By Regina Connell.
One of the things that’s hard about the unruly, decentralized world of artisan goods today is that it’s tough to really know what sells, what people look at, what kind of people are looking, or what’s trending.
And that calls for data, those hard figures that the world of artists, artisans, and crafts people stereotypically avoid.
And yet, it’s this very data that helps makers get in touch with their markets. An individual artisan may only care about what’s selling—or not—for them, but then they miss the big picture that data can reveal. This wider view can be extraordinarily useful when thinking about new work or products and volumes and price points—all the things that make or break a small business.
There are only a few platforms big enough to aggregate sufficient data to really see the trends and one of them is Artful Home, formerly known as The Guild (a name I loved, and just can’t quite let go of.) Artful Home is the premier gallery/marketplace for “artist-made” work Having been around for 28 years, it has more than a little data, as well as the important stuff that comes from it: insight into the marketplace. They have 15,000 pieces of work on their site and (of all things) a print catalog.
It also has that other thing that only larger platforms have access to: the ability to reach millions of people via their catalog and an enviable email list; the ability to give white-glove service to consumers and artisans, facilitate broker-commissioned work, create extensive content, and all those other high-touch goodies befitting a high end-market.
This is the hard business side of the artisanal world. And yet, the art and the market must be married—they absolutely must if artisanal work is going to survive and thrive.
But data isn’t the only important piece of the puzzle. Succeeding in the artisanal world takes a feel for the work and the people behind it, too. The head of this business can’t really be some quant jock exec without flair or appreciation for the people whose works he or she is selling. The person you want instead is CEO of Artful Home, Lisa Bayne: a savvy, style-conscious merchant and retailer (a former executive of Eddie Bauer, legendary Smith & Hawken, and J. Jill), who also has the heart for what she sells and the people behind those goods.
And really, this kind of passion for the goods and what they represent is what it takes because selling artisanal work at scale isn’t easy.
Lisa, with her trademark shock of curls, well-loved red cowboy boots, and a shortish black dress, lives in a home of carefully selected handcrafted objects. Most notably, these include a collection of glasses made by husband Andy Astor in an early and spectacularly successful effort at glassblowing.
For Lisa, the fascination with heading up Artful Home stems from a long-standing love of the artisanal, the work of the hand, but also design and style: She has one degree in textiles and fine arts from California College of the Arts (and Crafts, as it was then) and another degree in fashion design from FIDM.
“I was a maker to begin with, and always made things with my hands. After school I became a fashion designer. Once my career took over, though, I stopped making. (But I do cook: cooking is my chosen craft at this point.)
“But I never stopped loving things that were handmade. As my career and income grew, I began to be able to collect work that was original, from work for my walls, to fiber and ceramic work. I would say that my interest in the world of the artist-made grew along with my income. I chose to collect: instead of buying expensive purses, I collected artist-made work.”
The business side is equally enthralling for Lisa, though. “What really interests me is the challenge of selling high-touch items and inherently tactile items electronically. When art and craft is not touchable, how do you create a business that bridges that gap that takes away the articles? That’s what keeps me up. It takes real attention to merchandising and to storytelling, but also knowing the customer and being able to make the connection.”
One of Lisa’s other talents is her ability to keep making the connection. “When you are a retailer, your responsibility is to pick what’s next by understanding a need in a consumer’s life. It’s understanding the consumer’s back story and understanding what and how they think about the product or the work.”
Apparel is a new category that Artful Home has added in the last couple of years, and its very strong success is clearly one of Lisa’s prouder achievements. In just two years, the company’s approach to apparel has caused it to zoom up to being the largest and fastest-growing part of the business.
“I have very strong opinions about style and I think about this an awful lot since most of my career has been in fashion. I believe it’s important to select clothing that is artisanal but . . . vibrant and current with a strong sense of style.
“My pet peeve in the craft world is the presentation of apparel where the artist’s focus is exclusively on fiber, etc. but not on the clothing itself. You see lots of clothing that’s shapeless and that looks like something out of the 1970s. But it’s been thrilling to me to find an emerging group of artisan designers who care about style.
“Artful Home tends to appeal to a mature woman. But just because a woman has lost her waistline, doesn’t mean she’s lost her sense of style. She doesn’t want to dress like a 20-year-old because she can’t and it’s not her style.”
Some exciting newcomers to Artful Home’s already impressive list of makers: Annie Turbin, a new artist whose dyeing and printing methods are translated to individually-crafted body conscious garments, with pieces sewn in LA. “It’s hot. It’s body con.” There’s also Amy Nguyen, a master textile artist and designer who uses ancient Japanese dyeing techniques, created in small buckets in her Boston studio, but in a way that’s modern and contemporary.
So is Artful Home a reflection of Lisa’s own style? She laughs. “I often say to my team, if this company were called Lisa’s Artful Home, this item might not be in it. But it’s not, so that’s OK. The taste is beyond just mine. That’s why we have an internal jury and several rounds of curation.”
The primary way the site evolves is through the continued addition of new artists, who present a different POV from those in the past. “And we have so much data about what people look at. What we choose to show in our collections or the artisans we choose to work with isn’t dictated by what people look at, but it’s certainly informed by it.”
That’s the power of data.
But throughout it all, what motivates Lisa is the desire to keep the work of the hand front and center for people—and not just Artful Home’s customers. “I think that there are forces around us everywhere that make it really easy to forget the presence of a human being, that make it easy to think we can live without that presence. It’s important to be reminded that people sit at sewing machines and sew things. It’s important to sense the presence of a human in your life.”
But isn’t artisanal work challenging to sell? Isn’t the market aging and not growing, at least at the higher end? “I have a great deal of hope that we can do this. There are strong competing forces, absolutely there are. The reality of the cost of handmade competes with the cost of living. That has me concerned but I think that the generation in charge now has a strong legion of people who are committed to handmade, to conscious living, to staying in touch with people, even as they do it side by side with technology. Also, I see great new work all the time.” She grins. “And then there’s Zana (Bayne), my daughter, who is a leather designer and artist and and who designs and handcrafts amazing pieces. She’s in Paris right now, showing her most recent collection at Paris Fashion Week. If that’s not cause for hope, I don’t know what is.”
Optimism. Knowledge. Empathy. Flair. This is what it takes for Lisa and Artful Home and the future of the artisanal movement. Oh hell, this is what it takes for most of life. (That, and a killer pair of red boots.)