Meet Pamela Barsky
Do you know Pamela Barsky? A designer of gift items that range from quirky fun signs ("my house is mid century messy") to funny luggage tags, and now a new line of toys for pups, Pamela is a creative designer and savvy business woman who shoots straight from the hip. If you've always wanted to jump into the mind of a successful gift and accessories designer, here's your chance. Meet Pamela Barsky.
decor8: Hi Pamela. So glad you stopped by! I read your online bio, it seems you've accomplished and overcome quite a lot to get to where you are today as a product designer/manufacturer/author. Tell us, who is Pamela Barsky?
pamela: In my mind, I'm a tall, leggy blond with a large trust fund, but in reality I'm a 46 year old designer/manufacturer with brown hair who lives with my husband and my dog in Los Angeles. I've been skiing my whole life and wish there'd been competitive bump skiing when I was a kid because, well, because I was good at it and it would have been fun to win a medal or two along the way. I went to school in Colorado, spent a decade writing advertising before I opened the store which spawned my line when I was 29. I love modern architecture (you can see my house in the May '06 issue of Dwell magazine) and am attempting to learn French. Antwerp is my favorite European city.
decor8: I saw your home in that issue, very impressive digs. Since you're based in LA and went to college in Colorado, where did you grow up?
pamela: I am based in Los Angeles, although after being here twenty years, I feel like a native... I'm actually a midwestern gal; I grew up in suburban Detroit.
pamela: I always wanted to own my own shop. Originally, it was to be called "the pig mug shop" after the collection of pig coffee cups I'd been carrying around with me since my teens. My store got destroyed in the '94 earthquake. I started making things to fill my empty shelves.
decor8: Do you think where you grew up influenced your design style, and if so, how?
pamela: You know, ten years ago, I'd have had a different answer, but, yes. I spent a lot of time as an art "groupie" hanging out at Cranbrook, an amazing graduate art school in Bloomfield Hills Michigan. I went to a very progressive open elementary school with a student body of incredibly smart kids from all walks of life. There was little direction, just encouragement to explore. I think that had a huge influence on me. Probably more important, Detroit is very gray, both summer and winter, and kind of conservative, so I had to turn inward for colors and ideas and excitement. Probably if I'd grown up in Los Angeles or New`York where so much was happening, I'd have been a lot more of a follower.
decor8: Makes sense. Lots of great design comes from parts of the world with gray skies and somewhat melancholy surroundings. Something about the lack of color can often inspire creative types to dig harder to create it for themselves. Do you have a design education/background, or did you learn by simply jumping in and doing?
pamela: As far back as I can remember, I've been taking art classes; one of my earliest childhood memories is sculpting an ear out of clay in a ceramics studio my mother insisted I go to. During junior high you could find me at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Association where I studied everything from yarn dying to metalsmithing. I never could draw, so didn't realize art school was a possibility. Instead, I went to Colorado, skied my brains out and majored in Journalism. I'm not sure in what order.
decor8: Describe a typical work day...
pamela: Before I got struck with chronic vertigo, work days were twenty hour marathons of box packing, customer apeasing, and employee managing. Now, I've hired a fulfillment house, jobbed out most of my manufacturing, so days are a bit more leisurely. I get up around 7, eat breakfast, then check emails while watching Good Morning America. I invoice new orders, email them to the fulfillment house, then spend the rest of my day running errands, talking to customers on the phone, working on public relations, stamping mailers, working on new designs, then yoga, then, lights out.
decor8: Where do you find inspiration?
pamela: Everywhere. Flea markets. On the back of a cereal box. In a vintage book. On tv. On the web. Ideas are everywhere and ripe for the picking.
decor8: You must be inspired by a few designers too...
pamela: Oh yes, I like Denyse Schmidt's quilts a lot. I love the way Jack and Lulu's line is so polished. I could eat Miu Miu's entire line for lunch, I just wish it was made better. Lately, I've been lookin to mid-century Swedish ceramics for inspiration, although clearly, so has Jonathon Adler, so enough about that. I like vintage Evelyn Ackerman weavings. And I'm crazy about Marshall Studios' lamps. I guess all that stuff swishes around in my brain and gets pooped out as my style.
decor8: Before you send your designs off to the workshop, do you test them to ensure that they'll be a success and if so, how does that work?
pamela: After 10 years in advertising, where they test everything to death, I find myself allergic to the process. I trust my gut. If I like it, I make it.
decor8: (smiling) Good one. I noticed that you create a little bit of everything, all over the board... From hats to piggy banks. Have you ever been told that your line needs to have more focus, and if so, how did you respond to that?
pamela: Years ago, when looking for a job in advertising, an incredibly rude headhunter sat me down and told me she'd seen art directors write better headlines than mine and urged me to give up the hunt. I spent many years thinking she was right, then, one day, I realized, she'd probably had a fight with her husband that morning, or the rent was due and she had no cash. Most advise is colored by the person who gives it. I say do what makes you happy and the rest
decor8: What makes your product line stand out above the rest?
pamela: I haven't sold out. I love everything I make. I don't knock off other's design ideas. I'm not afraid to take a risk. And I'm not afraid to do something noone else has done.
decor8: Where is most of your line manufactured?
pamela: Ana, my last full time employee makes all of my journals in her spare bedroom. The piggy banks are made in Austin. Except for the dog toys, which are made in China, the rest is pieced together here in Los Angeles.
decor8: What is the hardest part about having your own company?
pamela: I worry about money constantly.
decor8: The best?
pamela: Honestly, not having to kiss anyone's ass.
pamela: Well, I've done very well with my dog charms and wanted to expand my offerings in that area. Most dog toys are too cutesy, no one is doing any which are clean and modern and sophisticated and funny. Beyond that, no great marketing plan, just a whim.
decor8: Do you participate in gift shows? If so, which ones?
pamela: I do New York and Atlanta. I've tried others, but there just doesn't seem to be a big enough audience for things not adorned with bunnies and bears at shows like, say, Chicago. L.A. used to be good, but the earthquake and the riots killed it.
decor8: Where can you items be purchased?
pamela: I sell all over the world. You'll see my things at the Victoria and Albert museum shop in London, most modern museum shops in the USA, nearly every city's "cool" shop, and of course, my website.
decor8: You've also written a how-to business guide..."How to Start a Creative Manufacturing Business". Most business owners wouldn't be as open to confessing their secrets for a mere $22. What motivated you to write it and how do you think it ranks up against similiar titles on the market?
pamela: Honestly, I got tired of people asking how to start a business like mine and since I was a writer in a past life, a book emerged. I think the original working title was, "now you won't have to ask me how to start a business like mine." I'm not a big reader of how-to books, I'm more of a jump in and figure things out kind of gal, so, and I don't mean this to sound snotty, I haven't read anything competitive.
decor8: Do you see yourself writing other titles in the future, anything in the works?
pamela: Yes, I've actually just pitched a book to Chronicle about the fine art of complaining.
decor8: Where do you see your business in 5 years?
pamela: I'd like to be doing a lot more design for hire. I'd like a Pamela Barsky department in Target.
pamela: After ten or twelve years, I have enough of a following people look for me at trade shows, online, or call looking for a new catalogue. That said, I mostly depend on the New York and Atlanta gift show and mailings. In the past year, my website has been a huge asset. I spend a lot of time courting the press.
decor8: What are three subjects you'd like to learn more about?
pamela: Well, I sure would like to understand what makes men tick. I wish I could draw. And I'd like to play around with math.
decor8: Are you doing your dream job? If so, what would you like to add? If not, what would you rather be doing?
pamela: I don't know. I fantasize about being a secret shopper for hotel chains. I'd like to buy houses only to fix them up and sell them. I'd like to be a tour guide. I'd like to do more writing for pay. Don't get me wrong, I love what I do, but nothing is perfect and there are lots of cool jobs out there.
decor8: To wrap things up, what are you top ten indulgences?
pamela: 1. Expensive shoes 2. An unlimited pass at the yoga studio 3. I like nice hotel rooms. 3. Boysenberries at the farmer's market 4. I don't know how to cook, so I eat out a lot. 5. A Duxiana bed 6. Long, leisurely conversations with out of town friends 7. Oatmeal with brown sugar and yellow raisins every morning 8. I love television and just got a wall mounted flat screen hdtv 9. Buying groceries only at the health food store 10. Jelly beans.
Thank you Pamela for sharing your world with decor8 readers... We look forward to seeing you more and more in the months to come - and hopefully someday, at Target, too! Best of success to you!
Psst: Pam also maintains a very candid blog.
Pamela Barsky's products are offered on her website as well as these fine online stores:
The fabulous Kelly at Buss Buss also interviewed Pamela, which I just discovered about 2 seconds ago. Kelly also has a great photo of Pamela and asked her a ton of great questions, so don't miss it! Click here to check it out.
Have any additional questions or comments for Pamela? Post them in the comments section below.
(images from pamela barsky)