Friday, September 13, 2013

New Pomeroy Reed Diffuser with Jewelry                                                                                      
Usually when I am working on something new for the collections, size and value typically drive the direction along with fashion considerations of course.  By size and value I’m referring to the price/value ratio that inevitably comes into play when a customer is viewing new items for the first time.  Invariably she will compare price, quality, scale, etc. of other items she is buying, and decide whether she should add one of Pomeroy’s items to her assortment .  Recently, over the course of the last several years, I have been able to inject a fourth consideration into the mix; something I call “the cute factor”.

When shopping for shoes, I’ve noticed invariably that the store will put smaller sizes on display.  Why? Because the smaller features are irresistible and the larger a shoe becomes in size,  the less attractive.  The same phenomenon happens when I am working on a new drawing.  My normal procedure is to do a tiny sketch in the upper right hand corner of my drawing pad until I like whats going on and then enlarge it below.  Well, even these “enlarged” drawings on the pad might still be one quarter or even one tenth of the size of the final item; so when the sample is actually made it often needs revisions because the increased scale of the item changes its perception drastically, meaning that if it is a wrought iron piece, what looked well proportioned small, may suddenly look like an oddly shaped alien that only an artist like Gieger could appreciate (The Swiss artist that created the original Alien for the movie).  Small scale allows the opportunity to create something “cute”. “Cuteness” on its own is sufficient to make something highly salable.  Some years ago I began adding jewelry to various fragrance diffusers and lighting trays.  Adding jewelry has added a new dimension to this category while increasing the perceived value and at the same time allowed us to migrate to a collection which included very feminine and “cute” looks. 

Shipping is such a large cost component in any new development these days, that the mere thought of a collection of “small”, cute, decorative, and functional items for the home was exhilarating for me. Not only did these shiny “bejeweled” reed diffusers bring a fun new direction in design possibilities but they allowed us to expand on the concept of value; that is, if we are able to save on freight then we could add components to the item to create more value. After all, the customer will still expect the item to compare appropriately (cost to value) to other items of a similar function or size when considering whether or not to add it their assortment. 

The next step in evolution of scale is to take this concept of something cute and translate it to a larger items.  This is comparable to watching your small princess grow up to be a young elegant lady.  (I have one of those in my house, and witnessed this transformation for myself over the past 20 years).  As with children this is easier said than done.  Sometimes the raw material does not cooperate; or indeed is simply not appropriate to enlarge and maintain  its integrity.  Jewelry for instance can be enlarged to a point, but beyond a certain size simply becomes a weapon and no longer cute.  Sometimes the reverse is true.  Rattan for instance needs objects of a certain size, otherwise the material simply cannot be used as it too course and cumbersome to work into small shapes. 

When increasing the size of my  original thumbnail sized sketch, it becomes of paramount importance to increase detail and reconsider the size and scale of that detail; because what was just a small distance in between embellishments or design elements is now a sahara desert-sized wasteland, or worse yet the design details that looked so “cute” small, have now become mechanical creatures from a movie like “Transformers”.  And sometimes the very concept itself becomes unworkable and must be scrapped altogether.

The bottom line for me, as a designer, is to remember what looks good small does not always work enlarged no matter how much I may want it to.  As design, for me, is an emotional experience, I  must always stay vigilant to the change in moving from a petite, playful, bejeweled princess, to something larger lest she morph into something other than the young, elegant, well mannered young lady I have living in my house.   

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Words To Live By

Too Much of a Good Thing

Texture and Pattern in Harmony

When I was in graduate school in Switzerland, I had a teacher who reminded me that as a designer, you might find the perfect solution for a problem; but it might be a solution for a different problem.  That is, you discover something which is successful visually,  but does not work for the project you have in front of you. 

Well, you have to go back to the drawing board so to speak and somehow put that experience out of your mind; which is very difficult, because for a while your mind will return to the scene of the crime and keep coming up with similar solutions until you work yourself away from that original thought.  Its hard to leave something that works well even if it is the “wrong” solution for the problem.  The best strategy I have found is  to make note of this new look or solution for another project which I can start as soon as I finish the one I’m currently trying to solve; in this way I can get my mind off of that new design, and move on to another solution for the problem at hand.

In my collection I always aspire to create a rich contrast of materials as well as sizes, colors and finishes.  This being said, the Pomeroy customer is not a gift shop, gourmet store, furniture store,  garden center, or a home store, they are all of these, which makes creating a variety of themes and directions essential to remaining vital to our customer.  Not to mention the fact,  that only original design will do.   I cannot simply go to China and pick things that might or might not fit into the collection.  That is not really in the Pomeroy DNA.

We are constantly creating new shapes in iron, glass, ceramics , etc. to set us apart from the throng of showrooms offering “market goods” .  The exciting thing about this business are the possibilities that lurk just beneath the surface at the factory level.  Every technique, color and shape usually can be combined and altered to fit into a collection and bring a new breath of fresh air to a coastal collection; or a rustic country collection.  These are often accidents waiting to happen; good accidents that is.  

A new trend which seems to have legs at the moment is jute in all its forms; wrapping, weaving, and handles for lanterns, and luminarias.  As this technique has already proliferated every factory by now, the challenge for Pomeroy, as always, is to create something unique which will stand out against all of the goods already being proposed in the marketplace.  Do we wrap, or weave or both around glass vessels, iron vessels, ceramic vessels, and do we have rope handles as well, or is this too much of a good thing.  Each idea creates with it a myriad of questions and problems.  There are times when I will say, “you cannot have too much texture and pattern”, but then I see someone wearing plaids and stripes together (in a bad way) and I remember the axiom, “you CAN have too much of a good thing”.  That is when I remember my Swiss training and begin again, adding detail, texture, and pattern until the next bit is simply too much and I know that I should stop.  Every texture, pattern, and design detail, like jute is workable on its own.  Literally everything can be used successfully if approached cautiously.  It’s always simply a matter of working the problem with creativity and playfulness, while remembering to be disciplined about when too much is really too much, and having the discipline to stop when you need to stop.  

After all, “less CAN be more”.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Design and Distraction

Todd Being Distracted In Vietnam

Looking at design as an occupation, it’s pretty easy to view it as simply a job like any other; I mean, you have an idea,  or a request from a customer for a new item and based on the parameters of the job, you dutifully go about gathering necessary information to understand what the item will be used for, in what context, and what you as the designer, can add to make it other than just one more thing that looks and works like so many other items already on the market.  Exactly; not that complicated on the surface but there is of course that gnarly bit about creating something really new.  

While creating something new is always satisfying in itself, it’s not always an easy place to find. The road is not a straight one, and there are no signs for guidance.   A lot of the process of design is researching the various needs which must be fulfilled; which can be done by someone who is organized, and detailed.  Ideally the designer will imbue all of those qualities, but alas, often they will not.  Design by definition requires a certain whimsy in the process, so it is unusual that the linear thinking person and one able to consider the beauty of whimsy come together in the same body. 

When I start out sketching a new item, I usually make some very small sketches with not a lot of detail.  If I’m lucky this process gives me a general direction for the structure or look of the item.  I cannot profess to know how other designers work; some I suspect are like laboratory technicians; organized, clean, and methodical in their approach.  Others I know are disorganized (to be generous); creating order from chaos as it were, but always with a huge conglomeration of stuff around all half- finished.  I would put myself in the middle.  I have a large number of things piled on my desk, which I am afraid to clean and organize for fear that I will lose something.  On the other hand my drawing pad is sacrosanct.  I somehow manage to keep this always in the same location and any drawings which are located there have not yet been sent off to be sampled; a process which I have had in place for 20 years in spite of the fact that I am easily distracted. 

Distraction is one of those qualities that is rarely seen as such.  I was distracted in school, considered a “day dreamer” by my teachers.  My mind always wandered as if lost in a forest.   Only later did I realize that this could be a good thing; if I was able to control it, but for the record, it was pretty hard to control.  If harnessed properly, distraction can be a wonderful tool for the designer; however, if not kept in check it can really play havoc and create lots of confusion, not to mention half-finished projects.  Distraction allows me to bounce from idea to idea like a hummingbird feeding on flowers.  The key is to keep your overall direction for the project, in the back of your mind so you come to a conclusion.  All of the creativity in the world will be for naught if the designer does not arrive at a conclusion.  There are times during this process that you discover something really interesting but it would be better suited for another item or even a different category of goods.  If possible make a note, or some bread crumbs,  then get back to what you were working on before you end up in the Australian outback and can’t remember how you go there.   To be successful the designer must be part hummingbird; gathering ideas and possibilities and part project architect; ruthlessly discarding ideas or concepts which do not fulfill the requirements of the project. 

So when starting out on a new project, I always have a loose guide in my mind as to the purpose of the item or range of product; whether it is serve ware, lighting, fountains, or decorative such as ceramics and pillows.  This allows me to court distraction without courting disaster; allowing the creative process to take whatever path it might;  knowing that I always have a guide, or at least can follow the bread crumbs home, in case I get lost.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Vietnam, Take Two

New Developments In Vietnam

Todd Discovering New Finishes

The first time I developed product in Vietnam, I came to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), primarily looking for ceramics and candle related items.  I had already met one ceramic factory at Ambiente in Frankfurt and decided that this would be my entry point.  This particular factory was very well suited for developing new product.  While they did not have a lot of specific looks already developed that I felt would work for Pomeroy, they were very open to new ideas and pushing themselves in new directions; which means spending time and money trying new samples.  Take my word for it when I say that this is a quality not shared around the world.  

Let’s face it; if you are a factory with a well-developed business why would you want to bother with a lot of drama and expense trying to develop something you don’t really understand for a customer who may or may not use the new development in the end.  It is a quality I deeply admire in a factory’s character, which makes me fiercely loyal, and makes it very difficult to even look at a competing factory.  I’m sure this sounds a bit old fashioned but such are the relationships I endeavor to build. 

After the first set of designs that we created together were introduced, I became distracted as I often do, and began focusing on other urgencies, and categories. A principal challenge faced by all companies when starting business in a new country is not only creating enough interesting product to fill the first container but continuing the process for re-orders and future containers. 
While we kept buying the product we had developed, the business dwindled because I had not continued to develop new product.  Time marched on, as did my creative interests, and Vietnam began to slip further and further into the background until it all but disappeared.  I met another factory recently which peaked my interest again in Vietnam.  It was also a ceramics factory, but with a totally different product range. It is a very rustic look which, for Pomeroy, who was born of “rustic” parents, would integrate beautifully into our growing garden collection.  
While other countries have long combined raw materials into finished products; Vietnam has yet to develop this vocabulary on a grand scale.  Combining raw materials is a technique which I developed for Pomeroy some twenty years ago while we were still producing in Mexico, and continues to be a primary focus for me to this day.   For this particular collection of product, when visiting this new  factory the first time, I noticed that they had some glass cylinders which they were using on some other items for a European customer. This was an exciting discovery for me.   I integrated these into some lighting designs for pilar candle holders which I had drawn; only to be told that after they had made the mold, that this clay had too much shrinkage and there would be no way to control the fit of the glass.  My fall- back position was pilar holders with no glass.  Well, on this latest trip, I realized that we were having a communication problem and that we could indeed include glass on these pilar holders, as long as I was willing to have some tolerance in terms of the fit.  Problem solved. 

As I have mentioned in the past; the holy grail for a designer is to reach a new look, finish, or design which has not been shown in the market before.  A graduate school teacher of mine in Switzerland told me once that a student cannot do something he hasn’t already seen.  I would have to agree; which makes it all the more imperative for designers to continually search out creative , and open factories like those I have been fortunate enough to work with in Vietnam. Factories who are willing to push into new directions, which will allow us (designers) to keep changing and driving new product to market; and if we are lucky, create a few things along the way which have not yet been done.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Rise and Fall of a Category

Ashton Candle Garden

For over twenty years Pomeroy has explored every type of candle garden imaginable;  a category which was originally developed by Pomeroy and which dominated the market for over two decades. The concept I started with was a simple premise;  present the customer with everything “she” needed to create a beautiful and functional centerpiece without having to spend precious time scrounging for compatible components which might fit together on a tray.  We initially attributed our success with this new category of decorative lighting to the facts that we created an enormous value in the product, including a tray, rocks candles, glass elements, etc… and of course to our particular designs.  In the beginning, we were indeed able to imbue a great value in the item, but of course with the endless march of time, commodity increases, and competition, that benefit began to wane.   As the category matured, I began looking for ways to justify a higher retail, and while I was  never able to create successful candle gardens which were above 29.99 at retail, the candle garden remained a staple for Pomeroy until the activation of the anti-dumping duty tax placed on Chinese wax, championed by a few large domestic candle makers and their congressmen. 
As with most government sponsored programs; there were unintended consequences.  Ten years ago when the duty was originally activated the market for fragranced candles was very strong and was arguably at a peak with candles and fragranced wax lighting representing major businesses in all department stores, as well as specialty retailers.  Since that time, the market has shifted dramatically, with any type of fragranced candle programs all but disappearing from department store shelves with the exception of commodity priced, fragrance filled, glass jars which can be found anywhere from gas stations and drug stores, to Nieman Marcus, with very little separating them other than the distance and time it takes to drive from one to the other.
Occasionally one of the large companies controlling the wax jar business comes out with a new shape, or maybe a new label, but as far as any meaningful design changes which might propel the business into an exciting new direction that the consumer can embrace; well, we’ve been waiting ten years for that one.  In fact, since the antidumping duties were imposed the overall wax fragrance business has continued to decline.  This is a case whereby the government, in an effort to support a domestic industry, has eliminated any creative competition, and while unintended, has led to the decline of that particular industry as a whole.   In the end, I’m not sure that there were any beneficiaries of the action other than management at those companies and the congressmen who represented them.
While Pomeroy continues to design candle gardens to this day, the category as a whole has diminished significantly, and with it retail sales totaling hundreds of millions,  which I attribute to the antidumping duties placed on Chinese wax so many years ago, but not for the reasons you might suspect.  Yes, of course pricing increased dramatically for the underlying commodity (wax) being imported, but it was, I believe, for a creative reason:  by virtually halting the importation of any type of candle from China, the creative market went running and screaming from any new developments coming from that market; which by that time had become a world power in the category.  This had the obvious effect of many factory closures in China which in turn halted new candle developments which curiously were not competing with American production anyway; in addition to the fact that no one was designing new candles for the American market due to the restrictions.  
These resulting events basically cut off any new creative developments in the category (with the exception of Pomeroy, as we remain a “stubborn” company),   hence the near disappearance of the fragranced candle business as we knew it.  There is a phenomenon in retail that happens whereby a store telegraphs the importance of a category to the customer and can actually drive sales; or NOT.  This was the retail mechanism that drove the actual decline in the fragranced candle business.  No creative supply and impossible price points led to the retailer removing its “importance” from its’ shelves, and voila!  A category dies, and in this case, a pointless death. 
There are of course, still fragranced candles being produced in the United States, but because these cannot easily be combined with other items to create more elaborate displays (centerpieces for example) the business has not grown and has no way to expand.  Thus, we have the fragmented and decidedly dull fragrance wax business as it is today, with a sea of glass jars all clamoring for attention, which in the end can barely be seen through the endless promotions which define their life on the store shelf.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The One Order Relationship

Welcome Ceremony In India
One of the hardest concepts that I have found to explain to factories is Pomeroy’s particular way of working.  In the beginning of a relationship even when I explain how we work to a factory owner, in most cases he or she only expects to snag one order if possible, and the notion of a repeat order is as foreign as the person standing in front of them.
We typically work with the same factories for years, never on a single order basis. This can be unusual.  In the beginning a factory will quote on a project and if they get the order, will not expect to ever see that customer again. The buying habits of major retailers has created this environment; as they typically work with buying agents or trading companies and have little personal contact with the factory owners.  This style of working makes it pretty easy to drop and add factories at will without ever really developing any type of relationship.  I know a particular case in which an off price retailer, not particularly interested in design created a system of buying brass, whereby they would simply weigh the pieces and pay by weight.  This system for buying product certainly removes the need to create a relationship, or getting to know the factory’s capabilities, much less the possibility of generating repeat business.  Often is the case where a factory will have significant business built with a customer, working through an agent, only to have it stripped away without warning for whatever reason; which of course leaves the factory vulnerable to the whim of the person in control of the relationship with the customer. 
Pomeroy works best with a trading company when our products, being diverse, require a wide range of raw material sourcing and production techniques as well as consolidation of components.  A trading company is also critical in a situation where language is an issue making direct communication impossible. In this case unfortunately, while I make a point to meet and work on developments directly with the factory,  the customer is the trading company, and not Pomeroy.  This creates a situation whereby as much as I might like the work of a particular factory I cannot always control whether we maintain a relationship or not.  They may want to raise prices in the middle of a season and do not understand that we in turn cannot raise our pricing as there are retail programs in place where pricing may not change, and indeed in my experience it is simply better to terminate a particular item in lieu of trying to raise a price on an item; as our retail customers will not accept increases anyway.  This dynamic forces the trading company to constantly search for additional sources for production to maintain consistent pricing.  And while this does not foster the kind of long term relationships that Pomeroy espouses, it can have a positive effect in the end by effectively challenging the factory to improve their cost structure or efficiency to come back and work with us again in the future.
In other countries Pomeroy deals more or less directly with the factories using an agent for communication relating to orders, product development, quality control, printing, and shipping.  I have worked for twelve years in a particular country, mostly with the same factories, and have been able to maintain relationships with the owners, which is rare.  Wherever possible, the factory should try to develop and maintain direct communication with the customer; if for no other reason than to learn and understand the other side of the equation relating to these global transactions. While it may sound positively byzantine at times to learn how major retailers function in the U.S., it is important that they make the effort.  A better understanding of case pack requirements, pre-ticketing requirements, packing label requirements, testing, etc… will improve communication between the customer and the factory.  And no matter what the category of discussion, in the end more communication between the customer and the factory will only create more opportunities for both.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Orders From Chaos

Well-Appointed Showroom

Looking for the "Crown Jewel"

One of my favorite things is to skulk around in the back rooms of factories, scouring the floor, peering onto random shelves, and into dusty bins.  I move like a cat when I’m working in a factory; not a fast cat, but rather a slow hunting sort of cat; because I cannot afford to miss something that can become something else that I desperately need for my collection. In the heart of these rooms filled with dusty bins and shelves, most factories have an area which is full of parts, broken bits, and buckets of who knows what’s, with all sorts of things lying about which have not yet found a use and indeed may never. Nestled comfortably amongst the bits of this and splashes of that, is a cup of cold tea, ashtrays, small bowls of paints, cans of thinner, and all kinds of mysterious powders and such.  This is usually where the “tinkerer” spends his or her time if a factory is lucky enough to have such a person.  It’s usually in a room like this; dirty to the point of grimy, disorganized to be kind, and utterly fascinatingly rich in smells (I’ll leave that to your imagination), that I find something truly inspiring.
This is the” crown jewel” of every factory even though they would never recognize it. Most factories aspire to have a lovely well- appointed showroom with refreshments and snacks in which to entertain buyers, and it would never occur to them to take a buyer to the area I am describing, yet this is where I long to be, because this is where I’m going to find a castaway component or fragment which will help set me apart from the teaming mass of designers and buyers out there all lurking in the well-appointed showrooms with refreshments and snacks.  The showroom is still a critical component to any sales effort to be sure, but many new items will be picked to display in the showroom arbitrarily and many other potential unique finishes or shapes lie in the chaos that is the crown jewel which may speak to a new rising color trend or technique albeit buried under some rags, or fragments of other things that “went wrong”, and for whatever reason were not developed into a new range of product.  
This is the part of the job which can be truly fun and invigorating, because when I find something in a place that looks like a whirling dervish, and buried under a bunch of ” random artifacts”, I can be assured that it has never seen the light of day (in a product sense), and indeed the owner of the factory probably does not realize that it exists, because it never made it out of the whirling dervish in the first place.  This is Nirvana for someone like myself because I can take a new finish and create an entire range of new product and combine with other unexpected raw materials to create extensions to the original idea and in the end have a new driver for the business which all started under a tarp, in the corner of a room, which was full of other tarps, and broken things, all waiting for a guy like me to bring a little order; or maybe a big one!