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Design Talk by MV – article no. 20

The Intricacies of Egg Collective: An Interview With the Powerhouse Trio Behind One of New York City’s Savviest Design Brands

Hillary Petrie, Stephanie Beamer and Crystal Ellis are the trio behind Egg Collective, a New York City-based design company. They’re on the verge of iconism, especially after their Designing Women show last May, an exhibition that featured an incredible roster of female artists and designers including Dana Barnes, Lindsey Adelman, Maria Moyer, Hiroko Takeda, and more.

Aside from their gorgeous, admirably detailed design work, which spans lighting, furniture, mirrors and more, I wanted to have their voice and their story on Design Talk by MV for a few specific reasons. First off, because of their unique trajectory as a collaborative business. They really do have a great tale to tell. But also for their savvy as curators and showroom operators, their empowering success as female entrepreneurs, and lastly for their proximity to me in downtown Manhattan—they’re right over on Hudson Street!

So we set up a call one afternoon and had the chance to chat independent business, design, and the intricacies of operating as a collective. Major gratitude to these awesome, inspiring women for being so truthful and transparent with their story. I hope you enjoy learning from them as much as I did.

MV:

Earlier on in the life of Egg Collective, you used to do your manufacturing from a Brooklyn woodshop with a space-share idea: the owner supplied the overhead and the facilities were outfitted with the large-scale tools you needed. You’ve moved on from there, right?

Stephanie Beamer:

Yes, we have our own woodshop [now]. But we started out of an extra room in Crystal’s apartment—that was our office space—and as soon as we needed a space to start prototyping work, which was a month or two in, we rented a bay in a shared space outside of the [Brooklyn] Navy Yard. It allowed us to start the business with very little capital because we were month-to-month, and we were renting the professional machinery. It was a low bar of commitment.

MV:

And you guys were, and still are, operating the tools and machinery yourselves.

SB:

Our background, after studying architecture, was to educate ourselves in the industry. We all had worked in fabrication shops, so yes, we were prototyping and fabricating all the work that was wood-specific in our shop space.

Hillary Petrie:

When you’re learning new things you’re going to lots of job sites and interacting with other trades. That would further itself later on in our career; we’re experts in woodworking, but we’ve tried to do our best meeting people who are just as good in their mediums. That’s been a big part of our business. 

MV:

Which is all pertinent for anyone starting their own business! You guys actually had a lot of experience working for other people fabricating, etcetera, before you decided to go out on your own, which it sounds like left you with great connections.

HP:

Stephanie gained the broadest base of knowledge from working in New York in the furniture scene. Right after graduation [from architecture school] she went to work for a fine furniture builder and restorer. She learned a really wide range of techniques, from French polishing to construction. 

Crystal Ellis:

I bounced around a lot. I worked for an architecture firm in St. Louis, then moved to New York and worked for an architecture firm. During that time I realized I really missed making things, and transitioned to working for a furniture shop in New York. And then I applied to graduate school and went to RSID where I got my MFA in Sculpture. I got to experiment with many other materials and ideas about form. 

HP:

My experience was also pretty diverse. [After school] I worked for a professor of mine at an urban renewal firm. That took me to New Orleans, post-Katrina. When our contract was up, I quit my job in St. Louis and moved to NYC. I ended up working for a company doing high-end fabrication and project management, and I operated a CNC.

MV:

You all met in school, separated and learned other mediums or held other jobs, then came back together to form your business?

SB:

Yes, we met as freshman in architecture school at Washington University in St. Louis. We became very fast friends and ultimately the people that we sought out to critique each other’s work. We established Egg Collective as the name for the collective body of work we were doing together, and we kept that alive as we went our separate ways. So we’ve had a working relationship all these years but didn’t start the dream of the collective until 2011 when Crystal finished grad school and Hillary moved up from New Orleans.

MV:

There’s been so much evolution since those moments in the life of Egg Collective, including opening your showroom downtown. I think you mentioned to me once that one of the reasons for opening the showroom in Manhattan was that you felt like you had to move there because your clients weren’t making it to Brooklyn. 

CE:

Among other reasons, I feel like our dream was always to have a Manhattan showroom. We looked at our original business plan recently, and it was set as a goal. I guess in some ways we knew before we did it that it was going to happen.

HP:

We also had some interior designers friends be very frank with us. They said, “I take clients shopping and I don’t go to Brooklyn. The days get long, it’s New York, it’s hard to get around, and anything that involves a bridge gets cut off.” We appreciated that advice.

MV:

It’s great that you were able to realize that original goal so quickly. There are always so many decisions to be made, so many moving parts. Being a sole proprietor and completely in charge of decision-making for my business, I feel like I don't get to spend my time doing the things I love the most – the art! The actual designing!

SB:

Isn’t that the definition of running a small business?!

[Laughs]

MV:

Executing, making it all happen, figuring out sales and distribution: that takes up all the time! I find the explanation really valuable of how you operated in school and how you became in sync with each other. It sounds like your responsibilities are all intuited. But because you guys are all strong, strong designers, and design is really such a small part of the day-to-day, how do you actually divide up your responsibilities?

CE:

We all kind of intuitively knew, and maybe it’s why we always enjoyed collaborating with each other even prior to deciding to run a business together, that we all brought strengths to the table. But we’ve always had a similar design aesthetic and ethos, and that was the draw for us; that’s what’s kept us collaborating and kept us friends for so long now. And, back to our [original] business plan, we did briefly define our roles. At the beginning we were having fun with the positions’ names. They were kind of cheeky!

HP:

Mine was “Cruise Director.” [Laughs] I organize everybody. I’m the day-to-day, OCD, “got my shit together” one. I mean, I’m not the only one to answer emails! But I sort of took on that role. I know what I’m not good at and I don’t pretend to be good at it. We’re all still smart people and gain ways to look at something by answering questions and addressing problems together. We’re really all responsible for everything.

CE:

My job has grown over time, and has evolved to be the marketing and creative director for the company. We all design together and our work is still a collaborative process of us pushing ideas forward, but in the moments we get to design, after our design sessions I’ll try to take the ideas, flush them out further, carry them into new iterations and see where those designs can go.

SB:

I’m pretty sure my original title was “Build-a-Beams,” which was what I was able to bring to the table: knowledge of construction, interest in fabrication, construction and finishings. Now I run production, specifically our in-house production, which is where the bulk of our employees and team is located.

MV:

What size is your broader team?

CE:

We have six employees. One is in our showroom and five are in on our woodshop.

MV:

So a big part of your resources goes to fabrication.

SB:

A big amount, yes. We’re learning what it is to be people’s managers, which is a huge part of running a business.

MV:

Knowing you’re a big part of your employees’ lives and that they stick with you is super gratifying. It’s reflective of a sort of mutual investment in your community of industry. Egg Collective has been involved in causes beyond just the design industry, too. I’m thinking specifically of your partnership last year with Girls, Inc. Can you tell me more about that?

SB:

The Girls, Inc. partnership was specific to the Designing Women show. We created the concept and tapped other female-run design businesses to contribute, and a portion of the proceeds was donated to Girls, Inc. They are a fantastic institution. 

CE:

To speak to our motivation, I think [the partnership] was a response to the political climate. We were trying to figure out a way to come out of what was happening with something that would make us feel like there was a focus on the positive, and to bring awareness to the fact that still, in the industries of design and manufacturing, women are underrepresented. They’re a minority. At the same time, there’s amazing work being done. So the idea was to bring women of varying ages, stages in their careers, and business types together to make connections, build community, and to experience a groundswell of support for one another, which was what ended up happening. It struck a chord.

MV:

Do you consider Egg Collective to be an activist business?

HP:

The plan wasn’t necessarily to be activists, but we believed in our cause of making quality things with quality materials. It’s always been a part of our business, to make products that are going to be around for a long time, that have integrity. That’s something that’s always going to carry through our work.

SB:

We all sort of experienced a rude awakening last year. Not to say that we didn’t see the power in the fact that we’re a woman owned business, and that we want to support other women coming up in the industry, but it was called to our attention in a more focused way. Activism, now, has become more of a focus.

CE:

And we always come back to this idea of community. It’s part of why we make things in New York and work with other makers in the city, and it’s part of our training as architects, this idea of cities and community and people coming together. I don’t think we had the specific intention of activism, but I feel like as we are getting more sure of ourselves in running the business and developing the product line, that’s something that we’ll push forward and spend more time thinking about: how to spread the love.

MV:

For people starting out, especially in a city like New York, which has so many barriers to entry, what would you say is your most valuable insight gained from your experiences?

HP:

One thing we say to a lot of young people is to go out and get work experience. In our business, you want to know how things are made—even if you don't want to make it yourself. That knowledge goes a really long way and will help you be a more successful designer in the end.

CE:

You learn from your good experiences, you learn from your bad experiences, and I feel like we ended up creating the company that we created because we gave ourselves the time to have those experiences in the real world. Go and meet those people, have those experiences, and build up your community of friends, resources, and colleagues. 

Such great advice! Thank you again, Egg Collective!

Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll be posting an official recap of our inaugural Design Talk Roundtable from February 6.

 

Sincerely,

As told to Emily R. Pellerin

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