Born out of frustration with what the actual decorating market had to offer The Citizenry isn’t your usual furniture shop. Exclusively online, Rachel and Carly’s little digital emporium offers home goods filled with stories and meaning.
Every piece of furniture is a modern, handcrafted piece designed to stand out against all the careless production taking over our world today. Country by country, the Texas-based duo collaborate with local artisans by blending modern style with traditional techniques while committing to providing fair wages, and happy working environments. Each item is handcrafted, hand numbered, and available only in limited quantities. Rachel shares her journey from idea to the final products as well as some tips and inspirations to start an ethical and meaningful business.
THE IDEA & THE MISSION
While decorating our houses, Carly and I noticed that there was a gap in the market. Today the offer in furniture and decoration is split in two. On one side there are the traditional retailers creating pieces in the millions that have no special meaning and more often than not are not of really high quality. On the other side, you have expensive boutiques with prices that are, unfortunately, most of the times unattainable for people in the late twenties, early thirties. So we started to ask ourselves why there was nothing in the middle. We were looking for high-quality, hand-crafted objects with a modern design sensibility and moderate prices. Through our researches, we found an opportunity in the way that most goods are imported. They typically go through a wholesaler or importer and, only after, then they are sent to the boutique. This way there is typically one or two (if not more) markups in that process so that the good has been marked up so much that it’s not affordable and good value anymore. That’s when we thought about going directly to the artisans and craftsmen.
CHALLENGING THE STATUS-QUO
By designing our own collections and selling online, we eliminate the traditional markups added by wholesalers and exporters. Even better, we are able to ensure that every dollar spent will support fair wages and direct investment into artisan entrepreneurs. With fair trade standards, artisans get the best wages for their skills. With no traditional markups, consumers get super premium products without super premium price tags and they’re able to do a bit of good as well. Our mission is simple yet ambitious – design and deliver modern home goods rich in quality and meaning, support artisan entrepreneurs around the world, and eliminate unnecessary retail markups along the way.
“Our mission is simple yet ambitious – design and deliver modern home goods rich in quality and meaning, support artisan entrepreneurs around the world, and eliminate unnecessary retail markups along the way”
Carly and I believe you are here for a reason, and you should contribute to the world as much as you possibly can with the gifts you have been given. We’ve have been blessed along the way and have had many opportunities and people helping us that we felt we needed to use what we have been given and give back as much as possible. We didn’t want to follow the status quo in business but to be leaders and continually question how the world should be and be a part of change as much as possible.
After countless hours of research and hundreds of miles exploring remote villages of Argentina and Peru, we found truly extraordinary designers and artisans to partner with for our first collection. Each of the eight communities we partner with has their own distinctive style and story, which will be told through film and photography on our website.
Our first trip to South America was all about going and meeting the groups of artisans at a higher level and picking the ones we were interested in working with. The second trip was about the product design and development. For the final trip, we took a photographer and a filmmaker (my husband) with us. Carly and I visited all the workshops for the last time and did all the photography and features for the website. That was a crazy and very intense schedule but a fascinating experience.
So far we are doing the design ourselves. We have partnered with different groups of craftsmen to collaborate on the design as we try to base the design on traditional patterns and traditional techniques. As an example, we worked with a group in Peru in Cusco near Machu Picchu that is very famous for the weaving techniques. They create insanely intricate patterns and draw inspiration from nature. Diamonds that you see throughout the patterns represent lakes, zig zag stripes represent a river and so on. They bring what they see around them to life in incredible ways. We worked with some of their designs and updated colors and shapes, but we always tried to be authentic to their the tradition as much as possible.
Each season, we’ll release a collection from a new corner of the globe, the next collection is being made right now in Uganda.
“We didn’t want to follow the status quo in business but to be leaders and constantly question how the world should be a part of change as much as possible”
ON ETHICAL BUSINESS
One of the things I was privileged to see at Columbia Business school was an amazing array of leaders in social enterprises and what they are pursuing in terms of blending business and nonprofits. I think there is a greater awareness about trying to do business in a way that is environmentally friendly. My hope is that you take that a step further and also think about how your business impacts all the stakeholders whether it’s your employee, your customers or your suppliers as well as the people that are impacted by how you make the product itself. This conversation is starting to happen, I think we have a long way to go and I wish they were more people at the top actively thinking about this. At the moment I think the percentage of entrepreneurs thinking about doing business in an environmentally friendly and more socially conscious way is still only of 5%. I wish it were close to 20%. I don’t think it will ever be the majority but I believe it can and should grow.
At The Citizenry we do everything in small batch. One of the things that is really important to us is that we don’t go and work with the artisans only once, place a big order and then leave. What we want is to create a regular, sustainable work for the artisans and build consistent relationships. Most of the big brands take the an approach that is damaging for the populations. As an example, in Peru we saw empty giant workshops that were left abandoned by big brands that came, placed insane orders for two years and then quit. They created this big economy around it that just fell apart when they left. I think that’s a horrible way of doing business.
Most of the groups we work with are family run workshops or cooperatives that depend on this work to survive. The smallest group we work with is 12 people and the largest one maybe eighty to one hundred. Sometimes it takes three weeks and a group of ten people to weave a rug, so it’s a long process. That’s something we try to showcase on our website and packaging, the amount of work and details that went into each piece.
FIND A COMPLEMENTARY PARTNER THAT MOTIVATES YOU
As far getting unstuck and staying motivated, it helps having a partner. Carly and I have known each other since beginning of college, and we had already started different projects together. We knew that we worked well together. She’s very much the creative personality and she’s always pushing to make everything perfect and beautiful and my job is to make sure things are made and at some point to say that’s gonna be good enough, let’s get going and handle the business.
BUILD CUSTOMER AWARENESS THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA AND INFLUENTIAL TASTEMAKERS
The way we think about is that the first step will be to build customer awareness, and we are focusing in partnering with influential tastemakers, people with great design blogs, digital publications that focus on design and home decor. We are planning to put a lot of effort into our social media once we launch to drive awareness. From here we will do some work around building engagement through referral programs and paid search that will hopefully help drive customer interest.
LOOKS WHAT IS BEING DONE ALREADY AND TAKE INSPIRATION
E-commerce these days, particularly in the US, has exploded and it’s such an exciting environment as there are so many interesting and innovative ideas to discover. Andy Dunn who founded Bonobos has created such an innovative marketing and phenomenal customer services, and it’s something we aspire to. Everlane is also an e-commerce site with just incredible design that I like and that inspires me.
READ, READ and READ
I read a lot of magazines and books. I love Fast Company, Collective Quarterly, Vanity Fair, Dwell, and ElleDecor. I love books on creating great customer experiences like “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, “Hug your Customers” by Jack Mitchell and “Peak” by Chip Conley.
Shop The Citizenry collection here
– As told to Francesca Mey
Images courtesy of The Citizenry