Peta Misbrener is a graphic designer and ceramicist based in the Blue Mountains. Three months ago, when Peta ended her role as a senior graphic designer in Sydney, she decided to focus full-time on the development of her own business, based on transferring her illustrations onto ceramics. Since making that decision, Elm Design has experienced rapid growth with stockists ranging from small boutique stores throughout the country to the National Gallery in Canberra. There is now interest in both Europe and the UK.
Interview by Eliza Muldoon
What inspired you to make the leap into establishing your own arts business?
For years I commuted to Sydney to work, during that time I began establishing my own business part-time. I had always wanted to focus on it full-time, but it just felt too risky- it actually still does to some extent. When I was made redundant from that role it seemed that it was time to take a leap of faith.
There a few reasons why taking the leap appealed to me, one was that I really wanted to get away from sitting in front of a computer all day long. I love getting my hands dirty and I love illustrating. Ceramics offered a perfect balance between the two. Another reason is that the finished pieces are pretty quirky and imperfect, quite a contrast to my previous design role where everything had to be perfect. Quirky and imperfect is how I like it.
What suite of business skills do you need as an artisan?
I’m essentially a creative person so developing the business aspect has required a steep learning curve. Being a trained illustrator and graphic designer with a background in marketing has certainly helped a lot. I’ve been able to do all my design, marketing, web design and print work myself.
I do all of my own accounts, so that has meant developing and managing my own invoicing, banking and taxation systems, recently I realised that I also have to chase up my outstanding accounts. In addition to the financial aspects I’ve also had to learn about health and safety, handling customer enquiries, media relations (for social and print media), recruitment, staff management, quality control and selling via online marketplaces, trade shows and direct wholesale.
How have you learnt those skills?
My ceramic skills have been largely self-taught. I have had to do a lot of research into image transferring and printing processes in order to create the products that I do. There weren’t really hands on courses that taught what I wanted to learn so the internet has been my school.
My business skills developed in part through observing others in my previous workplaces. I am better at learning that way than through sitting through workshops and training. Because it has all happened so quickly I have had to learn a lot as I go, sometimes I just wing it. I also ask friends that have small businesses for their advice. I have realised that you shouldn’t be afraid of asking for help.
With hindsight I now wish I had done things like attending trade shows to see what others are doing, how they promote them, what manufacturing processes they use and whether they make locally or overseas.
What have been the most unexpected aspects of your business?
I wasn’t expecting such a positive response and I certainly wasn’t expecting the rapid rate of growth Elm Design has experienced. I’ve realised that although it is still a very small business it has a lot of potential. It really has taken on a life and direction of its own.
A less positive aspect is that I wasn’t prepared for how much it would cost to set everything up, the cost of equipment: tools, clay, kiln and marketing materials. I had to cover the costs by supplementing savings from my previous graphic design income and eventual (small) redundancy with a bank loan.
How has working from your own home in the Blue Mountains benefitted or inhibited your business development (aside from the issue of having a toddler and ceramics studio under the same roof)?
One of the biggest benefits is that I have a studio and all the space that I need. That’s something I couldn’t have had at this stage of my business if I had lived in the city. I think it would have taken 5 years to get to that point if I was Sydney based. I like the slower pace of the lifestyle up here too. It gives me more freedom, both mentally and physically, to create.
Working from home is a logistical challenge. I juggle. I spend five hours out in the studio every day, then at night I work on the things that can be done inside the house, such as applying illustrations to my pieces and all the computer- based work. I don’t have a solid routine yet, but I’m hoping that will come soon.
The only thing inhibiting about being in the mountains is the weather, my pieces dry a lot slower than they would in a warmer, drier climate.
Finally, what have been the rewards?
The greatest reward has been when people look at the pieces and they laugh- they get it. That’s all I want.