Interview: Pamela Barsky

The design world’s “It” girl schools us on Martha, the media and making it big.



Behind the Scenes With…
Pamela Barsky
by kelly lee

The Vitals

Occupation: designer/manufacturer/
writer/juggler

Birthdate/Sign: December 12/Sagittarius

Born:
Chicago

Current Digs: LA

The 411:
Pamela Barsky has overcome store-shattering earthquakes, among other disasters, to finally end up as the design world’s “It” girl. Her vintage-inspired journals and home goods have been featured everywhere from In Style to Lucky and have wound up in the hands of too many celebrities to list. With the creation of her website and her invaluable blog this past year, she’s gaining even more momentum, if possible. Below, the former ad copywriter shares her movie-like struggles and tells us why she can never take Martha Stewart seriously again.

School Me

I’ve recently read that you’re a former ski bum, originally from Detroit, which is where I currently live. What part of Motown are you from, and do you ever come back to visit?

I grew up in Birmingham, which I didn’t appreciate
until I moved to a place where people live in their
garages and think lawns are perfectly fine places to
park. I don’t get back to Michigan often, but I do
miss Lelli’s minestrone soup, Sanders vanilla ice
cream, and Cranbrook.

Any recommendations on places I should check out here, because I’m at a loss?

I’m a big believer in the Franklin Cider Mill.

I’ve also read that you sold your mother’s engagement ring to open your first shop in LA, which tragically was destroyed by an earthquake. Let’s just say, “Holy cow!” Tell us all about it. What prompted the move to LA? The desire to open the store? And how did you deal with the earthquake and its results?

I moved to LA by accident. I came to visit a health
spa, liked the lifestyle, and since I had all my stuff
in the back of the car, I decided to stay. I used to buy art/crafts on layaway as far back as
junior high, and I guess that fueled my desire to own
a store.

As far as the earthquake, when I saw the mess, I took
to bed for about two weeks. Since it made me
start designing stuff, it really turned out to be the
best thing that ever happened to me.

Is it safe to say that’s been your biggest struggle in starting your business?

Oh, no. Not having enough financing has always been
THE struggle. Plus, I’m a bit of a moron when it
comes to balancing my checkbook.

What was your first shop like? Did it include items by other designers or were you designing back then as well?

My first shop was tiny, and, well, kind of lame. It
had a “Let’s put on a show” kind of spirit, and I
think a lot of people bought stuff because they felt
sorry for the poor girl who had risked everything to
open her doors. Luckily, I had pretty good taste, and
a friend who insisted I move to a mall as soon as my
first lease expired.

You studied journalism at the University of Colorado and then worked in advertising. How much do you think your background in media has benefited your career?

Let me start by saying, I got a D in reporting. As far as the advertising goes, everything I write or design is influenced by what I did in advertising. No matter how much is demanded of me, how much I have to create, it is nothing compared to what is expected
from you as a copywriter.

What prompted you to start designing your own products?

Pure financial need. I needed stuff to fill my empty, broken shelves.

Is your husband also a fulltime employee of Pamela Barsky?

Hell no. We want to stay married. (He will help out
on occasion if I ask nicely, and he has been
instrumental in the design of some our best-selling
products, but he doesn’t get paid for it.)

Tell us about this new home d├ęcor television pilot you’re working on and how it came about. Are you rooting for Martha to serve
some serious jail time so you can fill her shoes?

I am addicted to decorating shows, but they give me serious anxiety because they never really show you how to do anything. It is like, poof, it’s a room. If you’ve ever remodeled, you know this is NOT the way things really happen. I want to do a show where
viewers can actually learn to do things from start to
finish– and do them well. Things like how to hire
an architect. How to deal with a contractor. How to
find gorgeous tile that is affordable.

Recently, someone in my neighborhood painted the
outside of their house in a faux cobblestone pattern.
It is hideous and, I believe, a result of too many
shows telling people it is OK to glue macaroni on
picture frames.

As far as Martha Stewart goes, once I saw her picking
her teeth in a really fancy restaurant in New York;
after that it’s been hard to take her seriously as a
style maven.

Material Girl

Where do you find all of your great vintage materials?

If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.

Fair enough. Working with vintage, does it make it hard to fill large orders since the fabric is one of a kind?

I’ve never had to turn an order down because I couldn’t find materials. I have great suppliers.

At what point did you go from a store to a manufacturing business?

Since I’m not much of a delegator, when the manufacturing began to demand all of my time, I decided to give up the store.

What all does having your own factory entail?

Lots of responsibility. There is nothing like the
look on the face of an employee who has just broken a
$10,000 machine.

All Up in Your Business

What was your first job?

Grocery bagger at the A&P. I made $3.35 an hour plus tips.

Your designs are simple, beautiful and often quirky and clever. What influences your designs?

Life. And the fact that my mother signed me up for art classes when other little girls were being dragged off to ballet. I’ve always been a voracious reader, so I guess that’s where I picked up the ability to turn a phrase.

You’ve been featured in more than your fair share of magazines — in fact, I feel like I’ve seen your name is nearly every magazine I’ve read over the last three months. How much do you think the publicity has contributed to your success?

Publicity is great. But it is the icing on the cake. Sometimes, we’ll get a feature article in a major magazine and only sell a journal or two.

It can be a double-edged sword. After I was in In
Style
for the first time, Old Navy knocked off my
designs and they showed up in their stores at half of
my wholesale price.


Bastards. Have you paid for advertising yet in any publications? How much do you think that’s benefited your business?

For a gal who made a living in advertising for a decade, I really don’t think it works in the gift industry. I tend to stick to direct mail.


Please walk us through the process you went through to form Pamela Barsky. Did you just start playing around with materials and ideas or did you have a set business plan from the beginning?

Although your bank and business school types insist on
a business plan, after you’ve been doing this for a
while, you realize that a business plan is really a
big fat fantasy. Until you are in the thick of it,
you have no idea what a day, let alone a week or a
year or five years is going to bring. I believe in
goals, and going with the flow. Of course, I have an
uncanny ability to keep lots of facts in my head. Some people call it my stupid pet trick. For most people, they’d be better to write things down.

Do you handmake all of the items or train people to do so? And once you realized you couldn’t make everything yourself, was it hard to relinquish that control?

99% of entrepreneurs are control freaks, myself
included. But, I don’t make everything myself, there’s not enough days in the week.

How long has the Pamela Barsky website been around? How much do you think it’s contributed to your notoriety?

The website has been amazing. In just 6 months, it has changed everything.

Even though you use a wide range of vintage materials, your designs seem pretty specific and recognizable. How important do you think branding and consistency are?

I can only see the world through my eyes, so it makes sense that there is a thread that weaves through my line. The consistency is more a function of this than anything else. As far as branding, if you don’t have a good idea, all the branding in the world isn’t going to help you. Of course, you’ll find my logo, name and
web address on everything I make.

Have you found the design community in LA to be supportive?

I find the design community in LA to be very moviecentric. My creative friends live elsewhere, but I try not to give up hope that I might find some here.


How did you go about figuring out all the business-end stuff. The accounting, working with suppliers, all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes that no one wants to deal with?

My dad was a lawyer, my mom an artist, so I guess it
is in the genes. Mostly, I figured it out as I went
along. Learning from mistakes has been a big part of
it.


For those who don’t know, you also have a blog on your site. One that’s a goldmine for anyone interested in starting his/her own business. What prompted the blog and do you ever run into problems with people reading it that you’d rather not? Say, a supplier you’re angry with?

I don’t use names, and I’m a pretty good editor. It can be challenging some days.

Many people have grandiose ideas, but never put them into action, but you have. Any advice for people out there who might want to do something similar?

Stop yammering and do it.

How many people work for your company?

Two. We’re very efficient.

You’ve had many celebs buy your products. Of those
who have purchased, which has been the most exciting for you?

My store’s clientele was very celebrity heavy and I
try not to get star struck. The week I met Cloris
Leachman, Valerie Harper and Mary Tyler Moore stands
out as a big one for me. During the OJ trial, Kato
Kaylin came in and
I thought that was kind of funny.

Is there anyone in particular you wish would purchase Pamela Barsky goods?

An old boss from my advertising days who fired me
because he didn’t think my ideas could sell.

Starting your own business is exciting, scary and full of obstacles and learning experiences. What’s been the most rewarding part of it all?

I especially like having an idea, then seeing it turn
into a real, you-can-hold-it-in-your-hand product.

The most frustrating?

People who don’t get it.

What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?

Balance.

Tell us about trade shows and markets. How vital are these when it comes to exposure and sustaining a profitable business? Do the bulk of your major orders come from these shows? Any recommendations on the best ones to attend?

New York Gift Show, although it has a 5-10 year
waiting list. Do whatever you can do to get in.

I know that you now sell at Anthropologie and of course on your website and
your shop in LA. Is there anywhere else we should be on the lookout for your fab stuff?

I sell to some pretty fabulous stores. Personally, I
love Holt Renfrew in Toronto and the Musuem of
Contemporary Art Los Angeles’ gift store,
but I don’t
get out much, so this is by no means a comprehensive
list.



In a field that is so subjective, what advice do you have for people in overcoming the big R — rejection?

Get over it.

Do you remember your first return and how did you handle it?

Don’t take returns.

Good policy. At what point do you recommend hiring outside help, such as financial analysts, lawyers, etc?

If you can afford it, do it. If not, figure it out yourself. The advice is usually about the same.

Any tips for getting these done without breaking the bank?

You get what you pay for in life, I’ve learned. My accountant costs $350 an hour, and I wouldn’t dream of going to anyone else. Scrimp somewhere else.


Any plans to turn this blog into a book? I know you’re friends or at least professional acquaintances with the founder of Found Objects. She has a kind of online book or how-to guide on her site for developing designs and products. And your blog is full of great advice and knowledge. Could there be a book collaboration in the future?

I’m too much of a loner to collaberate, but I am writing a book on how to start a business. It should be out and available on the site in about 4-6 months.

One of the obstacles online shops face is making their prices consistent with what shops selling their items at retail charge. Have you found this to be a challenge? Finding the right pricing and wholesale strategies and what not?

I price my things on the web based on the prices my customers charge for the same items. I make my living by selling to stores, and would not do anything to undercut them. The website is really an advertising tool.

Do you recommend starting up market and branding yourself as such or down market and building up a following?

It is very difficult to change your image once it is
established unless you have millions to spend on
television advertising. Mostly, you’ll find the world
will tell you what you are supposed to be, so go with
it.

What was the most daring investment you had to make while growing your business?

Moving out of my apartment and signing a commercial
lease.


What’s the largest myth about “minding your own business” and being featured in all of these magazines. From your blog, it
definitely implies that they don’t necessarily add up to worry-free success.

The get-rich-quick myth. There is no such thing in
this business. The biggest benefit is that you are in
control of your own life, your schedule, and your
future. Anything beyond that is gravy.

Has there been a moment where you’ve felt like you made it? If so, tell us about it. If not, do you think you’ll ever feel that?

I’ll let you know when I get there.

Any upcoming events, shows or press we should know about?

I’m introducing jewelry (see mom, those silversmithing
lessons did pay off) at The Accessories Show in New
York mid-January. Hope everyone will stop by.


What can we look forward to from PB in the future?

My fantasy is that Target calls and asks me to design
a line of products. In reality, fashion accessories,
home accessories, and the cutest night lites you’ve
ever seen.


Where would you like to be in ten years?

Can’t even imagine what the world is going to bring
me.


If you had it all to do over again, is there
anything you’d change or do differently?

I would have said “yes,” when Jay Chiat offered me a
“test” position at his agency in New York.

Stylin’ and Profilin’

Describe your personal style.

Modern with slightly kitschy kick.

What people in the fashion/design industry do you
look up to?

Donna Hay

Playing Favorites

Favorite shops in LA?

Can’t answer that one for political reasons.

Favorite shops online?

travelocity.com

Favorite way to procrastinate?

I like to watch Law and Order reruns.

Favorite magazine?

Elle Decoration Britain, Donna Hay, Budget Living

Fave city?

I love LA, but dream of owning an apartment in New
York. London is great, too. Vail has my heart.

Favorite food?

Caramel-covered marshmallows.

Favorite word?

Today, insipid.

Fave color?

Probably, chartreuse.

Fave flick?

Easy, Two for the Road.

In the spirit of Inside the Actors Studio, your
favorite curse word?

I don’t discriminate. I use them all.

More importantly, Ben or Jen?

Ick. Neither. I’m a
big Tate Donovan fan (I’ll never be able to look him
in the eye again, but I’m all for honesty).

Because We’re Nosy

What are you craving right now?

Yoga.

What’s on your Tivo’s To-Do List?

24.

In your CD player?

Simon and Garfunkle.

Current Crush?

My husband and my puppy.

AM or PM?

AM.

Friendster – yay or nay?

Right up there with Ben or
Jen. Besides, I’m a loner.

If you could be anywhere right now, where would it
be and what would you be
doing?

I’m here, so this must be where I want to be.

Anything else we should know?

My husband thinks I am the least funny person he
knows.

Please turn the tables and ask us a question!

What’s the deal with Lisa Rinna’s lips?

I dunno, but her hubby Harry Hamlin seems to be a happy man.

Visit Pamela online at pamelabarsky.com.


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