May 22, 2012

An Interview with Designer, and Author, Jen Curry

Jen and her cat, Peachbunny

Kitty Jones, the "person"
behind the brand 

Needle Felting Balls, a perfect cat toy
Catnip mice on the march.....

Jen, what do you make?
I started out with cat toys, then I made some games for my nephews and other kids in my life and added those products. Now I’m beginning to add decorative objects for cat-friendly homes.

Who was the first animal in your life?
I had a bunch of pets growing up: The "firsts" (all at once) were Mocha (Chesapeake Bay Retriever), Max (cat), Kristen (cat) and Harvey (bunny). Then I had Dexter (another bunny) and a bunch of gerbils and guinea pigs. I also rode horses. I was surrounded by animals as a kid. 
My first pet, as an adult, was named Sweet Baby. She passed away at age seven from cancer and it devastated me. When I was in college my parents got their own cat and they suggested that I take her to ease the blow of losing Sweet Baby. I did. I had her for 8 years. She was an amazingly beautiful and smart Calico and she was the inspiration for Kitty Jones.

How did the business get its name?
I liked the idea of a personifying someone making handmade things, rather than going with a cool brand name. I don’t know why but for some reason I thought it was funny. At the time I’d just finished an MFA program in painting and I wanted to keep the business separate from my “fine art” practice. I wanted a girl’s name that was descriptive and also a little funny. “Kitty Jones” seemed to hit those marks.

How did your etsy shop come to be?
I do freelance work for interior designers, making decorative objects and accessories. Lately I’ve been working on some small scale interior design projects. I started my shop when I finished graduate school in order to give myself permission to spend more time in my studio. A friend suggested that I make something that I could sell so I’d feel that I was using my time productively. The first thing that came to mind was a cat toy since, at the time, I was inspired by Lucy, my 17-year old cat and my very best buddy. 

How did you discover etsy?
Before moving to New York in 2000, I worked at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. I was the research assistant and interactive work coordinator for the 1999/2000 Carnegie International [the oldest North American exhibition of contemporary art from around the globe]. When I came to New York I worked for a very high profile artist, at his studio, for several years. In graduate school I worked for Barneys, hand-painting monograms on Goyard pieces [the prestigious French handbag and luggage manufacturer]. After grad school, I worked in the art department of several movies. I did a lot of freelance scenic work for television, film and interior designers and I started Kitty Jones. I googled “sell handmade crafts” or something like that and I found etsy.

How do you think you stand out on etsy?
I’m not sure I do. I could do a lot more. When I first opened my shop there were only a handful of us selling catnip mice. Now there are pages and pages. My sales come from repeat customers, referrals and people that take my card at shows. Ultimately, I want the line to be a home collection with a strong pet element. With the shop, as well as booth design for a show, it helps to have a cohesive presentation. I always take note of presentations that I respond to in stores and am constantly thinking of how I can improve my booth design. I go to ABC Carpet all the time and just wander around, it’s a great place for inspiration.

Why do you think your etsy shop has been successful?
I wouldn’t say that my shop is all that successful but I do think that it's been a big part of any success that I’ve experienced. Its been a way for stores to find me and has a certain cache with buyers at shows. Sometimes my etsy shop requires a lot of attention and I’ll spend time there, sometimes I’ll work for a whole month only on store orders. In the summer, I’m focused on shows.

How do you come up with ideas for products?
I have always been disenchanted with the cat products available in pet stores. I guess that was the impetus for the line. I started to think of things that I would like to have. Then I got bored with fabric that I was buying, so I started making my own. Now that I know how to silk screen and block print, my product line is beginning to change more dramatically. I’m looking toward possibly creating wallpaper. 

Do you consider your product to be a fashion product?
In a way, I do. I really set out to make pet products that compliment home decor. They’re pared down and simple but with enough detail to get noticed. My intention is to make pet products that you actually want to step over rather than things that need to be put away when you’re expecting company. 

I love that. Why is this the purr-fect business for you? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
I’m not sure it was perfect, initially. I feared being pigeonholed after I started selling to stores. I was making a product that I really liked, but I didn’t really feel like “someone who makes cat toys.” I just felt like I could do more. So I started making other things, too. I illustrated a kids game, taught myself how to silk screen and started to design my own fabric. Once I was able to control everything -- the color and fabric design -- it started to become mine and my aesthetic emerged. Other products began to come more quickly because I had a better sense of my point of view. My background is in painting so being able to apply my 2D skills to this business has sort of saved me. 

What are the perks of self-employment?

Looking back, what's the first thing you remember making?
I was 5 or 6 years old and my best friend’s older sister was my babysitter. We went for a hike in the woods, then came back and turned a cylindrical Swiss Miss hot chocolate container into a piggy bank. I couldn’t believe it. It was so exciting to take one thing and turn it into something else. That stuck with me and I became really serious about art in my early twenties. I went to undergrad in Oakland, CA then came here, to NY, for grad school.

What do you enjoy most about your work? 
I enjoy solving visual problems and coming up with ways to combine materials for new products. I love the result of keeping my head down and working on a big order of mice; starting with printing the fabric, sewing, stuffing, finishing by hand then packing them to ship. Seeing the fruits of my labor lined up like a little army is very satisfying. 

And least?
There is very little that I don’t love. I guess, if pushed, I’d say that I do at times feel overwhelmed when a big order comes in and I don’t have inventory available. In the moment, it seems like a lot to do, but once I get started it’s really fun.

What are your best marketing tips?
I guess the most valuable thing I’ve done to date is to do as many shows as possible. Not just the big ones like Renegade and Bust. I mean like, “Ye Olde Craft Fair” types. NY is great for many reasons but one of the most valuable things, for me, has been the ability to see how my products are received in various neighborhoods. You can really begin to see who your “people” are and that is a tremendous help when you want to approach stores or speak about your products. 
There have been some sales where I haven’t sold a thing and others that I’ve sold everything on my table. I’ve found that it’s not possible to predict when that will happen so the best tip is to just get out there. I’ve had interior designers see my display and hire me for work that has nothing to do with cat toys. Not to mention that stores and future customers find you that way. And book editors. 

Yes, you're just finishing up your book. How do you get a book deal out of a craft show?
In 2009, I participated in the Maker Market at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. An editor came to the sale and saw my products. She contacted me a few days later with an idea for a Kitty Crafts book. We met, came up with a proposal and pitched it to the publisher she was working with at the time. They expressed interest but didn’t move forward with it. A couple of years later she was working for another firm. She pitched the idea again and that's my publisher.

What's the title?
"Kitty Jones Kitty Crafts;" it's part crafts cats will love (interactive stuff), and part decorative crafts for the people who love them. The projects are cat-centric but my intention is to teach projects that can be tailored to the skill level and interests of the reader. Obviously, we’ll be marketing it to people with cats, but half the book is about home décor so if you’re a dog person you can use the same skills to make dog-centric pieces.

Is putting a book together the dream everyone thinks it is? 
It’s exciting. Having someone say, “We want to see what you come up with and we’ll put it out into the world for you” is great. I’m really enjoying it – coming up with projects and making them fit within my aesthetic has been a fun challenge. Designing a project then paring it down so its accessible to the home crafter is a good exercise but there is the added pressure for everything to be done well. That’s really important to me. As a crazy perfectionist, it’s a bit of a trial. It’s my first book and the learning curve is fairly steep. The greatest frustration is not having a bottomless supply of energy and confidence to fully sustain the process. It’s important to pace yourself. 

What are your post-publication plans?
I haven’t yet pitched the media, but I’m about to now that the book is coming out in September. I’m really trying to segue into a mostly wholesale business. I’d like to work with more interior designers, develop a broader line that includes home accessories and continue to help people decorate their spaces.

What advice would you give someone considering a similar path?
My best advice is this: Choose to make something for a customer that you genuinely care about using the skills that you love. I make things for pets because I love animals and I print my own fabric because I love 2Dimensional design. Those interests sustain my practice in times when I’m overwhelmed or overworked. 

Then, be prepared to work more than you would at any other job. You have to be on at all times and constantly thinking about your products and brand. Also, prepare for everything to take longer than you expect (meaning: do not get discouraged). Be friendly to every customer. 
Sometimes friends stop to visit when I’m at a sale and they’ll witness a conversation that I’m having with someone about their pet. I’ll hear every last bit of information about their pet then they’ll walk away without buying anything. More often than not, the friend will ask how I can stand the stories especially if people aren’t buying anything. My honest answer is that it doesn’t bother me. I like talking to people about their pets – its fun and positive to share stories about the things we love. They may buy from me later or pass my card on to a friend or a shop owner in their neighborhood -- who knows? If I didn’t love animals and take the time to relate to my customers I truly believe it would reflect in my product and my sales. 

Speaking of loving animals, what animals have influenced you?
My cat, Peachbunny. I found Peachbunny as a kitten, on a freezing night, in the vestibule of my building. He’s four now. He’s a little wild but so smart and cute. I always say that I’m the lucky one. He’s the first thing that I would grab in an emergency or if faced with one of those deserted island scenarios.

I know I've told you some wild stories about my cat Nike, how he played with the faucet handle of the kitchen sink while we were on vacation, and ran the hot water nonstop for five days. You are always so kind to listen. I don't know who sounds crazier when I tell that story, Nike or me.  

People do tell stories, but I think I’m probably the crazy one. I talk about pets all day at shows. I’m sure my booth neighbors have overheard a few doozies. The funniest thing, to me, is when people pull actual photographs of their pets out of their wallets. I love that so much. That may be my next move!

At left: Wink&Flip's vintage charm cat necklace.


traceytoole said...

I love Jen's toys and so do my cats! My 3 boys play endlessly with one of her mouse cat nip toys. The fact that she also screen prints her fabric is a double whammy of design!

traceytoole said...

I love Jen's toys and so do my cats! My 3 boys play endlessly with one of her mouse cat nip toys. The fact that she also screen prints her fabric is a double whammy of design!