How to Design Your Own Product Line

Yesterday I attended a talk at the Design & Decoration building called “The Do’s and Don’ts of Designing Your Own Product Line.” The panel of speakers included interior designer Vincente Wolf, licensing expert Kate Verner, and Creative Director of Ebonista Lee Poole. As interior designers, bloggers, authors, and small business owners, we’re very interested in learning more about how to create a sustainable product line. I have a feeling we’re not the only ones curious about how to go about making product, so I thought I would share my notes from the seminar here. Below are a few images of some of the beautiful rooms by the talk’s featured designer, Vincente Wolf. vwfeatWolf began by giving the audience a little background into his foray into product development. He has always loved to travel to Asia, and the first real “product” that he sold was flatware that he bought in Thailand and imported to the US in the 80’s. He then started making and selling his own china, and from there got his first big licensing deal with Henredon. While Wolf admits he sort of stumbled into product after years of working as an interior designer, he stressed the importance of finding the right partner. He said, “Don’t go with people just because they are asking you. Just because you are pursued by a company doesn’t mean their brand is aligned with your brand.”vw3An important distinction was made at the beginning of the talk that I think is worth mentioning. There are three different ways interior designers can create and get involved with product: private label, licensed collections, custom pieces. Private label essentially means you do everything; from building the prototype to advertising and marketing, it’s all you. While private label can give a designer great creative control, its downside is that you are responsible for funding the venture yourself. A licensed collection means that you are creating intellectual property for an establish brand that manages and finances everything from the sample manufacturing to the public relations. Custom pieces are one-offs, or pieces that many designers produce on a weekly basis for private clients. Kate Verner, the licensing expert, encourages interior designers who want to eventually create a product line to catalog all of the custom pieces they make for clients; this body of work eventually becomes the basis for your product line, or at the very least, a way for you to show potential partners what your aesthetic looks like.  vw2Who gets licensing deals? Verner stressed the fact that brands are looking to partner with designers who are visible on blogs, in magazines, and of course, on Bravo (wink). What should a designer look for in a potential manufacturing partner? First and foremost, someone who understands your aesthetic. You also want to find out upfront how much money they are putting into the quality of the pieces, the work force, and sales people. It’s important to ask how they plan on marketing your product and what types of media relationships are already intact. What showroom will your product sell in? Will it be sold to the trade or at retail? What will the product catalog look like? All important questions to ask a potential partner. vw5On what types of products are “easiest” to start off with: Verner believes getting your feet wet with rugs and textiles is the best way to go. Both are usually made to order so there is no inventory to go to waste. The worst product to go into? Surprisingly, candles! Apparently candles are a very competitive market.  One of the last points that all of the speakers agreed upon is that when creating a product line, it’s easier to start with a high-end line and create a lower, more mass market line later on. If you start mass market, it’s often difficult to go more high-end. Mass market (unless you are Isaac Mizrahi or Martha Stewart) tends to be highly trend driven and “of the moment.” Wolf remarked, “If you do a line with Target, you’re not going to be there for long.” Target-like stores can be great for brand awareness, but selling product at big box stores doesn’t guarantee longevity for your line. Lastly, Verner emphasized that product lines in today’s world are usually not big money makers (I know, our bubble was burst too), but more about branding, and setting your business up to eventually be sold or to licensing to someone bigger.

(Images via Elle Decor, Architectural Digest, Lonny)

  • Kate Premo

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m so glad you attended the panel, and that you found it engaging and helpful!
    Kate Premo (the moderator, not the other Kate! 😉 )

  • CourtneyOutLoud

    Such good information and overview. I am now going to go through all my designs and start collecting the custom pieces so I can create a portfolio specifically of them.