This past week we had our biggest design meetup ever, as Sandy Chilewich fans packed the house. In addition to sitting down with Sandy and having a great conversation in which she covered her whole career, Sandy gave away an area rug to a lucky attendee and Knoll debuted their brand new task chair, dubbed Generation. Head below for the recap...
Thanks to everyone who came down to the Knoll Showroom, as well as to Knoll for hosting us and September Wines for keeping us well lubricated.
After David Militzer from Knoll showed off the new Generation chair (full post on this coming), Sandy came up and we jumped right into the early days. Above is a slide show of our meetup, as well as a most of the slides that Sandy showed that night to the crowd.
• She liked fashion originally, and got started making jewelry and dyeing shoes. Voila! HUE
As a young artist/entrepreneur in NYC in the 70's, Sandy made jewelry and sold it to Bloomingdale's. On the side, she started dyeing cotton Chinese shoes with a friend and sold them as fashion items. Picked up by Vogue, they took off the two partners were soon in the "colorful dyeing of fashion items" business (they quickly had 6 washers and 6 dryers going all day long in their NY loft), which mutated from shoes to stockings, until Sandy and Kathy Moskal started HUE, which became a well known hosiery business.
• HUE was eventually sold and Sandy cast around for a new idea - Round #2: Chilewich
With a good run in the fashion business, Sandy decided to head for calmer waters, and home accessories appealed. She had a number of design ideas, that all stemmed from creative uses of textiles that she'd become familiar with while running HUE. Her first design was a textile bowl, the RayBowl, which she sold to MoMA, but her interest quickly led her to working with a woven vinyl, originally intended for use on outdoor furniture.
Working directly with the textile company in Tennessee, she designed and had produced the first of her chic woven vinyl place mats that quickly took off both due to their innovative look (beautiful) and her established connections with retail stores like MoMA.
While the bowls did well and the place mats took off, Sandy attributed her success here not with nailing her audience, but with having at least three designs ready to go and watching which ones were well received. In every case she would take a number of designs to completion, share them with her audience and go forward with the one that went over well.
She would also spend a good deal of time in the stores that sold her products to see how they were selling. Not wanting to wait or trust the stores and their reports, she worked the floors to see what REALLY was selling and see if she could pick up what customers were saying.
Iteration and listening to real customers became a simple recipe for success.
• Chilewich grows and her husband, Joe Sultan, joins to create a contract line - Round #3
Sandy's husband, Joe Sultan, became more and more involved with the company and with the potential to use the product in contract settings. In 2000-01 they teamed up and introduced their new contract line, dubbed Plynyl, which has created a whole new market for the company. Leaving his architecture practice, he turned all of his attention to helping her grow in this new direction. From that time on, the company has been called Chilewich & Sultan.
The conversation was long, and there were many questions, which I wish I could retell. Perhaps we'll be able to record them in the future, but for the time being, people will just have to come and remember what they heard.
Afterwards, I asked Sandy how she started two companies, got married and raised two children - all at the same time. She said, "You know, it's not easy. You really need good help. You need good help at home."
Thank you Sandy Chilewich for coming out and to Knoll and September wines for hosting us! See you all in September.
Thanks to our wine sponsor!
• What: AT's New York Design Meetup
• Members: 976 and growing