I've long-admired Amy Stringer-Mowat of Brooklyn-based company AHeirloom for her collection of instantly-recognizable state-shaped cutting boards, and, more recently, for her ability to expand her housewares collection while also balancing motherhood. On the heels of the National Stationery Show, where she debuted a line of state-shaped mini boards, I was thrilled to chat with Amy about her upcoming collaboration with Martha Stewart American Made, handling copycats, the beauty of routine, and second chances.
Why state-shaped cutting boards?
To be honest, I never set out to be a state-shaped cutting board business. It totally happened organically. In 2010, Bill and I had just gotten married, and I was out of work and looking for a job in architecture. The economy was terrible. I had just made two boards of our hometown states for the cheese spread at our wedding reception, so I decided to put them up on Etsy in May, along with some of our wedding decorations just to see what would happen. A few weeks later, people were contacting us to make different states, and in July, Joanna Goddard of A Cup of Jo featured the Michigan board on her site.
Unbelievable. Was that the feature that catapulted you to the next level?
I didn't know what was going on, but it seemed like it could be big; shortly after that, editors started calling for gift guides. Apartment Therapy's food blog Kitchn was also super supportive, and when the boards made the front page of Etsy, people started picking them up even more. It was a combination of all of those online forces that got us out into the public.
That really reinforces the power of the internet.
Absolutely, and good photography and styling. We've consistently had press just about every other month. And now we're working on social media and trying to generate more internal buzz. We're being proactive. We see so many companies since we started in 2010 that are so much more savvy. We don't even have a business plan.
You haven't needed one.
We have set goals though. We've embraced the state shaped boards as a family member almost. They're our bread and butter. At the National Stationery Show, we launched a series of small boards which are available now. And we're developing cake stands and linens for holiday.
And I understand you're working on some collaborations?
Yes, everyone's open to collaborations right now, which is incredible. We did a cork map for CB2 in the spring, and we're collaborating with Martha Stewart on her eBay site for July 4th. It'll be a USA riff on a flag board and we'll pair it up with one of her signed cookbooks (shown, right). And we're going to do a limited edition run of cutting boards and tea towels with Erin of Cotton & Flax which will launch on Instagram this month.
That's exciting. You're so busy! Do you have a staff?
I have Katie who's sitting near me right now, who just started with us full time a couple of months ago. We're in charge of all the design, managing the studio, getting shipments out, and corresponding with customers about projects.
What's it like working with your husband?
Bill works at a business architectural fabrication company that we started up together in 2005, but he does fabricate for AHeirloom from time to time. He and I will coordinate drop offs and deliveries, so we discuss what needs to happen mostly from home.
So you're running separate companies.
Exactly. I'm in our office in the Brooklyn Navy Yard most of the time without him, so we're not on top of each other 24/7, which helps us stay sane. I do think we do have to be conscious about not always talking about what needs to get done when we're at home. We have a son, so we focus on him as much as we can. We consciously go to other topics when work comes up.
How old is your son?
Henry is 2 years 8 months. It's an amazing age and it just gets cuter and cuter. Henry and AHeirloom both happened at the same time, so growing them both and balancing them requires a lot of coordination.
How do you do it?
Since we both have our own businesses, we have flexible schedules, so it works out okay. We have a sitter, and Henry started a twos program, so he goes to school three days a week. Bill does all the dropoffs and I do the pickups and our sitter does a pickup once in a while.
It's a lot of moving parts and coordination. You need to be on the same page, whereas before you have a child you only have to worry about yourself.
Right. I was just walking down the street thinking about how there are no longer days where I'm not sure what's going to happen that day.
I can totally relate. There's no spontaneity. How are you able to balance Henry and your career?
I've been thinking about it a lot lately. We are balanced in that our day to day roles are kind of set. I'm not a routine person, but Bill is, and I'm beginning to realize that routine can create balance.
Knowing what to expect makes you happier, right?
Yes, and we're even starting to understand those routines within our business. We've been doing it long enough now. There's a predictability. For example, this will be our fifth holiday season. We understand now when things need to get amped-up and that July is a really big time for us. I have the sense as a small business owner of when you can and can't do things and who you can talk to. It's not really networking, but knowing how the press syncs to a certain extent. I think generating press is a big mystery for a lot of small businesses and understanding how to generate buzz. Like: Is it with social media or online or with publications?
What's been the best for you?
The holiday gift guides. Those are, to this day, the holy grail of all small business success. And Television is such a powerful marketing tool, too. Etsy has put us on TV quite a bit and we've been on The Today show several times.
Do you think in terms of the collection expanding that you'd ever want to get into furniture design?
We have done it in the past with the fabrication company, but I don't think so going forward with AHeirloom. Household items and developing a range of personalized objects is pretty manageable mentally. Furniture design is fun but it's so much work. We make what we need personally though, like I'm staring at a table that Bill made for the trade show that's now in our office. He made my desk and shelving and a crib for Henry.
Do you ever get into a creative rut or do you feel like you've got a handle on it?
I feel like I have to nail it every day to a certain extent or at least try to. For me, figuring out how something is made that I can't puts me in a creative rut. I'm not a hand-maker, I'm a digital designer. I think people like the manufactured quality of our product because it's the same result every time and it's nice because we know how to make large volumes of things nicely. We've always been a business that can scale up.
How do you handle copycats?
We know the state-shaped boards are not a concept we can protect but there is a company making similar styles out of bamboo for more than half the price in China. It felt like a violation and for a long time I was really bummed out.
That's incredibly frustrating. Did you contact them or let it go?
Legally it is very expensive to do anything, so the solution for us was to move past it very quickly. Our response is that our boards have staying power. We know they're not going to fray or fall apart.
Have you set new goals for yourselves as a result?
Yes. Our goal is to do a lot of wholesale and get the boards into brick and mortar stores, and larger companies like West Elm so that people can see how nice they are in person. Also, I have a hundred ideas and we just have to keep growing. State shapes have been done before, but we're going to do them our way and make the best ones that you can buy in bamboo right now.
If you weren't working at AHeirloom, what would you be doing?
I would've loved to have had the time to make buildings and do more interior spaces, but I don't think that's going to happen. It doesn't need to, because we get to do this. It's incredible. I had a lot of missteps up to this point, and you don't always get second chances, but this career is my second chance.
That's so inspiring. Can you share a few words of advice for up and coming designers?
I think it's very important to move at your own pace, something I have to remind myself to do all the time.
Thank you, Amy! Read on for her favorite things after the jump...
Favorite artists and designers:
Charles and Ray Eames. As a working couple, they're pretty much tops. They were fun and extremely sophisticated and moved from 2D to 3D perfectly. Also, Tara Donovan, who turns everyday objects into a sculptural landscape. Breathtaking. I love accumulations of ordinary.
Best trip in the USA:
Maine! I grew up in Michigan and thought it was the land of summer, and then Maine happened. We took our first family vacation there when our son was born and I will be forever smitten with the coast and the seafood.
Favorite American brands:
Shinola: Total love affair with the ethics and aesthetics of this company. Their commitment to the town of my 20's, Detroit, is awesome. Knot and Bow: I love the brilliance and simplicity of Erin's brand.
American-made products that you own and love:
I own a lovely cutting board made by Amelie Mancini. It is walnut and just perfect. And Henry demands to wear leggings by Little Hip Squeak. It is possible to find high quality kids clothing made in the states and Amy is an awesome person in general.
Five things that make you happiest:
Having a son and listening to his adorable observations of the world. Bill Mowat. 65 degree weather. Making new work. Happy customers.
Your most treasured possession:
An Isabel Marant blouse from last summer that makes me feel amazing every time I wear it. It never fails me.