An Interview with Boston based Furniture Designer Debra Folz on starting her own studio, getting products made from concept to production, and succeeding in the marketplace.
Q: What brought you to start your own furniture design studio and teach?
A: I originally went to school for interior design for my undergrad, I guess that was an easy entry point for me. I don’t know that I would have found furniture design right away, I wasn’t really aware that it was even a major. I practiced as an interior designer at a large firm for 3 years and I learned a lot but I really wanted to learn how to make things. Working at a big firm I didn’t get to be that close to what we were doing, I always felt kinda distant from the process. So then I just changed tracks and went to school for furniture design. That was a big change for me, a pretty pivotal decision. After that I started teaching as a way to start my business. I thought about getting a full time job, but feared that working 40 hours a week and trying to do my work on the side would be too difficult. I thought if taught a couple days a week I would have more time to work in the studio.
Q: Was starting your own studio, and following that entrepreneur spirit something you always wanted to do?
A: I feel like I did know I wanted to do it but I wouldn’t say I had a very good plan. I basically took one thing I designed in school and made a product out of it. I took (the photo album) that was kind of an art object and I turned it into a product. I just took small steps towards it. Once I was selling enough of those to pay for a modest studio rent I got a studio and moved out of my apartment. That’s how I started, I made sure that one product would pay for my studio and I still teach 2 or 3 classes a semester.
Q: Can you tell us how the photo album product started in the market?
A: I originally made them in school and then I farmed out the parts locally to make a batch of 50 to submit to just about every design blog, every magazine I’d ever heard of and nobody knew who I was. I just threw it out there and it kinda flew all over the place.
Q: Did you send the actual piece?
No, I sent out this little mailer, a simple email with some pictures I took that were as professional as I could manage and I got some good response.
Q: Starting out on your other designs, how did you move from your album to the braided and embroidery designs of your furniture?
A: When I was in college I started merging textiles and furniture, I think it was something I already knew how to do when I came to that very new program. I’d always done fiber arts and handcrafts, things like that, so I think that when I was learning all these brand new things those just naturally combined. I would say the majority of my work has to do with pattern and textiles but its not exclusive, the photo albums are different and some things just don’t fall into that category because I find something else very interesting for whatever reason but I’d say there is a good amount of my work that falls into a textile category.
Q: With your studio work what is your process? How much do you have going at the same time, is it a lot of testing ideas or more focused on a specific topic or category?
A: I wish I could say that I spend the majority or even a lot of the time designing new things, but its actually not true. I think a lot of people would tell you that. I spend equal amounts of time revising old things, fixing things in manufacturing, tweaking, responding to feedback, developing things into bigger lines or just doing marketing or bookkeeping; all the things that have to do with running a business. The design part is why I do all that other stuff, it’s my favorite part obviously but it tends to be a smaller part. Within that smaller part I’d say part of it is being inspired by new things, things we see, things we think about, things we want to try. Another part of it is responding to the market and seeing what changing something you want to do fits with what’s out there now and how it relates to the other stuff you’ve made and how it serves a purpose you’re not serving. Part of it is inspiration, and part of it has grown to be a little bit more equal with business thinking.
Q: How do you respond and work with those trends that pop up in the design world?
For me, working with textiles and patterns there’s always going to be a trend and trends will be part of that language but it takes so long to develop a new product and get it into the world and then produce it. That whole process could take a year. So if you rely on trends too heavily by the time you get these things out it could be less significant. It’s a balance of touching on trends, being on trend but not being trendy.
Q: How do you collaborate with your manufacturers?
A: That’s my favorite part, to be honest. I really enjoy working with the fabricators and manufacturers. I’d say that I seek them out, looking at things they’ve done or their website seeing if they are capable of doing the things I need them to do. I would bring them an idea and we look at it together and they would say to do that a little differently or this needs to be done first or if you do it this in a slightly different way it would be way less expensive. So it’s always a conversation where we work through it together. And in terms of working with people, it’s gotten easier. When I was first starting out it was harder to get them on board to work with me. I would go in and say to them ‘Please make this part’ and they would say ‘Who are you? We make massive amounts of parts…no I’m sorry’. Now I go in there, I chat them up, I leave, they’ll look me up and they’ll say ‘Oh ok, she’s done some other partnerships, we can work with this person’. So it might be hard at the beginning to get those relationships going but once you get their trust you can work with them on a smaller scale.
Q: How do you approach the projects with them? Can you bring them just sketches and ideas or do you have prototypes ready?
It depends on the person. I work with a woodworker that I’ve known for so long that I just go in with my drawing and he understands what I want to do. There is other people I work with that I’m really lucky that they work with me because they are larger facilities, but I try to go in there as prepared as possible, I don’t want to waste their time having to work through an idea with me. With them it’s more about ‘can you do it or should I change it?’ Mostly I have sketches, models and then CAD drafts that I’ll bring in because that seems to be a way that everybody can have something to look at that’s technical.
Q: How do you interact with the design community with your projects, getting feedback or helping present your designs to an audience?
A: I’ve learned to test the market before I spend too much money on production. Every year I’ll design 3 or 4 new things and I show them in New York for Design Week. I go down there with the first batch of the products, and all of my manufacturing is totally squared away; If I get 10 or 20 orders, were going to make them and I have my price ranges. But I’ve really only invested my time and the money it takes to make one. So if I go to the show and one thing get way more feedback than the other or I get feedback that I never was expecting; somebody off the street comes in a sees something that you’ve made they’ll have a completely different approach and will think of things that you’ve never thought of, so I think its good to test the market. Whether that’s through having a network of like-minded designers that will give you feedback or bringing it to an exhibition and testing what goes over well with the press, what goes over well with users, the audience, retailers (retailers will have different considerations that you haven’t considered like shipping or markups) so its good to get something out there before you invest in making 50 and you have these things sitting in your studio and you can’t change anything about it. That’s a pretty important part of my process, just not going too far until you put it in front of some people and see what happens. Then you can come back and say ‘All right people like this one the best, and lets put our focus here. Should we make a bigger one? Should we expand it? This color went over really well but nobody really like this other one.’ Just getting feedback is really important. Being involved in different organizations like American Design Club which was really great for me, showing with them my first year out of grad school. They do great things for people who want to show their work, giving them a forum where they can do that. They made it possible for me to show at the Gift Show, market my own booth, get my products out and help get my name out there.
Thank You so much Debra for your time, all the great advice and the insight to your world!