Steven Ford and David Forlano have been in business for twenty years now, making objects, and jewelry from polymer clay. Over that time their work has evolved to incorporate metals, and now even the occasional diamond. Their stature in the broader craft world has grown in that time as well, collecting press clippings and awards along the way. This kind of success, it seems to me, comes from a combination of having strong artistic talents and skills, AND, a good business sense. From what I have learned from the answers they gave to my questions, it would seem that is definitely the case. I hope you find the interview thought provoking and inspiring.
Was the business side of being working artists an obstacle, or was it welcomed?
In the beginning much of the creativity and fun of making a business was part of the whole experience. Making work and making the business went hand in hand as we not only made what we wanted to make but we learned what “the market” wanted. Keeping in mind we didn't know the first thing about jewelry or fashion we had to pay attention to what galleries could sell.
What do you wish you had known about running a business when you started?
In the first few years we overlooked filing a business license and paying business privilege taxes. That took some time to recover from as we had to pay interest and penalty on a large tax bill. Our accountant called it “magical thinking”; that is, running a business, but thinking that you’re not.
Was there anything that you resisted doing when you began, and when you finally did do it, you could have kicked yourself for waiting so long?
We resisted using other materials for a while. Many other jewelers recommended we incorporate metals into our work but it took us a while to take that leap. I would not change anything about that.
Do you sell both wholesale and retail? If so, what is the balance? Which do you prefer and why?
We sell both wholesale and retail but recently we are considering limiting our wholesale to just showing at our long-standing galleries. Retail is more satisfying financially and collectors really enjoy that transaction directly with the artist.
Do you sell on-line? If so, how? Have you seen a change in the role the internet plays in your business?
We sell very little online. We have found that one-of-a-kind wearables need to be experienced in person. Most of our online or “over the phone” sales are to people that are familiar with and have our work already. We are taking a closer look at how we may approach online sales in the future.
You have done some things that are “out of the box”. For instance, your booth design breaks all the rules. You have a panel covering most of the front of the booth, with a mannequin out front. What inspired a move like that, and did you have any concerns at first about how it would work? Have you ever seen anyone try to mimic this move?
Yes, our curved walls have shown up now and then in other booth designs. Booth design is a much overlooked part of how one represents their work. Artists will often “decorate” a booth with little attention to what it does to present the actual work. “decoration” can be very distracting and/or confusing. A booth is there to sell the work and not the artist. We are constantly thinking about booth design and pay close attention to public reaction to it. The first time we put work up on curved walls was a bold move that we decided to just plunge into. It was risky and scary and well worth taking that leap of faith. We thought of the outer wall as a kind of store front. Our work is not for everyone, and if someone is too timid to walk into our enclosure, then they may not be our customer. Once inside, buyers were surrounded with our work, standing on a padded carpet, offered a chair if they want one, and the chaos and distractions of the rest of the show was eliminated. “Out of the box” is really at the root of all creativity. Maybe even more so in today’s short attention span of “sound bites”
How much of your design process is influenced by the market? For instance, was the move to incorporate metal into your designs influenced by the market in any way?
Our work became more sculptural as we incorporated metal into work. We also shifted away from mass producing canes and into one of a kind work. The metal also helped us to tone down our color. And the obvious piece to that is that each object requires more work, uses precious metal and is more expensive.
How do you balance the business side of your business with multiple partners? Is one of you more drawn to, or comfortable with the business end?
Steve is better at being the business “front man” and takes more pleasure in handling that aspect of running the business. Every business decision is a complete collaboration.
Do you hire others to take care of aspects of the business for you? If so, how did you find the right people?
Maryanne Petrus-Gilbert does all of our metal work, leaving us to work with what we do best, the clay. Steve and I have always handled all business activities and still do.
What do you do yourself, but wish you could get someone else to do?
I think it would be worth considering someone to handle all shipping, billing etc. But even that is difficult to farm out with custom work going into most of what we ship.
Has the balance of time spent on business functions versus time in the studio shifted over time?
In the early days of our production line, we kept UPS busy. There is much less time these days putting together hundreds of boxes which used to cover every surface in the studio after a wholesale show. Other than that business functions still require the same attention as always.
My father is my role model for successful risk taking in business but even he may have wondered what the heck I was doing in those first few years. Randy Darwall (fiber) and Chris Hentz (metals) also taught us a lot about shows, and business.
Has your business been affected by the downturn in the economy at all? If so, what are you doing differently in response to that?
We have noticed a decline in turnout at craft shows but our sales are not reflected in amounts of people as much as they are the right kind of buyer for our work. Everyone has their version of the right kind of client/collector for them and ours has not yet shown any slow down in purchasing comfort. Still, we are paying close attention to this issue and continually brainstorm on what we may need to do to shift as the economy shifts.
What is the best thing an artist can do to increase their chance of having a successful business?
Pay attention to what people like and what you like. If you are not doing what you like chances are potential collectors will sense that your work will not sustain you.