Coastal Maine is a busy, bustling place in the summer, and downtown Camden demonstrated it on a recent morning as tourists stood near crosswalks, visitors filled restaurants for lunch and parking lots were jammed.
On a side street, the space Jo Ellen Stammen and her daughter Jessica Stammen have created for their home decor shop provided a respite from the noise and crowds. It’s as sunny and clean, as calm and quiet, as an art gallery.
In fact, judging from the items hanging on the walls, perched on tables, and even the tables themselves, Jo Ellen Designs is, in a way, a gallery of hand-hooked wool rugs, throw pillows and painted furniture designed by Jo Ellen Stammen, and of Jessica Stammen’s paintings.
The mother-daughter team recently opened the ground-floor shop in the former Knox Mill. The startup was a lot of work for the duo, who have much more traditional artistic backgrounds and little business experience.
But in the year since they teamed up, the Camden residents are already a success, thanks to a combination of unusual, eye-catching designs, market research, computer instruction, tough lessons in international manufacturing, and a little bit of luck. The pair has established a charity-conscious shop that is growing in popularity both in Maine and on the national scene.
Jo Ellen Designs’ items can be found in stores from as near as Northeast Harbor and as far as the Washington, D.C., area.
“She’s just doing what she loves,” Jessica Stammen said of her mother’s work. “People have really responded.”
The Stammens’ first space was hardly so light and airy. When they started selling rugs wholesale last year, the two were working out of the family’s basement.
One year later, the former mill space is their one-stop shop. They’re selling retail, shipping wholesale, updating their Web site, and even creating in the new space. One recent afternoon, Jessica said, the two were working in the store when they started to paint the store’s countertop.
The two have also taken to painting the tops of tables Jo Ellen designed herself.
It’s a long way from the kind of art they’re both used to creating. Jo Ellen Stammen is an award-winning children’s book illustrator. Her daughter studied art in New York City college and graduate schools, and is an up-and-coming painter in her own right. Tim Stammen, Jo Ellen’s son and Jessica’s brother, is in college studying jewelry making and metalworking.
Jo Ellen Stammen said she had always painted the apartment and homes in which she’d lived but had never thought about home decor as a business. When her children started high school and college, however, she found herself with a lot of time on her hands — especially as she started to hear the market for children’s books was slowing down. She began to experiment with cut-paper designs, about which she learned a lot on the Internet, and took her work to different craft shows around Maine.
Doing designs with cut paper led to the rugs and throw pillows. Jo Ellen Designs now offers more than a dozen patterns in throw pillows and rugs, and a variety of rug sizes.
But a home-decor business isn’t merely about design. Jessica and Jo Ellen Stammen took adult education classes to learn how to make a Web site and keep financial records. They consulted with Wiscasset-based Coastal Enterprises Inc., which helps small businesses in Maine.
They also added small accent items, such as bowls, benches, and decorative brooms, to the shop.
The team’s increasing business acumen led them to a big decision about the manufacturing of their goods. Instead of having the rugs and pillows made in the U.S., Jo Ellen Designs is working with a factory in China, north of Shanghai.
The Stammens are well aware of the stigma that has developed over Chinese manufacturing because of child labor, low wages and poor factory conditions in Chinese factories. Some customers, Jo Ellen said, won’t even look at merchandise that’s made in China.
But the Stammens researched different factories and eventually found a man from the U.S. who was living in China and who connected them with the 5,000-worker factory north of Shanghai. The business produces 5 million square feet of fabric per year, a number which now includes Jo Ellen Designs’ own pieces.
“He sends us pictures and we see the process,” Jo Ellen Stammen said. “Not that [the factory issues] are OK, but my gosh, we revealed it, put up a stink about it, and they’re working to get rid of it. I know hearing from other vendors, it’s starting to cost more [to produce in China] because they’re more aware of the [abuses]. Eventually the costs will come up so fast that we might have to come back here.”
Manufacturing in China keeps Jo Ellen Stammen on a par with her competitors, who are also working with factories in China and India. The Stammens’ 6-by-9-foot rugs, which cost $766, would cost thousands of dollars more if they were made in the U.S.
The company’s biggest challenge now is trying to get the colors right between Jo Ellen’s designs in Camden and the factory in China. Color samples fly back and forth between the two entities, and the Stammens were expecting their first full container shipment to come into Boston at the end of this month.
“Each order has been done better,” Jo Ellen Stammen said. “They’re getting used to me as a designer and I’m getting used to them.”
Zebra Chili heats up
On a recent afternoon, Jo Ellen Stammen stood with a clipboard tucked into the crook of her elbow, chatting with prospective clients.
But this wasn’t in Maine; she was representing the company at the massive New York International Gift Festival, held in the Javits Convention Center in New York City. It was the company’s third appearance at the international festival, which draws thousands of business people, both as exhibitors and potential buyers.
A year earlier, it took a stroke of luck to get into the show the first time. Mother and daughter had filled out an application on a whim, sent photos and called festival organizers regularly. A few days before that show, the call came.
“So we were in,” Jo Ellen said. “We packed everything hurriedly into the car. We can’t say we had a very good showing because we didn’t have our own lighting and it was basically a trial run, but we got some orders and got great response. The thing is, if you get a booth, you take it whether you’re ready or not because then you’re in.”
A few weeks ago, it was just Jo Ellen Stammen at the festival.
This time she was prepared. Her small square of the convention center was covered, temporary wall to concrete floor, in rugs and pillows. She displayed her usual array of designs, but no one pattern drew in potential clients like Jungle Jam.
The design is an array of animals drawn in a childlike-style against a purple background. Many people assume the designer was riffing on caveman drawings when she created it, but Jo Ellen’s goal was simply to be whimsical.
“Definitely in the children’s book area I did people stories, but the animal stories always stayed in print much longer,” she said. “So I knew I had a connection. When I did my research I saw there weren’t a whole lot of animal rugs out there and that would set me apart.”
The Zebra Chili rug — with the striped equines against a deep-red background — is the root of Jungle Jam. It was featured in the July-August issue of Home Magazine and Jo Ellen Designs has twice sold out of the runner-sized piece.
The Home Magazine mention “brought in some new retail accounts and orders all over the country,” Jo Ellen Stammen said. “We had an order from Alaska, which is funny because you wouldn’t think of [zebras] as being in Alaska, but it’s great.”
Jo Ellen finds most of her inspiration in nature. Her rugs are packed with plants and animals, but some are so cleverly designed that it takes a minute to decipher what’s what.
There’s also a narrative quality to some of the patterns. The Fox and Vine design, for example, depicts foxes eating grapes and rabbits hiding in the vines.
“I think it’s the illustrative, narrative quality of design coming out from her children’s books,” Jessica Stammen said.
The designs have appealed to a varied clientele. Interior decorators and the bed-and-breakfast crowd have gravitated her way, but so have wine shop owners who appreciate the vines and grapes in the designs, and pet shop owners who get a kick out of the animals.
Of course, the colors also draw people. Jo Ellen Stammen’s rugs and pillows are bright and fun with a lot of intense reds, sage green, blacks, pinks, sky blues, and the deep purple that serves as a background for Jungle Jam.
“They say in any line, you do what you know and now worry about the trends,” Jo Ellen Stammen said. “Generally [the designs] are fun. They’re not serious like a traditional Oriental.”
Before the Home Magazine mention, Jo Ellen Designs was also a topic on NBC’s Today Show last December. An item on the Web site Casasugar.com about the company’s designs has had 2,554 views since December.
The Stammens are pleased to have the attention not only for their rugs and pillows but also for their Designs for Good program, which sets aside $10 from the sale of every rug for different charities. They also donate 10 percent of their profits to charity.
Each design is paired with a charity. The Singing Vine Blue design, for example, benefits The Smile Train, an international cleft-palate charity. And as the company adds items — some of those painted tables could be on the market soon — and different-sized rugs (an 8-by-11-foot piece is planned), it will continue to add charities.
There’s a chance Jessica Stammen, who has put aside her own painting for the time being, could become more involved in the artistic side of the business, although she prefers to stick with unique pieces rather than mass-produced items.
“I ask her all the time but she says it’s not her cup of tea,” her mother said.
“I like the one-of-a-kind thing, that’s what I do,” Jessica Stammen said. “When she’s painting the tables, I can get into that a little bit because it’s going to be one-of-a-kind. That’s more my thing.”
“But the offer’s there,” her mother added.
“I know,” Jessica Stammen replied. “Most of the time it’s like, can you help me? That’s what I say when I’m balancing the books.”