customer is a lot like me: non-traditional. They love colorful gemstones instead of diamonds, they don't need all their jewelry to be matchy-matchy, and they have strong opinions about the environment. So they love this wedding set because it combines all of those things. They'll buy the Wrought necklace usually in different color from their ring, or they'll pair it with some squared bands. My customers love modern, elegant jewelry, and that's what I strive for in each piece.
Also, I'm a Gemini which means I have lots of different interests and personalities. I love modern, sleek, simple, edgy. But I also love country, flowery, girly-girl. And those are two very different customers. It's really hard because if I promote one of those looks, I lose the other customer, so I'm moving toward incorporating the two sides of me. It's a process.
A smart friend of mine, Lenny of the Etsy shop Lenny Mud told me, "Your customer is you." And she's right. (Why is she always right?). As a craftsperson, I make what I like. So why wouldn't other wives/moms and edgyish/modernish/flowery/sentimental women like my work? Duh. My advice is: take a good look at yourself because you are your customer.
I've never thought of it that way. That's kind of brilliant. Have you been able to join the "quit your day job" club? Is your business self-sustaining?
Yes, my business is self-sustaining and contributes to childcare, food, bills, etc. My day job was being a mom, so you don't really ever quit that. :-)
Lucky you! Your hard work and dedication has paid off. Let's talk about the tricky issue of pricing. Just let it rip.
There are formulas, but I like to think about 3 things: income tax, cost of goods, and profit.
1. Income tax: it will differ depending upon your tax bracket, but you still need to pay it, so it needs to be part of your formula.
2. Cost of goods: metal, gemstones, my labor, utilities/rent/supplies, packaging, shipping.
3. Profit: how much I need to pay for my family to eat and live and go on vacation? (Wait, what's a vacation?)
I think a lot of people forget about income tax and actual profit. And you don't make vacations a financial afterthought, even if you haven't had one in a while. I adore your photos. You do your own photography, correct?
Thank you so much. Yes, I do my own photography. Second to marketing, photography is my worst subject. It has taken me 5 years to get to the point where I don't hate my photos, which is directly related to my boost in sales. I am selling online, so my photos need to be impeccable. Once I stopped making excuses as to why I can't do it, I just tried hundreds of times until I got it right. Hundreds of times. I'm not even kidding. My hard drive is sagging under the weight of my mistakes. If something isn't selling, I re-take the photo until it looks as good as my best-selling ring set.
You're right about it being a process. Where do you live? Do you have a dedicated studio?
I live in Chelsea with 2 boys, my husband, and 2 cats. The space is small, but we keep it minimal so that we don't feel cramped. In February I moved my studio out of our bedroom into an office building a few blocks away. It was a big deal for me because whenever I'd dream of what success meant, it was to have my own studio space outside of the apartment. I still can't believe it. It's really helped me separate my work and home life; I had to get used to wearing shoes once I moved out. And there's no laundry or dishes to do during the day now; they patiently wait for me to get home. Isn't that nice of them?
Yes, that's very nice of them. It's great you found a space so close to home. We've talked on occasion about our mutual vegetarianism. Has being a vegetarian affected your business and your aesthetic? How do you handle being the sole veggie in your family?
I think being concerned for things outside my own bubble definitely seeps into my business. Being passionate about making my company as eco-friendly as I can is directly related to my own vegetarianism. I don't want to do harm to others if I can help it, so conserving resources is key to my business model. Being the solo veggie in my family is really hard. But I was forced to eat meat as a kid, so I don't want to do the reverse to my kids and force them to be vegetarians. They know I'm vegetarian, but it's not a big deal. I've been veg for 22 years so it's become just one part of who I am. Just like I don't expect them to become jewelers, you know?
I've been vegetarian and mostly vegan for even longer. My family doesn't share my plant-based lifestyle, but they help me with my business in many ways. How does your family help you? Do your cats contribute?
LOL! My cats couldn't be less enthusiastic about my work unless it has ice cream on it. But the rest of my family is incredibly supportive and I'm really blessed. My husband has a job with health insurance. He reminds me to look at my profit and loss every week. And he tells me when I've posted something non-Metalicious-related on Instagram usually via a snarky e-mail. My kids are also supportive of my work. They're still young and don't really know that most moms don't have their own businesses. I'm hoping that changes and it is definitely becoming more the norm thanks to Etsy. GO, MOMPRENEURS!
Where do you see your business in 5 years?
I hope to continue to make handmade work for my customers. There's only so much business that I can handle as one person, and only so much that my family needs. I would love to work with a non-profit to make donations on behalf of my customers. I'd also like to increase my wholesale business so that I can hire other artisans. That would mean that I'd have to share my CD player and I'm just not there yet.
Lastly, how has being part of the Etsy NY team helped you?
Being an entrepreneur is lonely. The connections I've made with other artists here in New York has given me the ability to have the camaraderie of an office, except our water cooler happens to be an online Google group.
Stephanie, interviewing you was a joy! Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are an gifted jeweler, an unstoppable force, and an inspiration to us all.
The Etsy NY team's 2013 Spring Handmade Cavalcade on Saturday, May 4! If you're looking for the best handmade market in the New York area, look no further. And later in May, I'll bring you another thrilling installment of "A Crafty Life." This is Birdy27 signing off. Please support the handmade community. Successful creative artisans can change the world! Chirp, chirp!
Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell
Throughout the summer, this venerable concert series offers a wide variety of different musical and theatrical events such as, Sweet Honey and the Rock, The Muppet Movie Sing-A-Long, and Lyle Lovett. Most importantly, you can hang out with our Etsy New York Team Members at our fabulous gift shop at the bandshell.
|Telekinetic Alien vs. Cupcake by LiPeony|
SyFy Movies with a View is sponsoring a free movie series on Thursday evenings in Brooklyn Bridge Park. E.T. kicks off this summer program. In my quest to introduce my child to now classic movies (and yes Back to the Future is on that list), we will definitely attend this event.
|Roller Derby T-Shirt by SkateLove|
Olympian muses, roller skates, disco what's not to love! This outdoor production runs from July 5th to the 20th at 8 p.m. Also, the Old Stone House is the site of the Battle of Brooklyn, the battle that almost put an end to George Washington. I find it fascinating that one of the most important battle grounds of the Revolutionary War is right next to Staples.
|NYC Music and Drama Pendant by Citybitz|
12th Night: New York Classical Theatre, Battery Park in front of Castle Clinton through July 22th
I love the fact that this is a walkabout production of the play. Hopefully it will make for an exciting introduction to the Bard for the 10-year old video game addict who will have to come along to this event.
So what are recommendations for free summer events?
Today, Etsy announced the return of their Special Delivery campaign - Share Your Love 2012. Etsy will once again partner with Citymeals-on-Wheels to bring nutritious meals & companionship to elderly New Yorkers with a little surprise...a Valentines' Day card from you.
Check out details on how to get involved, where to send your cards & any dos or don't here. Since K. Batty Design & Stationery is my name & cards are my game, I'm super excited to participate in this & pledge to send 20 cards. Maybe more! I love the opportunity to bring up the spirits of a fellow New Yorker.
I hope you'll join me in bringing some cheer with Etsy & Citymeals-on-Wheels!
PS If you're still gazing at your holiday cards & wondering what to do with them, check out Sara's post from the other day on how they can be upcycled for charity.
Have you been to the High Line yet? Well, you should go. Recommended by Karen Seiger of Markets in NYC (in my last post covering Morningside Heights), the High Line is quite the treat. And it's FREE to check out. Yup, this elevated Manhattan public park spans nearly 20 blocks from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street (between 10th & 11th Avenues), and it's full of plant life and history.
Did you know that the High Line was built in the 1930s and no trains have run on it since the 1980s? Read more info here!
There will be something for everyone with free food for kids, games, bouncy castles and a petting zoo inside the school - all to occupy the children, leaving the parents free to shop the best handmade goods in the Metro New York area!
Applications are still being accepted for this unique handmade event happening in the heart of Chelsea! Contact us or you can download an application here http://thenewnewny.com/CraftsInChelsea.pdf You have until Sept 12!