Spotlight : Carter Bolick

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Carter Bolick of India Rose

My 2016 Spotlight Series kicks off with a truly insightful and inspiring Q&A with Carter Bolick. Carter is a San Francisco based designer and founder of India Rose, a custom home furnishings and textile company. Carter and I have never met in person, we've only talked over the phone & through emails, but I think you'll instantly be charmed (like I was) by her genuine, engaging, funny and passionate personality. Read more from my Q&A below.....

Tell me about your background & where you were raised.....  Currently, where are you living?

I am from in San Francisco where I was born and raised, as was my father.  To be a native San Franciscan (our colloquial phrase) and live in San Francisco is a rare thing these days.  I proudly come from the gayest neighborhood in America called The Castro, where as it was being solidified in the early 70’s, I was an infant.  Being an outsider started for me there, it has a lot of who I am and why I am fluid in designing for other people's brands.  I grew up in a non hippy communal house that my father designed.  My father and my godfather who met studying Architecture and Landscape Architecture at UC Berkeley after World War Two, build a dynamic house together.  They remained best friends and raised our two families together.  Of the 6 kids, I am the only designer to follow suit. I feel my education started young with the exposure of considering space and human interaction with design. 

I now live with my husband, 2 daughters and our cattle dog Cocoa in a tall treehouse style home facing the SF Bay 1 mile from San Francisco, in a village called Brisbane.  Who knew that we would fall in love with the tiny town lifestyle where you wave to your neighbors and know every kid by name. My in-laws live 3 blocks away and our design Studio India Rose is in the center of town.

Could you provide some insight into the path you took to establishing yourself in the design world -- education, mentors, job history, etc.....

Like my father and my siblings, I went to UC Berkeley where I studied art.  I did not start out there because as an 18 year old, my dream was to flee to New York. I went to an art school in New York called SUNY Purchase and studied fine art.  I came home, transferred to CAL and just did what I always did: studied painting and printmaking with a little performance art (I did performance art in High School because that’s what hippy kids in private school do).  But eventually that bored me and I was drawn to more crafts and different academic pursuits.  And believe me that was not a popular decision in the art department.  My senior year I had a big spread in Metropolis Magazine for my painted floorcloths after participating in a ICFF trade show.   I remember some snotty student laughing at me because it was not fine art.  That shaming  made me redefine success internally and I shied away from looking to my peers for veneration.  I focused on business instead.  I had already begun my first business in floorcloths called Lemonheads while at Berkeley.  For those of you who have no idea what that a floorcloth is, they are hand painted rugs, acrylic on canvass that hail from US colonial times.  I was in my twenties and living the dream.  I hired a newly immigrated Irish girleen, my best friend to this day, Annie Galvin of 3 Fish Studios.  We spent a lot of time telling funny stories and inventing silliness while we painted,  creating and positive environment we both keep in our studios to this day.

I burned out of the large scale paintings but loved the lifestyle of working for myself and hustling for work.  I transitioned by learning to scale down the paintings to guache on paper and sold them as textiles design for rugs.  I changed my hustle to sell to rug designs to importers and started spending a lot of time in Atlanta and eventually traveling abroad to work in rug factories.  My first trip to India lasted a couple months and that was it for me, I became a true addict to travel and to the country itself.  I am known as an Indiaphile and yes I named my daughter India Rose not just after some name in my family tree but also for my love of the country itself.

In 1997 I worked at Pottery Barn, the one and only corporate job I have ever had.  I worked there for 3 years where I developed the rug department, designed all the textiles for the first PB Kids catalog and enjoyed a lot of success as a designer.  That was enough for me to see my potential as a consultant in retail product design.  It was a place where I learned more technical design and business than I ever had, it set me up for success till this day.  I still enjoy a lot of friendships from the original PB team of designers, including my husband of 15 years.  

I left Pottery Barn and what seems like a whirlwind I got married, bought a house, had a baby and 6 months after our daughter was born, I started our family business India Rose.  That was 14 years ago.

Was design always a field you wanted to work in?  Was there a particular "ah-ha" moment that really solidified for you that you were doing the right "thing"?

No, I’m not sure as a young adult I even understood what design really was.  I was always going to be an artist, I felt I had no choice, it was just something I was drawn to.  But then the idea of problem solving with “art” and making products came smashing into my life and I learned about design.  No longer was I just creating emotionally, I was forced to see the end user, consider costing and retail margins, analyzing how customers buy and how my products would sit on a shelf.   So I became a designer, and redefined myself.  The Ah-Ha moment hit me in my 40s, it was that I saw myself with the power to diversify how I design.   I have a choice what I do, who I work for, what I design now and I see everything through that lens.  

How would you describe your personal design style?  Over the course of your career has your "look" changed or evolved?  And currently, what do you find yourself inspired by?

Like my 80s hair style, my aesthetic has changed and evolves through the times.  Thank god really, otherwise I would still be hand painting furniture with bumblebees.  But as a designer, I have to watch the trends around me and not be a one trick pony.  I create entire branding experiences for my clients, including their interior and exterior spaces, branding identity graphics and packaging, customer experience, and design products.  I work for my clients goals, no longer my own.  That only means I have to be diverse for them while filtering it through my taste meter.  I have just finished the installation of a Brazilian Street Food cafe in a San Francisco touristy area, and am rebranding their identity and customer experience to look modern and casual.  very different from the Medical Cannabis Dispensary client we have that we are creating a feminine Anthropologie sensibility for.

What was the spark that led you to start your business, India Rose?  What is the main focus of the business?

We no longer design and import a line of home furnishings & textiles, which is what we did until the recession killed the fun for us.  We started India Rose by doing private label and sourcing for large retail clients.  We were inspired with how well we were doing designing bath, tabletop and other home products for Anthropologie and Crate and Barrel.  We thought, we can do this as a wholesale company.  No more snotty buyers, just nice mom and pop stores who already love us.  And it worked for a long time and we were happy and successful. But then, that damn recession came and killed the joy.  Overrun with debts we tired of importing product.  That failure was so brutal for me at the time but it propelled us to reinvent ourselves as a family company.

Now our main focus is designing brands, from A to Z and working in fields like medical cannabis where good retail designs is incredibly novel. 

Could you talk a bit about your experience of running a design business.....   How designing private label items happens.....   Where do you find your craftspeople to make your designs?   

This is a great question because the life cycle of a product and how it gets made can be very mysterious. It all started for me with that first trip to India in my twenties.  I started seeing how to navigate through quality production facilities and factories with sustainable practices and recognizing those who had real talent to help us make our products come alive. My knowledge and first hand experience and relationships with sourcing abroad is what qualifies me as a product developer.  I almost always have a agent office in country working with closely with our factories.  We communicate constantly with images of the product and process, we travel during a product cycle to make changes and insure quality.

We usually start with a presentation to the client to approve our direction, that could be magazine tear sheets or even a Pinterest board, color palettes, and trend direction.  Next step is to do first ideations of product design, we tweak them until approved.  We create technical specs. for the factories to interpret our designs and then follow up to clarity so there are no surprises.  Your designs are as good as your tech packages honestly.  First samples arrive or we fly to see them in person, but this happens with a lot of communication before hand.  After approval, production happens with timelines agreed to and quality control in place.  The logistics of getting a product to where it needs to go and on time is my least favorite part but when you own your own company it is hard to not do every job at one time or another.  

We use a pool of freelancers to bulk up if a project is too big.  Some years we had had permanent designers and product developers but mostly we like to stay trim.  From experience, the way to overwhelm yourself and eventually fail is to be a slave to overhead.  Do not define your success by how many people work for you.

What type of suggestions would you offer to others wanting to get involved in the retail side of design?

My experience of making things with my own hands before having others make them for me is a commonality amongst my peers.  Starting local, learning to design organically and then scaling up is a perfectly acceptable way to go but it is being an entrepreneur which is not for everyone.   My husband like yours Sarah is an industrial designer.  He teaches and runs a grad program that is obsessed with it’s students working after graduating and having the real tangible skills to be relevant.  I would recommend that for anyone who wants to be a product designer for retail.  However if you are in that second phase of life where you need to do something new and you have always loved making things or creating some kind of retail experience why not just take a few classes at a local community college or University that has an extension for the community.  There are a lot of online courses too.

Would you like to share any upcoming happenings for you on the horizon?

I am trying to motivate myself to Tweet to show people what we are up to.  I will make a better effort.

This is a link to my latest blog post highlighting a custom built house I designed, nothing to do with product design unless you consider a house a big product for sale. 

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