Editor’s note: In preparation for International Women’s Day, we’re taking a trip to a few lady-owned studios around NYC to chat with them about their life and their work.
Amy Stringer-Mowat’s Brooklyn studio feels homey in a way that makes it immediately apparent that her business is an extension of her home and her personal life. She dedicates the kind of care and attention to each piece as if they were being made for her own family and her own home.
Amy and her husband, Bill, started American Heirloom not with profit in mind, but the desire to share the joy of handmade pieces with their friends and family. After creating state-shaped cutting boards for their wedding reception, Amy + Bill saw how much everyone loved them and knew they might be onto something. In 2011, they fashioned their first trademark and American Heirloom was officially born. Now, the business has grown to include cake stands, cupcake stands, etched cutting boards, barware, and much more. They have become innovators and pioneers in several aspects of the wood manufacturing and finishing processes and are proud to push the envelope in any way they can.
While American Heirloom has begun outsourcing portions of their overall production, the designs have all remained in house—something that Amy is very proud to take on herself. She believes strongly in the representation of women in the graphic design and engineering fields and says she’s loved seeing more women taking on these roles and hopes this trend continues. Bill owns a fabrication studio in Bushwick not far from American Heirloom’s studio in The Brooklyn Navy Yard. This allows the couple to work both separately and together, which makes prototyping easy keeps some parts of the production close to home. This also allows for Amy to experiment and play with new designs often without fear of wasted production cost.
Tour this adorable studio space below and hear more from Amy about some of the challenges of owning a small business and where she gets inspired to create.
Meet American Heirloom!
Next Saturday, March 3rd we are hosting a west elm LOCAL Women Makers Market in the lobby of Empire Stores in Brooklyn from 11am-5pm. Ten of the inspiring women that power our New York LOCAL assortment, including American Heirloom, will be setting up shop for the day to sell their product. Join us!
Photography by Lindsey Swedick
Please tell us a little about yourselves and your work.
We founded American Heirloom (formerly AHeirloom) in January of 2011 with our brand’s now iconic state-shaped cutting boards.
When Bill and I were planning our wedding in 2010, we wanted to create a personalized and sentimental way to display cheese during the reception. I remember asking Bill to make these cutting boards for our cheese display at his Brooklyn fabrication company and he took my digital files and made them a reality the morning of our wedding. He took the best man to the shop to sand and finish them and made it to the altar by 3 pm to get married! Coupling my love of food, design and housewares with Bill’s experience in project management and fabrication, we created a cutting board in the shape of each of our home states (Michigan and Connecticut) with a heart over our hometowns. Inspired by the new heirloom we created for this significant life celebration, we established American Heirloom in early 2011.
Today, American Heirloom is a housewares brand that creates a wide array of personalized, timeless home décor and entertaining products for life’s celebrations. Best known for our signature cutting boards in all fifty states and international countries, the brand has expanded to offer numerous home décor and gift products including beautifully-made cake stands, serving trays, coffee accessories, cocktail tools and much more—all designed to celebrate life’s significant moments and daily rituals equally. Pairing innovative, digital manufacturing techniques with timeless, approachable design, we forge modern tools to help you commemorate your day-to-day experiences with food, friends and family. I manage the day-to-day operation and Bill handles the logistics and manufacturing strategies. He runs another company in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn so my time is mostly spent in the Navy Yard with my team.
You started American Heirloom somewhat serendipitously. Tell us about that.
I lost my job in early 2010 during the recession and had a fair amount of time on my hands, so I opened up an online shop. I took some decent photos and very soon after opening my shop, our state-shaped cutting boards went viral. They were featured on lots of really great blogs, in holiday gifts guides and a few times on TV, so the brand grew quickly in the first two years. I feel like we modernized the state shaped cutting board concept. Coming from Michigan, I originally thought there had to be a two pieces Michigan cutting board on the market somewhere… right? In reality, people had only done the lower peninsula and not added the upper peninsula. I really feel like this board put us on the map if you will, as it was made of two pieces and it could be personalized with a heart, house or star on the town of your choice. We definitely hit a trend right out the gate, but it was truly after many years of hard work and lots of little projects for ourselves that we ended up with a product that could sustain a real business and had mass appeal.
Quality in craftsmanship and sustainability is at the forefront of your business. What have been some of the challenges with sourcing and designing everything in-house and what innovations have made this process easier over time?
Being self-reliant is certainly a challenge, but we have been working on our manufacturing techniques for quite awhile now and we know when we actually need to outsource a part and when we can handle production fully in house. We have several US-based manufacturing partners that have helped us grow and expand our designs. It helps that we use 3D computer programs to draft, sculpt and refine our products. We can generate design drawings rather quickly and can decide what is working and what isn’t right then and there. It helps to also have access to our laser cutters regularly for templates, looking at patterns and making models of new projects.
Where do you seek inspiration for each design?
The four C’s as I call them—heese, cocktails, cake, and coffee! I am obsessed with food culture and it has been the preparation and presentation of food that has inspired me the most over the years. I am also very influenced by digital technologies, like laser cutting, 3D printing and CNC routing. I learned a fair amount about these new ways of making in graduate school and they have carried me professionally since. Learning how to make things with digital processes has been vital to my design work and has allowed me to innovate with form as we release new product lines.
Tell us about your studio space.
I’ve had our Brooklyn Navy Yard office for almost 5 years and it has changed from a co-working space of three, to a shared space of two, to our main office three years ago. It’s small, but it’s like a second home to me now. It’s shifted and accommodated our business as we’ve grown, changed direction, added laser cutters, added staff… and it’s always worked. It’s currently in version 5.0 and I plan to make it more of a design studio next and less of a production space. The light in the space is amazing and that has always helped with the photography of our products over the years. We have a great view which isn’t something you can get in Brooklyn very easily. It feels special and it’s usually quiet aside from production. The Brooklyn Navy Yard has also grown and is so much a part of our studio. There is a really a great energy these days as new businesses are setting up shop here. We’ve got some great makers in our building like Rose from Great Lakes Goods, Tracey Tanner, and Atelier Atsuyo et Akiko. It’s been great to share resources with them and also have people to chat with about the state of retail in Brooklyn.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I have two children aged 1 and 6, so my work day typically starts at 6:30am when everyone gets up. Before I actually get to the office, I check email, then breakfast is made, lunch for school, diapers, dressing two kids, meeting our sitter and out the door. I walk to work so a second cup of coffee is collected on the way. Once I get to the office, it’s emails all the way till about 10am, then work with our small production team to get the week’s orders made and shipped. We tend to ship daily, but have a general sense of everything we need from the previous week in our production notes. I generally coordinate photo-shoots, have meetings and working with our social media and content team who are all remote in the afternoon. We are also pushing for a more traditional approach to our design work this year. The time spent at the office is pretty exciting as we are starting to reach out to new manufacturing partners and have our new work realized in new ways. Three days a week, I have to run to school pick up by 2:30 and then I start my other job. Thankfully, I have two longer days during the week to finalize projects and stay on task. Generally after the kids go to sleep, I get back in front of the computer again and put another two hours in. It’s a hustle, but the flexibility allows me to spend as much time with our kids as possible, which is super important to me. My days are somewhat methodical and similar, but we need this routine to keep everything moving forward.
What, in your experience, have been the biggest challenges in starting and sustaining your own business?
We have been in business for about 7 years now and the challenges have certainly changed from the start to where we are now. In the beginning it was keeping up with demand and staying on top of production. Added into that mix was an intense amount of customer services as we offer a made-to-order, custom product. We have survived seven solid holiday seasons and managed to maintain a high level of brand satisfaction. Thankfully, we started off with a very popular product and the enthusiasm for the state shaped cutting boards fueled our growth monetarily. Now we find ourselves in a very crowded marketplace that is driven by new marketing techniques like social media, so we have to stay on top of where and how our current customers find us and how to meet new customers. It’s really about constant contact and generating new work to keep up with content. Alongside the making of new and interesting work, the current challenge is finding partners to help with our expansion and meeting the right price points to maintain the quality of the work as well. Personally, I am up for the challenge, as seven years in school for architecture is the ultimate boot camp for running a small business! There are so many moving parts and unknowns that you get used to not necessarily knowing what’s next, but persistently looking to find a solution.
What is it like being a maker in America right now?
I think the concept of being a maker in America has finally expanded past the ideal of handmade. The digital handmade is finding its place in the maker world and it is inspiring to see more designers use emerging digital techniques to design objects, with new materials or re-imagined materials. It feels innovative and modern to me. It is exciting to see a designer’s process that includes sculpting within the computer.
What do you love most about your community in Brooklyn?
We’re surrounded by other designers, makers and small business owners. So many families that we meet are running businesses, or freelance projects that it all feels very familiar and it is very easy to relate to each other. It is truly a challenging reality to balance two businesses, two kids and our household, but there is so many places to play, to eat, to shop and to be inspired during your downtime that it really makes it worth it. So many new markets, new retail concepts, and new products are happening all around, but alongside this is a strong spirit of history and opportunity in all of the newness.
Top 5 places you need to visit in Brooklyn?