Getting to Know Founder Erin Minckley
The team over at Relativity Textiles decided that as much as we preach about wallpaper, design, and travel — we haven’t really told you why we have the authority to talk about all this. This week we’ve decided to throw some real talk at you. Below our interview with Relativity Textiles founder Erin Minckley.
Part 1: Who The Hell Are You?
RT: Where are you from and how did that affect you growing up?
EM: So I grew up in Salt Lake City Utah, which in general is a pretty homogenous place racially, culturally, religiously — there’s just not a lot of diversity. The culture of Salt Lake is so intertwined with the Mormon church, from the way people dress to the way they speak, or the movies they watch or the rock concerts that do or don’t come to town. My family was not Mormon, which left me feeling like quite an outcast while I lived there. The same was definitely true for my family, with my mother being Irish Catholic and my father Jewish and none of us really practicing religion, in stark contrast to the Mormon families surrounding us who attending church every week. That being said I do think some Mormon values were instilled in me because I grew up surrounded by their culture, like being family oriented and modest. Its funny how the little moments really stick with you – I remember in the second grade this girl invited the entire class to her birthday party except me and my sister because we didn’t go to church and that somehow made us and our family mysterious. I do think that learning how to exist in an environment like that or in a mental state of not belonging has helped me in any situation that I came in contact with later in my life where I had to practice tolerance of another culture.
RT: What made you decide to get your MFA at SAIC and how has that experience shaped your life?
EM: Interestingly enough, I didn’t know if I would ever go to grad school for fine arts. I had a degree in art from a liberal arts college, a really small school in Southern California, and I knew that I wanted to have the art school experience. I applied to grad school for 10 years and kept getting declined, and ended up living with my parents in Austin, Texas working as a substitute teacher and at a frame shop just totally hating my life. I knew that I wanted to leave the world of teaching high school and eventually teach college, so my only real path to doing that was to get my MFA. Eventually I got waitlisted by SAIC for what they call the Post Bac program and got an interview and later that summer they called me and told me I got in. I packed up a Uhaul so fast and drove myself to Chicago. After I completed my Post Bac I applied to the MFA program at SAIC and got in, and ended up having to choose between the Painting and Drawing department and the Fibers Department. At that point I was a painter and I didn’t really know much about Fibers except that culturally at the school there was this social stigma that painting was a male-dominated cult and fibers was for all the artists who didn’t fit in, whether it was their identity, the way they wanted to make work, or the sense of belonging that was fostered. I ended up choosing the Fibers department which became a home, to the point that when I was pregnant my peers and faculty got together and threw me a baby shower and got me a stroller. Really sweet supportive stuff. After I got my degree I was immediately hired by the department as an adjunct teacher, and my relationships with people at SAIC kept growing and evolving from peers, to advisors, to colleagues. I had achieved my original dream of teaching on a college level but eventually the realities of it all hit me — there was no way I was ever going to make enough money teaching to support myself, let alone my children at $16k a year. Especially when you factor in the massive student loans I had to immediately start paying off after graduation. I think in some way people that I went to grad school with who are still earnestly working in their studio and creating and exhibiting work and focusing on their career may look at me and say I turned my art philosophy into a commodity and sold out — but I pay my bills and am making literally six times what I would have made teaching at SAIC. It was definitely a serious break and identity shift when I no longer was going to be associated with the School of the Art Institute. Sometimes I look back on my time at SAIC as really expensive therapy because it taught me how to think critically and make work, but it also lead me to the major decisions that have shaped my life today.
RT: What lead you to decide to start your business? What was the process of getting it off the ground like?
EM: I started thinking about the business as an abstract art project with some restrictions, like I knew that it had to be wallpaper and it had to be screenprinted so all I had to do was figure out how to make the rest of it happen. In that process some of my really successful ideas from art school found their way into the brand and design. A friend of mine once told me that you have to sneak in a trojan horse, so at first someone needs to be attracted to your work because it’s seductive or beautiful and then as they realize they’re attracted to it, they spend a little bit more time looking, which eventually allows the meaning to really reach them. People spend one second looking at a wallpaper on Instagram, so knowing how to seduce them has become an interesting concept because the work has to speak for itself to the point that people want to know more and they read the caption, or the check out the blog or just straight up buy the product because in some way they’ve connected with it.
It all started when I was working at the wallpaper shop where my paper is now made. I was doing that while also working at the School of the Art Institute teaching, and raising my very young kid and struggling to find time to make my own work. I ran into a couple of my former peers and they both found it really interesting that I hadn’t been making work but was spending all this time in a wallpaper shop — so they invited me to be a part of a show where I would make a wallpaper that one of their paintings would hang on top of. I found some old scraps of black vinyl wallpaper sitting in the back of the wallpaper shop that had been there since the 90s and convinced them to give them to me for free, and I printed my Kilim design on it in gold. The show turned out pretty well, I had to teach myself how to install the wallpaper which was a huge learning experience but well worth it. The artist whose paintings were on top of my wallpaper totally fell in love with the design and asked me if I could print it on white paper instead of black for the nursurey for the baby girl she was pregnant with at the time. It was a crazy feeling to have someone who believed in me pay me to make and install custom wallpaper for them. The nursery turned out truly incredible with her sense of style coming through in the curtains she made, her art collection hanging on the walls, and all the furniture she picked out. The friend that got us together for the show came by and photographed it, and I brought my one year old baby and dressed him up like a girl to stage the shoot, it was ridiculous and so much fun. She ended up posting that photograph on Project Nursery blog, and won the nursery of the month in June of 2015. That was 7 months before I ever had a website, a year before I did a Kickstarter, I didn’t even know the name of my company, I was just Erin making wallpaper and all these people started responding to the blog post asking where they could get the wallpaper. It was totally shocking and I realized pretty quickly that no one was going to buy wallpaper from someones random friend, and that I need to get a website and start making my business dream a reality. It definitely wasn’t a linear process, there was a lot of backtracking and figuring it out along the way, especially because of the cost of starting up as a person in debt from school, working jobs that don’t pay enough, and raising a child. It was really scary at that point as I was just making tons of samples, and trying to afford photography to stage things and I hadn’t really sold anything yet. At that point I decided to do a Kickstarter campaign and in 2 months of posting every day on Facebook, telling everyone that I was trying to start a business called Relativity Textiles and that I would be making screenprinted wallpaper and was trying to raise 20k — it worked. I met my goal several days before the deadline, and that was such a cool accomplishment, even cooler than launching a website or having a brand — just the fact that everyone was so supportive it was completely overwhelming. Especially when you consider that I went into it totally freaking out thinking everyone would judge me and think I was begging for money or not approaching starting a business well, and that was just so not the reality. It was honestly a life changing moment because it allowed me to pay down all the debt I had acquired getting the business of the ground, and I made a bunch of things to give away to everyone to pitched in. If I hadn’t done that Kickstarter I would never have made it to where I am today, there’s just no way I could’ve afforded it or had the time to make the product in bulk. I think it’s a really valuable tool to know how to get past your pride and just humble yourself and speak out loud this is what I really want to do, I have this dream, and I could make it happen with x amount of money. You never know what’s going to happen, 20k is a lot of money to a lot of people, but no one gives 20k they give $50, $100, $1000 at a time and it really adds up. So that’s how it all started, everything after that was the nitty gritty stuff.
Part 2: Why Do You Care About Foreign Cultures?
RT: Why Do You Care About Foreign Cultures?
EM: I mean it all started with not feeling like I belonged when I was growing up in Salt Lake City. I really knew I wanted to see the world from a different perspective, and I don’t know how to explain it other than with a lot of metaphors like you never know someone’s perspective until you walk a mile in their shoes. I had a really special experience at an alternative high school I attended where like 16 of my peers drove a bus from Utah to Mexico and lived there for a month. We went camping, rock climbing, whale watching, and just got to see a completely different country and their way of life, experience their language and culture which was so valuable when you’re young to experience life away from everything you know. The following year we all went to Vietnam and spent a month traveling around the country, which was particularly interesting in the context of our families. My parents generation, many of them fought in Vietnam and would never think of it as a peaceful wonderful place to visit and that helped push me to realize that it is important to try to see and understand the world beyond the constructs that you’ve been raised in.
RR: Why did you get a degree in Middle Eastern Studies?
EM: I think the first time I really was introduced to specific Middle Eastern culture was through the family of one of my first boyfriends, they were French and Iranian and would tell me stories about Tehran in the 70’s as this bohemian international capital where people smoked hookahs and wore miniskirts and lived glamorous lives. That was such a contrast compared to what we know through the news, and I found that difference really interesting and that stayed with me all the way into college. I remember my sophomore year of college waking up and seeing the Twin Towers fall down on TV and going to class and just being in total shock with everyone. Shortly after that I decided I wanted to get my degree in Middle Eastern studies, which totally baffled a lot of people, but I just knew that it was going to be useful in this future that was rapidly changing. By the time I graduated I fluently spoke Arabic and that got me a bunch of job offers from the government but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I remember when I was a sophomore or junior in college going to the study abroad office and having a very strange conversation with the Dean where I told him that I wanted to study in Iran he told me to go to London to study Oriental languages, and I told him that I didn’t want to go to a Western country, and he told me you know if you really want to go to the Middle East you should join the military because you’ll get there faster. It was a totally bubble bursting moment because my romantic idea of what it would be like to go to Iran and see the culture up close and come back with a different perspective and be able to share that with people was just not a possibility at that time.I realized that if I wanted to make it happen I was going to have to maneuver a little differently and a year later I flew to Morocco and lived with a family for four months and learned Arabic and cultural traditions and lived a simple life. I was able to go to Morocco because it was far enough removed from the war that my family wasn’t so scared to let me go away for such a long time. When I got back I realized that everyone wanted a canned answer about how Morocco was, they wanted me to tell them it was a culture shock or really interesting or that I was so inspired but they had no interest in hearing what it was like to have your paradigm shift so dramatically that you realize that Muslims and Christians have a lot more in common than people want to admit. They all just want to give their kids a better life than what they had, and have food on the table, and love each other but no one wanted to hear that. Those experiences and having my degree in Middle Eastern Studies, speaking Arabic fluently, having been to Morocco 15 times and run a tourism company there really stick out on my resume now, and when people find that out they kind of pause and ask me what it was like.
RT: What was it like running a tourism company?
EM: After college and my time abroad in Morocco I knew I wanted to spend the summer doing something fun with kids that wasn’t just a camp. I ended up signing up to be a counselor to take a group of 400 high school kids to Morocco for a month through the same organization I had used in school. I spent the month taking them around Morocco where they experienced the culture, stayed with a host family, and doing a big community service project. I realized that there was something specifically incredible about teaching in that context versus in a school setting. There was just a maximum impact for people, after a month they came back completely transformed and it reminded me of my own impactful trips to Mexico and Vietnam.
I ended up meeting my now ex-husband through that organization — he was the logistics person already in Morocco, and I was in charge of the kids ,and we made a phenomenal team. Shortly after that I was living in San Francisco working for a tour company and they wanted to add a few countries to the list and asked us if we would like to organize a tour to Morocco together. We jumped on the opportunity and ran tours to Morocco for five years together through that company. It was a crazy period of my life — I was running this tourism business with my husband that required extensive planning but only two weeks on the ground, going to grad school, raising a baby, and starting my wallpaper business — all in all it was an insane level of multitasking to handle. We would also go back to Morocco every year to visit family and immerse our two children who are half Moroccan in the culture so they can better understand their father, their family, and themselves. I love the fact that my children are growing up straddling both worlds, even though they spend most of their time in the U.S., I know that they’re lucky to be getting a head start on that phenomenal immersion in other cultures which matters so much to me.
Personally even after my divorce, I’ll always have a sweet spot for Morocco — even after we had stopped doing the tours for the company, I went back several times by myself, and even organized a trip for a group of interior designers. It was an amazing experience going with a group of creatives, we bought rugs, saw the sights and architecture, rode camels in the desert, the whole 9 yards. I think the thing that made it so special was that it became this incredible networking moment for the variety of people who ended up going. So not only was it a vacation, it was also a completely different way to network with people, and an immersive cultural experience. With all my qualifications and personal history, I was able to take what could’ve been a bland trip for them where they just stay at a hotel and experience the surface level of the culture, and turn it into a deeply meaningful experience — whether it’s my fluent Arabic to tell off catcallers, my knowledge of the customs, or my understanding of their textile traditions, it just really makes a difference.
Part 3: Artist Process & Developing a Design
RT: How does your process begin?
EM: I think my process always starts with research in some shape or form. Whether it’s leafing through the massive stacks of art books I’ve collected over the years, or scouring pinterest and the internet, or just delving deeper into the things already present in my life. In terms of the first collection, many of the inspirations came from major parts of my life — there were Moroccan rugs all over my house so naturally I spent time digging deeper into that history and process and ended up with my pattern Kilim. My twin sister has a tattoo of a chrysanthemum which combined with the shibori dyeing techniques I was teaching at the School of the Art Institute turned into my pattern Kanoko. My pattern Boteh was inspired by Iranian and Indian block printing techniques, and a demo I was doing while teaching at Lillstreet Art Center. My pattern Peacock is a version of the paintings of peacock feathers I became obsessed with making during my painting career, but they became really simplified as I became a Mother who went from having 8 hours in my studio to 30 minutes in my kitchen to make work. It’s funny because I almost didn’t include Peacock in the first collection and it’s ended up being the best seller by far. So you really never know what people are going to resonate with so I just try to be present in my life and trust my gut when my research leads me to new inspirations.
The second collection is more cohesive in that it came from a large overarching concept, which was the absolute need to do something positive as a person interested in world cultures in the wake of Trump’s election. His election was a horrific, shocking, perverse moment for a lot of people, and I knew that I needed to have an outlet for that type of major emotion. After Trump put out the travel ban, I felt like the immediate thing I could do was bring light to some of these cultures, their heritage, the patterns, designs, architecture in my own subversive way. This was going to be my trojan horse. When Trump put out the travel ban, we immediately decided that we wanted to focus on these countries and started researching them heavily. We created pinterest boards that became collections of images, processes, and histories that lead to the patterns of the second collection. However, like most research we also fell down some rabbit holes and the inspiration behind Arabian Nights, Escher, and Gaar are all reflective of that. Arabian Nights was inspired by an Iranian tapestry in a painting by Edmund Dulac where he illustrated his vision when reading One Thousand and One Nights, one of the most famous stories of all time. Escher was inspired by the aerial view of crop formations in Libya and was heavily inspired by culture maker MC Escher and his love for tessellations. Gaar was inspired by the scarification techniques used in Sudan and the many ways pattern can be integrated into daily life. We only got as far as making 3 out of the 6 countries on the travel ban, with the intention to launch the other 3 by the end of the year.
On the more technical side, I always draw everything from hand first, often with a sharpie on tracing paper like the screenprinter I am. I always have to think about the design from the perspective of the designer, the printer, the installer, and the client which is reflected in the simplified shapes and lines, the repeat of the pattern, the use of tessellations, and the digitization process in general. It’s an integral philosophy of Relativity Textiles that the majority of our wallpaper is actually screenprinted, to support a dying art form, a local Chicago business, and as a respect for the quality and history behind the process. So the design starts with research, then becomes a drawing, then an illustrator file which is burned into a screen, which is then screenprinted by the talented people over at our manufacturer. Overall I love the fact that the process bounces between hand made and digital, only as a means of making everyone’s lives easier.
RT: Is travel the source or the supplement to your inspiration?
EM: On a daily basis everyone conducts visual research, especially in the wake of Instagram we are all gathering and saving inspiration. Travel for me is more of an exercise in mindfulness, it’s time you put aside to go somewhere new, somewhere dense with visual research, and remind yourself to open your eyes and really observe the world around you. I think it’s a crucial part of my process because it’s so easy especially running your own business, to get caught up and stuck in the monotony of everyday life and work. Taking time once a year to go abroad and try to understand something completely different from you is such a fantastic way to both humble yourself and expand your horizons. I see pattern everywhere I go from the big obvious stuff to the little details I know I could tweak and turn into something that people would want in their homes. So in that way I would say travel is both the source of my inspiration by reminding me to be mindful and see new possibilities, and the supplement to the politics driving my passions behind making.
RT: How do politics overlap with design in your work?
EM: The politics go hand in hand with everything we’ve been talking about. Obviously I can research Sudan without ever having been there, I would love to travel there, but I would get a similar response from the passport authority that I did in the study abroad office all those years ago, that the only way I could care and learn about these countries was if it was through the lens of war. So that’s where I think the beauty of the internet comes in because it currently allows me a level of freedom of information which I can use to source from places that I couldn’t necessarily go. That being said I’ve been to a lot of places you’ve probably never been and that’s something I want to share. You might’ve been to Morocco but you probably didn’t open yourself up to the seeing the things I know and I experienced. So by way of wallpaper I am introducing you to seeing something new. I’m allowing you space to live with something you wouldn’t normally live with. It’s almost like asking that second grade Mormon girl to just invite me to her birthday party and just experience it, because you might like it. You think it isn’t what you’re used to, so you don’t have any interest in going there, and you think a wallpaper inspired by Iran won’t go with your everyday life — but you’d be surprised how much you fall in love with it, how many people comment they loved it, and how much meaning you can get out of something as simple as the wallpaper in your space. You never have to go to these countries, you can just buy the wallpaper and symbolically allow it to exist in your world and spend your time opening your eyes to something new. That’s my trojan horse approach, and I never had to slay you with my punchline, but for me if I was able to get all that to enter your universe, I’ve succeeded.
Part 4: Balance of Work and Family Life
RT: How do you manage to run a business and find time for your family and yourself?
EM: That is a really tough question, because I think everyone is trying to find a balance whether you work for a big corporation or run your own business. Honestly I think balance is a fallacy because it assumes that you can devote equal time, money, and effort to work and family but that’s just bullshit because sometimes you have to give more to one or the other. I’d like to demystify that right now, there is no such thing as work/family balance. It really comes down to what you find to be important, what you want to spend your time on and how that aligns with your values. I know I have a set of values for my business and a set of values for myself, both of which I strive to uphold. I think it really comes down to making the tough decisions — I have a real luxury and a real freedom to be able to decide what is most important to me right now in this moment. My kids are super important to me — my family is my other full-time job, so I don’t really get to say someone else will tuck my kids in while I finish up this project for work — I will tuck my kids in because I’m a single mom. All single moms know what I’m talking about, our lives are a hustle round the clock, whether it’s working all day and then picking your kids up from school and getting ready to be super mom until bedtime, or not having time for your own personal things until after they fall asleep, or just not having a lot of time to just turn your brain off and decompress — it can definitely be a lot. There’s just never enough hours in a day to accomplish everything you want to do no matter who you are. I’ve made a really concerted effort not to work on the weekends and do all the administration of life stuff like grocery shopping, housekeeping, balancing checkbooks, and making sure everyone has clean clothes for the week, which as simple as that sounds has made a huge difference for me in terms of trying to find some semblance of a balance.
RT: Who supports you and how have you learned to find people who want to be in your corner?
EM: I feel like I’m lucky enough to have support from many different places. Even before Relativity Textiles was a legitimate business, I was shocked and amazed by the support I received when I launched my Kickstarter. Those were the first believers, they bought stock in the idea before it was real, and without them none of us would be here right now. I also want to expose and say that I am proud to say that Relativity Textiles would not exist without the help of all the interns who have worked really hard to help this dream become a reality. Unfortunately that’s free labor but I believe that I’m able to give back to them whether that’s work experience, female entrepreneur advice, or just learning new skills whether they’re administrative or software programs, or just things you aren’t learning in school — I hope people leave here with skills they didn’t have before. Eventually as we’ve grown as a company, we end up hiring those incredible interns and have slowly begun to build out the permanent Relativity Textiles team. I think it all comes back to the balance we were talking about — between June and July in 2017 we stuck cut and stuck 9000 sticker labels onto our wallpaper samples, and not a single one of those were done by me personally. If I had to do that, the semblance of a balance I’ve managed to create in my life would fall apart, I would have no time to take care of myself, my family, or to sell the brand. I also think that everyone has experiences at internships, or poorly paid or underpaid jobs that have lead them to something they maybe didn’t expect which in the end made it worth it. For me if I hadn’t worked for the artist who asked me to make his wallpaper I wouldn’t have thought about starting my own wallpaper business. It’s a lot about what you make of a situation and learning how to roll with the punches of life. Everyone working at Relativity Textiles understands that and it has created a really special camaraderie that doubles as a really important level of accountability for me. I think if I didn’t have really hard working, inspiring people coming to the office at my house every day, reassuring me that there are people out there who believe in this, it would be so easy to just take a day off and be lazy and get negative about running a business. I also think as much as support from all these other amazing people is important, you have to be your biggest supporter. You have to be the one putting self care on the calendar, because no one else is going to do that for you.
Part 5: What’s Next?
RT: What are your other projects? Where do you see Relativity Textiles in 5 years?
EM: Relativity Textiles is cranking along, we have goals to try and double our revenue and put out one collection a year. Something Jen Talbot, a Chicago based interior designer and artist said to me still resonates with me, and that is, “you just throw it out there and see what sticks.” You just keep pushing your ideas out into the world, and keep speaking about your dreams because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s funny when I think about how it took me 10 years of applying to get into grad school, or that all the textile jobs I applied for wouldn’t hire me and now I’m running a business similar to theirs. Things like that remind me to just keep cranking along. Right now we’ve been proposing some new designs, wallpapers, and fabrics to companies trying to get a licensed collection, so we’ll see what sticks.
I’m also excited to announce that I’m planning to start another company which will hopefully launch sometime this summer. It’s going to be wallpaper designed for a DIY consumer, so it will be a lot easier to install, sold online, and it’s going to be about meeting the needs of everyday people. It will have nothing to do with Relativity Textiles which is a luxury wallpaper brand that is also a conceptual project. I was always inspired by larger companies like Crate and Barrel that have a less expensive line with the same signifiers of quality, just available to a different audience. So my prepasted wallpaper is still going to be a high quality product, just not luxury like Relativity. Deciding to do this goes against all my teachings as an artist that high art is inherently better than low art, and that you have to be the genius — I want to also create things for other people and give the audience what they need. I definitely still have a sense of pride about this second company, because I’ll be providing beautiful things to people like myself. I’m a walking cliche because I’m a starving artist who is the spokesperson for a luxury brand, I’m living the irony, I’m a cobbler with no shoes, and I want to make a product for people like me who rent, who can’t afford an installer, who are down to watch a couple videos and figure out how to do things themselves. So stay tuned for that later this summer.