Exclusive Interview: Sandy Chilewich Pt. 1

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We love and appreciate plenty of things in this modern world, but when a designer can take innovative materials or processes never used for home decor before, well, then you get our attention. Today’s exclusive interview is Sandy Chilewich, the founder of the amazing company Chilewich (brand new to 2Modern!). Not only did Chilewich practically reinvent the placemat, they create products that combine stunning aesthetics with fabulous price points.

Speaking with Sandy, you’re bowled over by her intelligence, grace and expertise. This is a design genius who has been in the design world for a long time, and her contributions she has graciously offered through her company Chilewich, a New York-based company that specializes in textiles for the table (like placemats, napkin holders, table runners, napkins) as well as floor mats, personal accessories, iPhone cases and more. Since 1997, this renowned textile designer has brought incredible textiles, colors and manufacturing processes to the marketplace through Chilewich, and we’re so, so very glad to be able to bring them to you through 2Modern.

We broke up her interview into two parts (it just held so much awesomeness it was necessary to only give you a bit at a time so as not to overwhelm). Today, we hear from her about why Chilewich uses certain materials/processes, what the secrets to a design company’s success are and why Chilewich is able to remain so successful:

Beginning What really makes Chilewich stand out (it’s not just their use of materials, like you may think)
Sandy Chilewich: I think for this business, which has been my current passion for the last 12 years, it’s really not about materials so much as it is about processes. Finding manufacturing processes or discovering them when I feel like they’re being under-utilized. I can imagine that with some tweaking–different yarn, a different machine setting–that it can be completely different. Some products that are made that are meant to be industrial and almost invisible can be tweaked, which I’ve done, to actually make them very visible (and we’d add gorgeous!)

1:12 How Sandy looks beyond materials, into their manufacturing processes, to harness Chilewich’s designs into successful and beautiful products
SC: Well some things are very obvious to me. I’ll look at an end product and I don’t necessarily just look at the design. I look deeper into when I’m looking at it and see that there’s something beautiful to the process. The most obvious example of that in what I’ve done in the last number of years is a collection we called pressed vinyl. And the process that makes that, makes a product that is really, really pretty ugly. Very cheap looking and is definitely meant to look like imitation lace.

And it took me awhile, when I had this very unattractive product sitting in my studio, to look at it and realize that if we took the process, and changed the design, changed the surface a bit, it could become completely different. And if you were to compare what this process normally makes and what we did with it…you wouldn’t believe it’s the same process.

So, sometimes that’s very obvious and then sometimes it’s about experimenting, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I take a lot of processes and experiment, get samples, play, make prototypes, go to the factory and play, and sometimes it pans out and sometimes in the end it doesn’t look that special. So it’s a combination of seeing it right up front and the other part of experimenting and finding something.

3:03 On why some products just don’t work out
SC: Things don’t work out not necessarily because they don’t look good but because they don’t command the price point of what it would have to be. And that’s a huge part of the design process when you’re not making art and making just two pieces. When you’re making a volume of products and you want to reach a wide audience, then how much it’s going to sell for is a key part of the equation.

3:34 The three things that have to line up for a product/design/company to be successful
SC: I am not someone who just designs things to be beautiful. To me, it’s very easy to make something beautiful. To make something that’s functional, accessibly priced—maybe not for everyone, but to a large portion of people—and without diluting the design sensibility, to get those three factors to work together, that’s what makes a design business so successful.

4:09 Why Chilewich, in particular, has been so successful
SC: The success of any business really rests, first and foremost, on the kind of product you’re offering. It really does have to meet all those criteria. It has to meet the price point criteria as well as the aesthetic criteria. You know getting those two things really aligned is really an ongoing process. And the only way to know if something will sell is not whether the store buys it or the website buys it, but whether the ultimate customer will buy it. And you only learn that by testing it and seeing if it actually works.

We have certainly produced products that haven’t sold and either the aesthetic was wrong for the audience we were trying to communicate to, or it was over priced or the quality was wrong. As a designer, you have to be willing to not fall in love with your own product to the point that you can’t see the reality of whether or not someone wants to buy that product. So you have to have a lot of stamina and a lot of willingness to reflect, take feedback, adjust and grow.

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