Carving Her Own Path And Fast Pivots, A Mid-Pandemic Conversation With Melanie Abrantes

In many ways the Bay Area design community is tightly-knit. We’ve probably had pizza together at some West Coast Craft afterparty or commingled at a friend’s open studio. That’s definitely been the case for Melanie and I. But we have more in common than a shared creative community. We share a Brazilian cultural background and both know what it’s like to grow up as the daughter of hard-working immigrants.

When she reached out to me wanting to offer our aprons to her wood carving community, I knew I wanted to take this opportunity to get to know her better and to share her journey with you–one about an unintentional start to a business, learning on the job, and always meeting the moment as it is, with a great big smile (you know what I mean if you know Melanie).

I’m so excited to share this conversation with you. Here we go!

Photos by Lindsey Shea

Photos by Lindsey Shea

Geana: Could you give us a quick intro to what you do?

Melanie: I am a designer and woodworker based out of Oakland, California. And I make sustainable handmade goods for the home out of cork and wood. And I also do DIY spoon carving kits and teach workshops to promote and help people create with their hands. I’m also a managing member at JOIN Design, a collective of independent designers that come together to do pop-ups, trade shows, and events.

 

G: Did you always think you would be an entrepreneur, or did you think you would go in a different direction?

M: A little mixture of both. Growing up my dad was, I guess now it's called an entrepreneur. But growing up, I just thought he did too much. Pretty much he had his hands in everything. He was an insurance agent. He did so much random stuff. For instance, my freshman year of college, he bought a container full of bras from a company that went out of business, and our job that summer was to put all the bras up on eBay. It was ridiculous! He called us interns. Anyway, that being said, I feel like this was very much the training of my life, even though I did not know it.

I think having my own business was one of those things in the back of my mind that I always wanted to do, but didn't really understand that until I started working in the industry. I always admired the fact that my dad would have his own schedule, that he could do his own thing even though he worked really hard. My parents are immigrants. I think we talked about this before, but my dad's from Brazil and my mom is Filipino. They have a very, very strong work ethic. I would always see them working hard, but also, I really enjoyed the fact that if we had a day off, he could take the day off with us.

Also, I had a teacher when I was in college. Her name was Tanya Aguiñiga. She was a huge influence on me wanting to have my own business because it's one thing to see a male be successful in business. But it's another thing to see a creative female. The last couple of years of college, me and my closest friends interned with her. She was just so much fun. She was able to create a community through owning a business. It was just really cool to see that, and definitely influenced me to think that if one day I wanted to have my own designs, I could potentially sell them because she showed me that you could. I would definitely say not intentionally, but she did that.

My boyfriend at the time ended up buying my LLC as a gift to encourage me to continue. I was just making stuff on my own because I really missed making with my hands. And so that was his Christmas gift one year.

G: You went to design school, right? Was it a natural transition from college to starting your own design studio/business?

M: I attended Otis College of Art and Design in L. A. and I studied product design there. At the time when I graduated, it was really close to the recession in 2008. There weren't a lot of jobs in product design. So I ended up taking a graphic design position at a design consulting firm named Karen Kimmel Studios. She was also a huge influence on my work because I was able to see another woman that was successful with her business. But essentially, I did graphic design for about two years out of college. But I didn't feel like I was able to grow in that, and it wasn't really what I wanted to do. At the end of the day, I wanted to make products. I was satisfied for a long time, but eventually I decided to do my own thing. And when I did start my business, it wasn't intentional either.

My boyfriend at the time ended up buying my LLC as a gift to encourage me to continue. I was just making stuff on my own because I really missed making with my hands. And so that was his Christmas gift one year. Eventually I did West Coast Craft and I was able to sell my stuff there, and I realized people actually did want to buy it, which is really exciting for a small maker and designer that hasn’t really built the confidence yet–that’s your biggest fear. At the time, I was already thinking about moving up from L.A. to the Bay Area. So, when I moved up here, I was thinking I was going to do freelance graphic design for a while, but actually just ended up starting the business.

G: It’s so interesting to hear your story because my business started in a similar way. I was making things, and at some point in the process of making and selling to satisfy a creative need, realized that people wanted what I was making. I think in the Bay Area, especially, with tech startup culture, I feel like we don’t hear these stories as much.

M: Yeah, it was not intentional. Honestly, at the point when I joined a community wood shop in L.A., I was literally dreaming of turning. I missed wood-working so much and being in a wood shop. I just missed designing and actually creating pieces. I was making stuff just for me and maybe to gift to people who I thought would like what I was making.

 

G: You mentioned a little bit about your family and your parents being immigrants. How do you answer the question “where are you from?”

M: I grew up in Houston, Texas, actually just outside of Houston. I'm from a city called Sugar Land (that’s the real name). It's actually an incredibly diverse city. I think in 2012, we were the most diverse city in America because we have equal parts Asian, Black, White, Hispanic, which is pretty rare. But the only difference is that compared to here in California–because I feel like it's obviously very diverse in the Bay Area–in Sugar Land, a majority of people were recent immigrants. All the kids I grew up with were children of immigrants. Here, there are more second or third generation families. I will forever remember when I came to California for the first time, I was walking around downtown L.A. and I heard an older Asian woman without an accent. I did a double take because I had never actually heard that before.

So yeah, that’s where I grew up. I lived there until I was 18 and moved to California for college.

I’m grateful that I'm really fast on making things happen. I saw “Oh, there’s a situation where all these things I had planned can’t happen, but now my schedule is free.”

G: I remember a few years ago during a group pop-up you mentioned that the economy would be bad enough in a couple of years that home goods brands like yours would experience a drop in sales or more challenging times. Knowing that, do you feel you were prepared for this? Do you remember that?

M: No, I don’t remember! I would say something that negative though–just imagining myself. To be honest, I have been feeling that way, and I have probably talked about it. I don't specifically remember that conversation, but I feel like it's been obvious at least as far as the trade shows go how much slower it’s been for home goods.

I do think I have been unintentionally, but intentionally doing more direct to customer with my business. And I think it has helped me a lot especially with what's happening right now. But mostly because we get to have a direct connection with our customers, which I know you love. I've seen you do all the farmers markets and stuff where you're able to directly communicate with people. I think there is something really powerful about that. I think wholesale is great in the sense that you’re able to sell in multiple areas, it gets your name out there, and at least for me, I was able to sustain my business that way. But it’s limiting since I still make about 90% of my product.

I think ultimately, I'm trying to figure out the best way for my business to be sustainable, in the sense of it continuing as long as possible. I think I'm just trying to figure out the best way for my business to function. It’s all very personal, right? You do whatever works for you and your audience and the people that like your stuff.

 

G: What’s been the hardest aspect of the pandemic for you?

M: To be honest, for me, I am someone that loves to plan. I love to get on the calendar as soon as possible what I'm going to be doing. I think the pandemic was hard because I had all these things planned this year, and I was so excited. I like to be able to know or potentially foresee the future. Like I was saying, I was trying to do less wholesale and I was trying to go more into trade. I had planned to go to Milan this year for Milan Design Week. That was going to be huge. I had all of these ideas and it all had to go on hold. That was really hard. Especially because before we even found out or really understood how much the pandemic was going to put a pause on things, I invested a lot of money on a photoshoot, a lot of my time, and pretty much six months of planning. 

A lot of what I do to help sustain my business, I do as a group, through JOIN. It was really hard and I felt so bad. It was so disappointing to have to tell a group of people that all of the plans that we had, had to be put on pause. That's definitely been really hard for me. Figuring out what to do.

From there, I would say, I’m an incredible extrovert. So being alone was really hard. Yeah, a lot of long conversations with friends on the phone. I would have them on speaker while doing things. That was my way of feeling like someone was around. But yeah, it was pretty lonely.

 

G: What are you doing to satisfy or relieve your need for planning and structure right now since planning continues to be so challenging?

M: I’m grateful that I'm really fast on making things happen. I saw “Oh, there’s a situation where all these things I had planned can’t happen, but now my schedule is free.” I took a couple of weeks to enjoy myself. As much as running a business is so much work and is very, very draining. It also is very invigorating to figure out different ways to make it work. So I was seeing that on my instagram and social media, there was an insane amount of action. Everyone was on the phone at that point. I kind of took that opportunity to make it the most of the situation. I started doing classes, which helped with my love of planning. I was able to start doing classes for groups, and that also helped with my need of seeing people. Of course, that’s why I like to teach classes in the first place. I got to see people carving–which is why I'm so excited to have your aprons. But of course, it was all on Zoom. 

I think people were really taking the time to look for good quality tools and wanted to work with their hands. They were spending all this time alone. I knew there was an opportunity there for me, but it was such a different direction because so much focus had been on my home goods products. Carving is its own thing that did its own work. I was able to introduce five or six different blanks and kits in the past 5-6 months. Each one has been super successful. I wasn't expecting that at all. It's been really helpful. I've been able to keep my assistant working with me and continue life as normal as I possibly can, even though, obviously things aren't normal. It kept my business going in a really positive way.

I definitely felt guilty at times about that since a lot of people were not in that same boat. But I think a lot of it had to do with jumping super fast on online shit and immediately figuring out ways to keep people engaged.

Now having my business for six years, I know what people want, and I have a good understanding of it. But when you first start, you don't have any of those numbers, and you don't have any idea what people want, you could invest in one thing and then it could be a flop.

G: What’s the most challenging thing about running a small design studio?

M: To be honest, I'm not 100% great with, um, money. I've tried to get a couple of loans before, but I come up against all the things that a banker would want. I'm a woman. I'm young. I have a small business. I don't have business credit. It took me a while to even be able to get a business credit card, under the business name specifically. A lot of that was really mixed between my personal and my business. Every year my plan is to separate it more, but it's still intertwined.

And there are moments when no sales come in. What am I gonna do at that point? How am I going to continue paying for my rent and paying for people to work for me? How am I going to buy inventory again? That balance and that game–I didn't go to business school–I don't really have that mindset. It's a lot more intuition. Now having my business for six years, I know what people want, and I have a good understanding of it. But when you first start, you don't have any of those numbers, and you don't have any idea what people want, you could invest in one thing and then it could be a flop. Or what would happen is that I would invest in one thing, it would be a flop, and then it would be successful two years later, which is also really hard because at that point the money is gone.

And also, it takes time for a business to grow. And I don’t think I realized how long that process takes. The longer I'm around, the more I feel secure about all those things. But that was definitely one of my biggest fears when I was starting up and today especially. Exactly like that question you asked earlier. Like, who needs a really fancy canister right now? Not a lot of people when they don't have jobs. So I'm just trying to focus on the more functional things and things I see that people are showing interest in and really going with that market while also staying true to my values in being sustainable and trying create in a way that I would be really proud of.

Besides that, I think just knowing it's not going to always be that way, right? Taking one step at a time and knowing that if it sucks, there is a solution for it. It May not be the one you like, but it will get you out of whatever you're not happy with. So that's always been helpful.

 

G: In these moments, who are the people, what are the tools, or the psychological resilience that helps you through the more challenging moments?

M: Honestly, I feel like it’s my sister. If I’m angry, upset about a certain situation, or feel like I've been wronged in some way I'll give her a call. So she works for my family's business. My parents have a steakhouse in Houston so she also understands the basics of having a business. We're each other’s business therapists. We'll call each other and she’ll be like “am I being unreasonable?” And I'll be like, “no, no, no, I think that makes total sense." And the same goes for me if I feel like someone is doing something similar. She's that extra voice or that person that's able to give me reasoning. And she's really good at it. She doesn't come at it–of course she’s always supporting me–but if she thinks I'm wrong, she'll tell me. That has been really incredibly helpful.

I think JOIN has been super helpful in seeing so many people every season at trade shows. It feels like summer camp. It really helps knowing that everyone is going through a struggle of some sort, and you're not alone. Having that community has always been number one for me because I'm able to feel like, “okay, you didn’t upload all those products for that launch on time. I’m not the only one.” Having a creative community of people I personally admire as amazing designers who are also on the same boat, is huge.

Besides that, I think just knowing it's not going to always be that way, right? Taking one step at a time and knowing that if it sucks, there is a solution for it. It May not be the one you like, but it will get you out of whatever you're not happy with. So that's always been helpful.

G: I wonder if that's something you picked up from your parents as hardworking immigrants.

M: Oh, totally. You can't quit. I think that is part of it. Yes, they have overcome so much and I know all for us, me and my siblings, to be successful (in their eyes of what successful is). But yeah, that is very true.

 

G: What is the rest of 2020 look like for you?

M: Currently, I am feeling, I was just telling my sister, I am feeling invigorated because, JOIN is starting to do stuff again. We're doing talks this upcoming month. I've been thinking about what we can do to help each other out because it breaks my heart to see so many small businesses close. People that I really admired and really thought that they were doing such great work. So, it makes me happy to be able to be supportive in some small way. We’re working with a company called Candid to be able to do a virtual trade show. 

This weekend I have a photo shoot and I'm going to do it all on carving. I just completely pivoted. Last year I thought this was all going to be about really big pieces like sculpture work, and doing stuff for hotels, which doesn't matter now, but that was the idea. Focusing on carving has been really fun, actually. So the photoshoot this year is going to be all about carving and carving in quarantine. Because it was so inspiring to see everyone making with their hands that I just wanted to honor that in some way. It’s been amazing to see how people are carving out time for themselves (no pun intended) to have that moment of self reflection that I think we all had at the beginning of quarantine.

Yes, so that's the goal and what I have planned. Hopefully people will continue to want that. I think that's all I can hope for. And 2021? I have no idea. I have nothing planned, which is so unlike me. It's a little bit exciting to think that it's so open, but also it's just like, "Oh, my God, this is wild.” Every month is different. And honestly, I'll feel a lot better once we figure out what the fuck is happening in office. If I put too much thought behind it, I think I will get depressed. I just have to keep moving forward. That's how I'm functioning to be honest. One step at a time because it is a lot to understand and figure out.

G: True. Thank you for the gems of wisdom and thank you for sharing your story with us. I’m so excited you’re offering our aprons now to your carving community. I hope your customers love them!

Stay in touch with Melanie:

Website/Shop
Instagram
JOIN Design