A few nights ago, someone gave me terrible business advice. Actually, calling it 'advice' is inaccurate. This was a passive-aggressively hostile diatribe, hidden within the candy shell of constructive criticism. It came from the owner of a chichi boutique in Soho, at an event hosted in her store for dozens of independent designers. The seminar had just ended, and she generously offered to make the rounds, look at our samples and give us advice on forming retail relationships. My minimalist, military-influenced pieces were at odds with the sumptuous store, filled with decorative pillows and ceramic objets, so I figured she wouldn't have a personal interest in carrying my line. But I was eager to hear suggestions from a successful designer-turned-storeowner; maybe she even knew of retailers that would be a better fit.
We shook hands and I offered her my phone, so she could scroll through my portfolio. "No need. I've already seen your Etsy store."
"It seems like you've got a built-in market, so you should probably sell direct, and not really bother with retail."
"Like, I would never carry your work in my store."
Sure. This is feeling kind of hostile, but maybe it's just me.
"As someone in the design community, I think the whole 'bomb' thing is kind of a turn-off. Maybe you should make the message more clear."
Yikes. If you're hearing messages from lamps, you need to change your dosage.
"You need to make sure high-end buyers know they're not endorsing war."
Do you think this is some sinister version of Tom's? For every lamp sold, I send a land mine to a child in a developing nation?
"Use a different name for your furniture - 'Stockpile' has such aggressive connotations, and high-end buyers won't want something with that association."
It sounds like these 'high-end' buyers might suffer from a stress disorder. Do lamps talk to them, too?
"Maybe those of us in the design community are a bit softer-"
"But you should really rethink your aggressive imagery."
IT'S ME, UNDER THE SHADE. YOU WILL GIVE JAKE ALL THE EXTRA PROSECCO AND $20 FOR CAB FARE. THE LAMP HAS SPOKEN.
If you don't like my work, just say so. It's easy! I can handle it! I know my designs aren't for everyone! If they were, I'd be dictating this to my secretary from a golden throne instead of typing it in an unheated office in Brooklyn. But every art-school freshman knows that a negative critique has to come with a relevant explanation - it's what separates criticism from an attack. Speaking for the entirety of "high-end" buyers is as vague and useless as the term "high-end" itself. Lamborghini drivers don't seem to mind the stealth-bomber influence in their cars' design. The MacArthur Foundation awarded a genius grant to photographer An-My-Lé, whose work documents military training exercises. Peter Marino, one of the most successful interior designers in the world, has a silver dinosaur skull with bullets for teeth in his office. (Presumably it is covered with a sheet any time "high-end" clients stop by, lest they succumb to the vapors.)
I felt like I had personally offended my critiquer, and I'd done nothing more than show my work. My style probably wouldn't work in her store, and her customers might not care for such a military aesthetic. But her advice was to avoid approaching any retailers, her implication that my buyers are too unsophisticated to understand her supposedly principled objections to re-appropriating military design. She's wrong, of course. She doesn't understand my business, or my customers, and I don't think she knows as much about the broader design world as she thinks. And in a way, her comments were helpful. In the years I spent building the company and designing my line, I had never faced someone who had such intense disdain for me or my work. As Stockpile grows as a company and I grow as a designer, I'm sure to hear from people who think the same way. If I'm going to succeed, I can't let someone else's irrational opinions bother me, or sway me from my course. And for that lesson, she deserves my thanks.
Plus, her store was tacky as hell.