The basic stats: Nicole Steele from Paterson + Steele – a ceramics studio based in lovely Bangalow, 10 minutes from Byron Bay – which I run with my husband Wayne. We have one child, and a crazy pug dog named Bruce. I’m a graphic designer who had an epiphany in the form of chemotherapy and couldn’t face another crazy magazine deadline. I’m a combination of dual Gemini brain (keep up people!), and a dash of type A personality that constantly fights with the creative side of my brain.
I design and create handmade ceramics. The evolution from design to product design seemed natural enough – instead of creating something visually beautiful, I’m aiming to create a beautiful product that is tactile, that when people hold it, they can’t put it down – it draws their eye but connects through touch. A big part of what we do, is keeping everything we make Australian made. It’s a tough road sometimes but I’m finding more and more, it’s what attracts people to the products. The fact they are handmade makes each piece slightly unique, there is a story in each piece. I want people to be more in touch with what they are buying – buy less, but buy what you love, with love, and a considered approach – our products stand the test of time.
I think as a creative, you’re always absorbing on some level – we have so many things in front of us now, magazines, social media, google at our finger tips – it’s almost impossible not too. As a designer I’m trained to develop concepts but I try and be a bit more organic in my approach to the ceramics. Landscape plays a big part for me – desert tones, rocks, beach palettes and organic shapes. Experimentation is pretty much key in ceramics – happy accidents lead to new ideas.
At the end of 2014 I decided to apply for Finders Keepers markets and was accepted. The products were well received, so I applied for all six Finders Keepers markets for 2015. I made a promise to myself, if I was accepted, I would do them all. I already had a few stockists that had found me through Instagram, and I found at the markets, I was approached by even more retailers. This gave me the confidence to give wholesale much more thought.
I was a bit on the fence wondering how I would do it, being Australian-made with a small team, when I got the kick I needed in the form of friend, Jai from Ahoy Trader, who asked me to collaborate on pieces for his stand in Melbourne 2015. It was quite confronting putting yourself out there, but having someone like that who believed in what I was doing, and I could bounce off, was absolutely priceless.
I’ve always been arty – I was quite set on fine art in high school, until I realized I was probably going to starve, and switched to graphic design. Like most graphic designers, it almost seems inevitable after some time, in my case, 15 years, that the hours at the desk start to grind. I also needed some balance in my life – which is pretty ironic now – as I think I’m busier than ever!
Inspired by the ever-growing movement of handmade products, ceramics seemed like a natural step – and so many of my skills can be applied, from design to colour palette, etc. So I set about teaching myself anything and everything about ceramics. And the more I got into it, the more I loved it – it’s quite science-based, so my inner nerd was pretty happy!
Getting to create products every day that people respond to is a really lovely way to spend your time. Anyone who has ever dabbled in ceramics will tell you, opening that kiln door after a firing is pretty addictive – it’s either heartbreak or happiness! And obviously getting to be your own boss is pretty great and I work with some really great people.
Challenges are something all businesses face. What challenges have you and your business had to face and how did you overcome them?
Other businesses need to know they are not alone in their boat that is travelling up nowhere creek. They want to know you are handy with a paddle.
Time is a huge challenge for me. Up until recently I was still trying to manage some big brand clients with graphic design work, along with a fledging business, which was certainly growing but not enough to support me financially. I felt I was jack-of-all trades, master of none – I’ve had to learn to say no to people and really work out what I want and action it.
I now run Paterson + Steele full-time, and am about to renovate our retail space in Newrybar Merchants. Together with Nikki Pocock, we are developing a new retail concept called Nikau which not only is a great platform for my ceramics, but also gives us the opportunity to bring in like-minded brands and many other ceramic artists I admire. But it did take 4 years to get to this point, with lots of challenges along the way and I felt like I wasn’t doing everything fast enough. Now I make a list of priorities, and am learning to delegate when I can afford to.
To any business out there that is currently struggling, what hard hitting advice would you give them?
Work ethic is key – you are not going to get there unless you put in the hard yards sorry – missed weekends, lack of sleep, serious frustration when something doesn’t work for the sixteenth time, yes it sucks sometimes, but remember, you are working for you!
Find like-minded people and bounce, bounce, bounce! Find your tribe and discuss business – from ideas to freight to what systems they use – there is nothing like knowing other people are struggling with the small things just like you. Plus you might just make some amazing new friends in the process – the ones who will help you bump in and then drink tequila after (I’m looking at you Keep Resin)!
Ask everything and anything and collaborate! Do not die wondering – I have asked what I perceive as big name people to collaborate, help, and contribute to my business. Yes, some said no, but more said yes. Accept any no’s and move on – and celebrate the ones that say yes. But if you don’t ask, you don’t know.
Market your product – package up your product and send it to your favourite stylist, magazine etc – seriously, what’s the worst that can happen? They might not like it – but it could get a run, and then you’ll make a great connection.
Be kind to yourself – nothing is built overnight – everyone I know has worked bloody hard. Keep your eye on your goal with laser focus but don’t beat yourself up if things are taking a while – if you are feeling fried, take an afternoon off – binge watch Stranger Things, then refresh, reset and keep going.
And be yourself – be genuine, and enjoy and trust in the process. You did this for fun!
Image by Keep Resin
Triumphs are also a huge part of business life, they give us a reason to crack open the vino!
In many ways, I think having a business in a local community like Bangalow and the people I’ve met and the connections I’ve made through it, has been the sweetest triumph. Nothing beats a call up from a stylist or seeing your product in your favourite magazines – that thrills each and every time and I’m always incredibly grateful. Recently we were approved to stock Justina Blakeney’s wallpaper range for Nikau, which I used on the Life in Style stand – having your idol start following your instagram was a pretty sweet moment – I think I told anyone who would listen! And of course, the fact people choose to stock your product out of many, is always something to be celebrated.
If you were hosting a dinner party what 5 people would you invite and why?
OK, first of all, this will be catered right? I nominate 100 Mile Table please, tequila and bubbly.
1. The current incarnation of the Dalai Lama – let’s face it, kindness makes the world go round.
2. Jennifer Saunders – I’ve been re-watching the Ab Fab series lately and have more appreciation second time around of how clever and smart-as-a-whip the script writing is – way before it’s time – plus someone needs to bring the Bolly!
3. Adam Cullen – totally obsessed with his artwork – collecting bits and pieces when I can (afford them).
4. Frida Kahlo – Beautiful, smart, who despite her health issues, was incredibly stoic and is inspiring to this day.
5. Matt Smith – I’m a total Doctor Who nerd – sorry, not sorry – and would totally have kudos with my son.
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