Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Kate Herzog, founder of House of Talents
Kate Herzog started House of Talents with a purpose rather than a product. Her mission, formulated as a business school project at the University of St. Thomas, was to create industry in her native Ghana by importing high-quality, artisan-made goods. In the process, Herzog discovered her own instinct for product development. Crate & Barrel, Anthropologie, and West Elm have carried her multi-use baskets. The House of Talents bicycle basket—an idea Herzog dreamed up with a business associate—is in more than 60 stores worldwide, from Minneapolis to New Zealand.
How do you find new artists?
Whenever I go to a country, I’m curious about all of it. I traveled to Mali with University of St. Thomas students and there was a piece of art in the hotel room that I was fascinated by. I went to find the artist. He showed me how he hand-looms the fabric and sews it together to make a big cloth that is dipped in dyes, boiled, and dyed again. Then he makes all sorts of intricate designs on it. All the symbols have meaning—family, unity, wealth. I fell in love. I bought as much fabric as I could carry. I didn’t even know what I was going to do with it. Three years later, we’re finally ready to take orders on it, as bedding and scarves.
You knew it would sell?
Living here in Minnesota, people like beautiful things without being showy. Things that are enduring. I don’t buy everything I love—never too much orange stuff for Minnesotans! But Minnesotans want to support artisans.
So do you play more to a sense of charity or design?
All you have to do is ask a little question (about a product), and suddenly, you are transported into a world you didn’t know. It comes from a place of intelligence and pride. Of course, the story alone doesn’t put food on the table. But turning this artistry into a professional product—people want that.
Did you figure that out in business school?
I grew up in a village. There’s not a whole lot going on, so you’re more attuned to birds singing, seeing the stars, the colors of the mud. You begin to understand that which makes us. What’s unique. What’s evolved. What’s used to survive. I didn’t know my culture as well (when I lived in Ghana). I’m beginning to appreciate it more now. I see the wisdom, and what I can tap to advance my goals.
What are the biggest challenges?
I am the middle person. Retailers have a timeline and they offer no advance payment. It’s hard to instill deadlines in artisans. I am mindful that the stores have to sell a product, but I’m also protective of the artisans. I guide them, without disrupting their creative process. The company may ask for a color to be changed, and I have to remind them—that’s not paint, it’s handmade dye and it’s slightly different every time. I believe art is a language of the soul. What I try to do is to push the boundaries of their skills, the emotion that informs their work, rather than constrain them.