Who: Karrie Kaneda
Company: Happy Habitat
What: Graphic recycled cotton pillows and throws
Made: On the East Coast
Designed in: Kansas City, KS
Lives with her: Husband and two kids (ages 6 and 9)
Despite the success of Karrie Kaneda's Kansas City-based company Happy Habitat (her throws have recently been featured in Domino and Cosmo and are generously sprinkled across the country in influential boutiques), she's not looking to get too big too fast; she's got way too much perspective, having switched gears mid-career from HR to design. Our upbeat conversation left me infinitely more positive and, at times, in stitches. This interview is a must-read if you're looking to transition into a different career, start up your own company, or if you ever find yourself questioning your level of success.
I haven't seen many collections as vibrant as yours. Has color always been very important to you?
I obsess over color freakishly. I see the smallest thing and then my head will not stop thinking about color combinations. I've been fascinated by the color wheel my whole life—by how things look next to each other, and how they can change a feel.
Did you have any mentors growing up?
Yes. Bess Carter, my art teacher. She would take us into her teeny garden and say: "Really look at it." She'd make us stare at the flower, not just to see its form but to see all of its greatness and color. She was a real mentor to the community.
What would you say is the moment that put you on the map?
I'm not on the map.
I think you're on the map.
I don't feel like I'm on the map. I don't want to be on the map.
You always want to be on the cusp of being on the map, because otherwise I feel like you sell out. Things start getting made cheaply and they look like crap and people want to buy you out. You always want to be a little bit like the brand that someone just heard of; you don't want to be the brand that everybody knows.
Have you gone out of your way to avoid getting "big?"
I don't try to look like I'm big. I never say, "We." I say, "Me." In the beginning, I thought, "What if they know it's just me sitting in my home studio?" But now I think it's okay if they know my children are downstairs playing while I'm on the phone. Maybe that comes across as unprofessional.
I think being authentic is more important.
I need to keep that in my head because that's what's important. I've worked for some big companies, and at first I'm like: "Oh, ____ brand!" But they want my products for so cheap because they want to make all the mark-up and you jump through hoops, and in the end, is it really that cool? I'm learning that maybe that's not so important.
Maybe it's more important to support the small stores.
Exactly. My store list has grown so much in the past year and my stores are the coolest. I'm so lucky.
How do your relationships with retailers come about?
When I see stores I like, I get in touch, but I would say probably 90% of them have contacted me directly. I feel so fortunate that I can look around and see all these brightly colored blankets that people actually want to buy. I love what I do. I'm not making millions of dollars, but I'm surviving.
How do you balance the kids and the brand?
I'm still figuring it out, but I've learned that I work well in the morning. I can focus and kick ass and get things done, but later on in the afternoon my brain fizzles out, so I take a break when I go get my kids. I usually come back to it at night or when they're chilling out after school. But tell me someone that's working functionally and efficiently at 3 o'clock in the afternoon? 3-5 pm should just not happen. It's awful.
It's the worst. Do you ever work at night?
Sometimes I'll work on the computer while my husband and I watch TV. And I've learned that I need help. I can't do my job, take care of the kids, and mow the lawn. That's not gonna happen.
Happy Habitat is like the most cheerful company name I've ever heard. How did you decide on it?
I wanted a name that encompassed what I was after, and that was to be happy in your house. It's as simple as that. I enjoy being a homemaker and being comfortable in my home and if you're an artist or have any kind of creativity, you look around and you're effected by your surroundings.
What inspired you to make blankets in the first place?
I had worked in HR for an advertising agency for 11 years, and in 2009 I got laid off. I knew it was coming, but it was a rough year. So I'm collecting unemployment and thinking: "What am I going to do?" I became obsessed with making a Moroccan patterned blanket, partly because they weren't out there. Not that I could be shopping, but I was just looking for one. I started looking for someone that could make it for me because I had to be realistic: I can design and do lots of things, but sewing and knitting are not my specialty. I came across the recycled cotton and that's where it all fell into place
Where are you finding the recycled cotton and how is it turned into yarn?
There are a couple of companies that take the excess cotton that falls to the cutting room floor when, for example, a T-shirt is made. They re-thread it into a yarn—not like the yarn you use to craft with kids, it's more like a cotton thread. The cool thing is that in terms of the manufacturing process, we're not re-dying, so we're not reinventing the wheel and using all these wasteful manufacturing processes to recreate. We're using what was already made and they just re-thread it together and it's used again.
Was sustainability very important to you going in?
Yes, I knew I wanted to do something to give back in some kind of way (Ed note: Happy Habitat is part of the 1% for the planet), so recycled cotton was a no-brainer. I'm not a wool person. I thought about alpaca but I didn't want to use an animal product. The recycled cotton was washable and it wasn't so precious that it required special treatment. I have two kids that are messy and I knew they were going to use them to make forts. Making them washable was a necessity.
What tools do you use to design?
When I first started, I had no income, so I found a free photoshop knockoff online called GIMP. It's the stupidest name but it's amazing. I still use it now that I've made money and can afford to buy Photoshop.
What are you working on right now?
I have some furniture design ideas in my head and on paper. The idea is a very simple and modern Adirondack chair made of reclaimed or recycled wood that has a pattern in the seat back. And there are new patterns coming up. I'm thinking about going to the Atlanta market next January, so that's been on my mind, too.
Very exciting. I'm sure you're proud of all the pieces in your collection, but are there any that are extra special?
Yes, the two that are named after my kids. My husband is Japanese, so his parents helped us come up with some ideas for their middle names. We chose Kenichi for my son, which means "healthy first born son," since he was born very early. And my daughter's middle name is Misaki, which means "beautiful blossom." The kids helped pick out the colors and we went with some of the stuff they like, for example, there are flowers on Misaki's (shown above). It's funny because my kids fight over who sells the most, but the Kenichi sells way better and my daughter gets really upset about it. But I'm proud of them both.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone looking to launch a new brand?
If you want to be able to sell your product, you have to be more than a good designer. Teach yourself something about sales, social media, marketing, HTML, and PR. Dig in and get dirty and do the work that is boring and tedious. Seems to me like doing the yucky stuff is what gets you that extra edge.
Thanks so much, Karrie. It's been such a joy getting to know you! xo
Karrie's Favorite Things:
Favorite American bar: That would probably be the "bars" at my friend's houses. I don't get out as much as I would like since we have two kids and can't really justify a babysitter to go sit at a bar, so we bring the bar to us. I love the summer impromptu parties with kids riding their bikes in their swimming suits, and the parents sipping drinks in the front yard. Restaurant: Going local here: My favorite restaurant has to be Room 39. Simple, but refined and ALWAYS good. Shop: The stores that carry my throws, and I'm not just saying that to be nice. I have found such great little boutiques by having stores get in touch with my to carry Happy Habitat in their shops. It's so nice to work directly with the store owners. I have small minimums so it's a great fit, and I've now been exposed to great places to shop myself!
Your favorite artists and designers:
Jaime Derringer. Her art is what I make in my head and would put on paper if I could. But my brain doesn't know how to tell my hand how to do that. Tad Carpenter. He's a cool illustrator. I have some of his prints in my son's room, and he's from Kansas City, so that's a bonus.
Best trip you've ever taken in the US and why?
I grew up visiting my mom's family in California, so California is always nostalgic in the best of ways for me. All the childhood trips meld into one, but I recently went to Laguna Beach with my sister and her family and it was fantastic. I also went on a great trip to San Francisco when my husband and I were first married that was pretty wonderful. California has it all: Beaches, dessert, mountains, giant trees, thick, soft grass, and the best-smelling bushes. I love the way California smells.
Your favorite American-made brand:
Caravan Pacific has recently caught my eye. I need to own one of their lamps. They're destined to be come a classic for sure.
American-made products that you own and love:
My dining room table. It was purchased through a store here in KC called Traditions, but when I bought it a few weeks later, I received a post card from the guy who was making it, Kenny Bly for Tom Seeley furniture. I received a hand-written note that he was making my table for me. I still have the note and thought that was pretty cool.
Four things that make you happiest:
The smell of melted butter, the sun, family, friends.
Your most treasured possession:
I don't really own anything that I can't live without, but the closest thing would be my MacBook. It's my lifeline that let's me be creative and allows for me to make a living doing what I love.