Simon Pearce, the Irish-American entrepreneur, who made a name for himself in glassware, will be in town visiting Ampersand on Friday, May 2, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. for a signing. We spent some time talking with Pearce about his company that he says proudly hasn’t changed much in 40 years. Here’s his advice on quality, success, and branding, that every craftsperson should hear.
At what point did you sense that you shifting from craftsperson to brand name designer?
This was not planned. The only plan at the beginning was to make functional glass. I’d been a potter, my dad was a potter, and after working in factories in New Zealand and all over Europe I knew at that point the type of glassware I wanted to make, early Georgian glass. There was already well-designed glass in Scandinavia, but it was almost too perfect, with a factory feel. After working in Scandinavia, I went back to Ireland in my workshop and started making glass. I struggled mightily in the early days, then I eventually made headway. When I met my wife who is from New Jersey, we decided to live in America and moved to Quechee, Vermont in 1981 and I started all over again. It was day-to-day, head down. Then there was a gradual, organic feeling. It was never a conscience decision.
At one point you said you regretted using your name as a brand. For branding today, is that a good idea or a bad one?
If you’re making something by hand, especially in this country, you have to be able to create a name for yourself so people can associate quality with your name, that you are a human person. In Ireland it’s traditional to call your product after your village. When I started, potters and artists like David Leach and Shoji Hamada were using their own names and getting a lot more for their work. I thought if I’m going to do all this labor by hand I need to get something for it. It wasn’t about branding, I didn’t even know what a brand was when I came to this country. The disadvantage is you get recognized when you give your credit card to the supermarket or hardware store or when you’re out to dinner and introduced. I don’t like that at all. But the advantages far outweigh the embarrassment. I live in rural Vermont and live a quiet life so it’s not really a big deal. It’s not like I’m a celebrity in California.
What is the secret to reaching a mass-market audience while staying true to your work?
Stay true to your work, the quality, and what you believe in. It’s when you start to cut corners and cheapen the product that you can get into trouble. You have to promote and sell. You can’t stand still, you have to keep it moving forward to keep good people. They don’t want to be in a company that’s stagnant; they want to keep moving forward. Once it starts, you can’t go backward.
Curious, has anyone or any company ever tried to copy your designs? How did you deal with it?
Yes, Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware. Crate & Barrel changed a few things, but Restoration Hardware was an exact copy, identical, as if they sent away a piece to copy. I finally I wrote to the CEO and though he never responded, the line was taken out. They say it’s the greatest form of flattery, but it seems unfair, we’re doing all of this by hand. At least he had the decency to stop. But, you don’t need to worry too much. It’s the companies that innovate and do new things that you need to worry about. If they’re copying you, they’re behind you.
How long does it take to design a piece start to finish?
About four to five people can make a bowl in an hour, verses a factory where four to five people could make 150 in an hour. It’s a slow process; the overhead is enormous. Just the energy alone, that furnace runs 24 hours a day.
What are a couple of all time favorite pieces from your line?
The Woodbury bowl. People have been making glassware for thousands of years and there’s not much new you can do, but this design and shape is probably something that hasn’t been done. It’s contemporary and traditional—I love it when an item can be both. And the Essex wine glass—my first wine glass.
What advice would you give a budding craftsperson today?
My father started in a tiny studio of three people. He always equally enjoyed the making and the business side. The problem today, it’s like the business side is a dirty word. Creative, artistic people don’t enjoy it and there’s an expectation that you shouldn’t, like a stigma. I grew up enjoying both parts. One goes with the other. If you start a skill and can sell it—that makes a huge difference. If you’re struggling as an artist it can take away from your creativity, while success adds to it.