February Guest: Amy Helfand
AT Offline: The NY Design Meetup
Last week's Meetup was a more intimate affair — a slightly smaller crowd than usual after rescheduling the event due to weather. Following a discussion of Paula's Living Room and some design ideas from the crowd for Paula to take home, Maxwell sat down with artist and rug designer Amy Helfand.
MGR: I first met Amy at ICFF several years ago, in 2007. She is one of the first artists I met at the show. The vibrant and wonderful colors in the rugs attracted me to the booth and that is where I met Amy — a nice surprise to meet the designer as often, booths are staffed with salespeople. Through our initial conversation, I learned she never wanted to be a rug designer and that she is a fine artist and photographer by training with a diverse and varied background including art exhibits in many different cities. Her rug designs come from photographs. Though it is not obvious, all the rugs evolve from the abstraction of photographic images.
The use of photographs as the inspiration for your rug designs is fascinating. Can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
• Photographer, at first.
• Still love to photograph, and now, really enjoy abstraction.
• Used to take images from catalogs (seed catalogs, Martha Stewart) and collaged. Very
good with x-acto knife!
• From there, started using photographs to do the same process.
• Show at Wave Hill (garden in the Bronx) based on the wild gardens.
• Started thinking about rugs — for some reason, felt inspired during this show to start
thinking about rug design.
• Called Rugmark (renamed Good Weave) to learn more about weavers. Wanted to find a
child-free labor collective to weave her rugs.
• Showed her first rug in the Wave Hill show, as well as some prints.
So how do you make a 1-off rug?
• It's not hard!
• Most communication is via email.
• Some software works well (particularly for pattern graphing) but Amy just sends jpgs
and/or large prints so the weavers have a larger image to go by.
• Loves process because it is about abstraction.
• Also, pattern is not always perfectly translated because the weaver is the one making it.
Loves that as well.
So how did you make the move from 1-rug to a full business?
• After the Wave Hill show, saw the potential for making more rugs.
• Entrepreneurial by nature, so it all made sense.
• Moved with husband from Chicago to NY, started family (3 boys), and felt that being an
entrepreneur would be a great way to be able to work and raise kids.
• BKLYN DESIGNS was 1st trade show…
Good Weave is a great company, but sometimes hard to work with. They are a non-profit with the goal of ending child labor — very passionate people. All of their manufacturers must display the Good Weave label.
• Yes, they do amazing work. It only truly works if consumers start to insist on child-free labor as well for their products.
• … so BKLYN DESIGNS show in 2005. Just did it — paid for booth and rugs, and did
collateral on computer. Had some previous trade show experience so I knew what to bring with me, etc.
• Very lucky with press; got good coverage.
• Sold some rugs, and just started to roll from there.
• Was overwhelmed for a while with the 3 kids.
• Youngest is now 6, so able to start pushing business a bit more. Kids are gone during
the day, etc.
I've wondered a lot about this, how designers can manage running a business and having a family.
• Well, it all depends on what kind of parent you want to be, or are, how much time you
want to spend with them, where to draw lines in work and family, etc.
• Feels lucky that her and husband are artists and have some flexibility with their time.
So how much money did you need to get yourself started?
• Decided on 3-4 rugs for a show, size really depends on booth.
• This year, chose a bigger booth for ICFF — costs $10,000.
• However, sell 1-2 rugs and it's paid for itself.
• This year, also want to start approaching showrooms. Less profit, but more exposure.
• Not too expensive to make rug in India; costs more to ship it.
So you never make the same rug twice?
• Hasn't happened yet.
• Most people want something unique, and personal to them.
So what are the costs to make a rug?
• Cost approx. $125/square foot ($10,000 for 8x10 rug).
• Wool / silk combo is one of her favorites and what she usually displays at shows.
• Manufacturing is only slightly more than shipping — approx. $2,500 in materials, $5,000
• So far, only sold a handful of rugs a year.
• Basically, the client is getting her artwork in rug form.
• Have not been able to produce more than that as of yet, but hopes to push it more soon
with the children getting older.
Q: Do you have a vision for how people will use your rugs and how they will place the furniture on them?
AH: No! Can't have that control. It's something that I have to let go of when it leaves her hands.
Q: Have you done commissioned work?
AH: Almost all of my work is commissioned. I loves the direct communication with the client — basically, 90% of work is commissioned.
Q: What is the technique you use in creating your rugs?
AH: They are hand-knotted, 100 knots per inch, which is actually not as dense as other rugs.
Q: Are there machines that can do this work?
AH: Honestly, there are not. These workers are very skilled, very fast, and knot in a way that cannot be done by machine. They barely have the lights on in these work rooms. Hand-knotting allows very intricate detail. Also, in the end, it is less expensive than machines (although those are not even an option). Back of the rugs looks like needlepoint — a very find handy work.
Q: Any chance of ever making rugs locally?
AH: No, the technique is not known by any local laborers. Also, even if it were, the labor cost would be too high.
Q: How many laborers are used for your rugs?
AH: They require one person for every 2 feet. Each rug takes countless hours, even though they work very quickly. An 8x10 rug takes about one month to complete.
MGR: But don't forget, these rugs will last forever!
Q: Can you bring rugs back with you as checked baggage?
AH: I've only gone to India once. Luckily, the manufacturer does not need me there to complete the rugs. Again, it's amazing how much we can do with email now. Odegard was the pioneer in this type of communication — she used fax transmissions, but got the manufacturers started with non-direct communication of this sort.
Q: Do clients have a problem waiting so long for their rug?
AH: I tell clients 16-20 weeks, which is the total time, from initial design stages to finished product. For a custom product, that is fairly standard.
Q: Any hopes to become more commercial?
AH: This is a constant inner conflict. I identify as an artist but this is a very business-like process. The great thing about this type of art is that the design world is very democratic, meaning that it is fairly easy to show your work. You can appear at ICFF and be greeted and accepted. Fine art is a much more difficult process, harder to get your work noticed and accepted. I would like to grow the business a little, but do not want to lose the individual interaction between myself and the client. Maybe I would expand with a few showroom contracts to get work out there, but I don't want to be a huge company. It would not be satisfying for me to just run a business.
MGR: What about other products? Any interest there?
AH: I may extend to textiles, as that is a natural extension of my artwork as well. I just don't want to create products that separate me too much from my art. During the holidays, I do a big edition of a small print. This year, I did a limited edition tote bag. So, these are one-offs, but I don't expect them to become more than that.
Q: You mentioned industry software. What is the difference with using that versus what you are currently using?
AH: It allows you to do full life-size graphs of the print. It's very expensive to buy, though, and the manufacturer must have it on his end as well. Using Photoshop and creating jpgs
works just as well.
Q: Who oversees the child labor issue?
AH: As a member of Good Weave, this is automatically taken care of. They certify that the manufacturer you work with does not use child labor, and they perform surprise inspections on a regular basis to ensure children are not used. If they see children near the looms or in the area, they remove them and help support them so they can go to school, including buying them clothes, textbooks, etc. Good Weave is a very passionate non-profit that stands by their work 100%.
Q: When meeting with a client, who does the designing?
AH: It depends. Sometimes people come in with an exact idea of what they want, and other times the process is completely non-directed. One client came in saying "I just want a rug that makes me happy." So, I have to figure out what that means. The client ended up picking colors and furnishings for the rug that I would have never anticipated. Thus I learned something from the client during this process.
MGR: Do you size up clients? Figure them out? Are you good at that?
AH: Yes, you need to learn to figure out people very quickly. So far, I've been very lucky with clients. Sometimes what they ask for is not exactly what they want, and you need to
figure that out.
Q: Is it difficult importing rugs, dealing with customs, etc.?
AH: All my rugs are shipped via DHL. Clients pay for the shipping. I haven't done mass quantity yet, so I have not had to deal with shipping containers, etc.
MGR: How has social media / web changed how you run your business?
AH: I'm trying to be better at it. I announced this event on my Facebook page! I'm rebranding this year — getting a mailing list in order and I'm also looking to start blogging.
MGR: How do people/customers find you?
AH: Mentions on blogs, in magazines, at shows.
PRINT GIVEAWAY: Congratulations to Elaine Sexton, the winner of one of Amy's original prints!
Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!