Design Entrepreneurship in Connecticut

Design Entrepreneurship is a hot topic right now. The economy and slowing client work are leaving time for personal projects and inspiring exploration of alternative revenue sources, and growing consumer interest in unique and handcrafted products make for a friendly environment for designer one-of-a-kind and short run products. Not to mention that designers have the unique skill set to be able to not only create but also brand and promote their ideas, and maintain creative control.

Connecticut is ripe with designers who are launching product lines, artwork, apparel and printed goods. Most have started small — without clear business plans — and have simply grown organically, by making one-offs or short runs, selling to friends and fellow designers, and just plain having fun.

One of Twenty
One of Twenty is an artist collective and clothing design company, started by Mascola Senior Art Director Nick Healy with his brother Jeff in 2008. The collective is currently a group of 14 artists from up and down the east coast. They host group and solo shows for their artists, using their combined networks to grow larger than any of them would be able to individually. For the clothing aspect, they use designs from their various artists to create men’s and women’s clothing, all in limited edition runs of 20.

“I love the complete creative freedom,” says Nick. “While I love my job, it’s refreshing that I don’t have clients to answer to when making decisions. I get to create my own artwork and our marketing materials free from outside influences. I guess there is a sense of fear there too, if something turns out awful it is based upon the decisions made by us.”

“Plus I really believe that visual arts are important and need to be kept alive. Most of the events and shows that we host are at Skate Shops, Restaurants and Bars, during concerts, snowboard contests and at Roller Derby. I like the fact that we get to help expose people to something they might not have seen if it weren’t for the events we put on.”

Kelly Clark, a designer at Outthink, created Trove — a traveling boutique of jewelry, gifts, and office and home goods. Under her model, people throw Trove parties, and a boutique is set up in your living room.

“When your guests arrive, there is no spiel, no games, no pushiness to buy, and no pressure to put on your guests to book their own Trove party. It is simply a fun way to spend time with friends and family.”

Trove, which recently took honorable mention honors on “the-e-list” as one of the shoreline’s best kept secrets, sells nearly 100% handmade items — purchased, in most cases, directly from the artists themselves.

The site shares the inspiration for Trove: a love of shopping, curating, entertaining and marketing.

Sophie + Lili
An art director at Cronin & Company, Jennifer Vallez started Sophie + Lili, a boutique children’s clothing line for girls in 2004, “kind of by accident.” Vallez says. But it has evolved to become a signature collection of dolls that capture the imagination, and the personality, of little girls at play. Designed with whimsy and warmth in the studio of Vallez, each doll is digitally printed on high quality quilters cotton and backed with a complimentary print (including some vintage fabrics).

“I spend A LOT of time designing and making my dolls,” says Vallez. “It’s nice being able to call the shots creatively. And my customers are a delight. How much design criticism can you give about a cute little doll? My toughest customers are my daughters. I can live with that!”

Illustrator Rob Dobi started his line of t-shirts and prints, called Fullbleed, “shortly after I graduated college as a means to take my mind off the work I was doing in the music industry. For months on end all I produced were t-shirts for bands and I needed an outlet for my own ideas.”

“The first line was released in June of 2004,” continues Dobi, “as somewhat of an anti-brand, attempting to create interesting imagery rather than just promoting a name. Somehow it caught on and I have been making new tees every few months ever since.”

“I enjoy working on my own stuff more than anything else. Having complete creative control never hurts. At the same time, it is sort of crippling — with each new series I create, I have to put a new spin on it while pleasing people who enjoyed stuff in the past. It is easier to please an art director than it is a couple thousand kids on myspace.”

“To this day I still get pretty giddy even if I see a kid in the mall wearing a shirt I designed. Certain jobs are expected to be big exposure, like working for a band like Green Day or Fall Out Boy, but I’m most excited when I spot my own brand on someone. Even one of the guys from Spinal Tap was wearing a shirt of mine, which blew my mind. Stumbling upon bootlegs on eBay is also cool, as is the couple dozen tattoos based off of my work.”

Design is Love
Design is Love is a community site with companion Big Cartel shop founded by co:lab Design Director Troy Monroe.

“After graduating from the Hartford Art School, I began to contemplate the following question: ‘How can we, as designers, become more emotionally invested in our work and find other opportunities that would benefit from the mindfulness we put into the ideas we care about most?’ It took seven years and finding a work environment that nurtures personal project development (thanks to the co:lab team), but Design is Love has become the place I envisioned.

DIL’s “Design Fund” is one of three components of the mission of Design Is Love, all focused on shaping a community around the idea of “doing good.”

“The Design Fund [is] a quarterly charrette that gives members a chance to create personal work that, if selected, gets produced at no charge to the artist,” says Monroe. “Samples of the finished product are delivered to the ‘winner,’ and we put the remaining stock up for sale in our shop to generate funds for future projects. Many of us struggle to fund personal work, and this is our way of hopefully making things easier for members. I believe there’s great value in the personal development that happens when you create something just for you. Our entire community then benefits from your participation.”

“We encourage you to stop by our shop. The shelves are fully stocked with Design Fund projects and other cool shirts and posters we’ve been part of creating. All proceeds from each purchase support future Design Fund projects and our ongoing efforts to sustain and improve the Design is Love environment. We hope you’ll pick up a souvenir to remember your trip.”

Part of It
Founded in 2007 by Christopher and Kathleen Sleboda — a.k.a. Gluekit – Part of It works with artists to create products for causes they are passionate about. Sales from products benefit charities chosen by the artists.

“Part of It stems from our belief that artists (and conscientious consumers) can make a positive difference in the world by supporting causes close to their heart. Expressions of protest, simple declarations, moving graphics that encourage conversation and dialogue—there are many ways to enter into and encourage civic discourse. We believe activism can be fun, personal, beautiful and engaging; we can all play a part in making a better world for ourselves, for our communities, and for future generations.”

What inspires Christopher is “the satisfaction of bringing a product to life and making it real. If there is something I want that doesn’t exist, it’s the perfect opportunity to make it. Creating something allows you to contribute to culture and to have a conversation with the world around you.

Red Charming
Red Charming is the home of Emily Larned, an interdisciplinary artist and writer who makes publications, as well as “a letterpress printer, publisher, educator, curator, designer, organizer, researcher, weaver, cook, and gardener.” She is the Chair of Graphic Design, SASD at the University of Bridgeport, and the co-operator of ILSSA (Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts), a membership organization for those who make experimental or conceptual work with obsolete technology.

The Red Charming site offers for sale Larned’s zines, prints, ILSSA publications and art books, most of which are a combination of photocopying and letterpress.

“I’ve been letterpress printing for years now,” says Larned, “and I love the process for so many reasons: the action of writing something and then typesetting and printing it by hand is thinking an idea through to a physical end. It really is Author-as-Producer. I also like the endless cycle of reuse of handset type, and the objects and machines involved, and the physicality of holding a composing stick in your hand or cranking the cylinder down the bed.”

“I like the long-term relationship I have with my equipment. I’ve had my Vandercook since 2002 (it was manufactured in 1963!) and I learn new things about it all the time. As long as I take care of it (and myself!), we could still be making stuff together 40 years from now. In comparison, a laptop is like a hamster. You kind of get to know the little fella, and then, oh, he’s dead, on to the next one.”

Print Brigade
Print Brigade is an online retailer that sells an assortment of products and art pieces by artist and designer Chris Piascik, including hoodies, tees and zines. All feature Piascik’s trademark “lettering as illustration” style, and touch upon such topics as hip hop, bikes, inspirational quotes and the Print Brigade brand itself.

The shop comes from the prolific amount of Piascik’s work, based on his personal mantra: “Hustle. Don’t sleep. Hustle. Repeat.”

Designer Journals
Designer Journals were born in Black Rock, Connecticut in 2008. “I developed the concept after years of observing design professionals and students in their natural habitats,” says creator Karl Heine, “using sketch books and diaries to record their thoughts and ideas. I began distributing complimentary prototypes along with a Sharpie to test the concept. The journals were a smash hit with design students and creative professionals at all levels. So I decided to produce bigger batches and make them available to the world at large.”
Dubbed “the coolest eco-friendly journal for creativity and design,” the covers come in a variety of colors and materials, wire coil bound around Mohawk Options text weight acid-free paper, 100% PCW and bleed-proof (“even with a Sharpie”).


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