When Shelly Klein introduces her new customizable Family Series of pillows, bags, journals and wall art at the upcoming International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City, she will do so as the principal designer and creative director of k studio, a boutique textile product manufacturer based in Grand Rapids.
The retail world knows Klein as a designer of high-end textile products, particularly her popular line of environmentally friendly pillows, and to a lesser extent as the gifted craftsman, boutique manufacturer and furniture industry veteran who four years ago launched k studio with her mother Mary, another furniture veteran who handles the administrative aspects of the today four-employee business.
But if you ask Klein what she does for a living, you’re likely to get a different answer.
“I say I’m an artist before I’m a designer,” Klein says. “In the industry I function as a designer, but to me the product is secondary, this is really about creating images, and you can put those images on any number of things. I’m using pillows as canvas.”
Originally a consultant in the contract furniture industry, Klein used to keep her two occupations separate. Her paintings were more figurative and narrative, while the textile designs were graphical and decorative.
“That made sense at the time, but over the past few years they’ve come together,” she explains. “And it’s been a fabulous success so far.”
Many in the Grand Rapids art and design community will recognize the images and designs of k-studio’s most popular offerings, including the Family Series, as the same subject matter Klein addressed in her show last year at Lafontsee Galleries in Grand Rapids — much of that a continuation on the same theme featured in Klein’s work on behalf of Herman Miller to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Eames Lounge Chair in 2006.
“This is serious work but I want to make sure it’s approachable,” Klein said. “People are buying it, so they’re getting something. Whether it’s what I’m saying or not? I don’t know. But people seem to respond to it, and they’re responding more to the images that are like my paintings.”
K-studio has likely been the most nationally celebrated small business in West Michigan over the past three years. Written up everywhere from The New York Times and Boston Globe to People and Better Homes and Gardens (twice), Klein has established herself as a home design trendsetter and one of the coolest names in pillows today.
In the company’s first year, k studio was among a group of ICFF exhibitors profiled by The New York Times as paragons of contemporary design for a line of pillows featuring carefully stenciled images of homes in her Briggs Park neighborhood, located between Creston Heights and Cheshire Village on the city’s Northeast side.
That same year, Herman Miller for the Home selected Klein as one of three designers (and the only American) to create one-of-a-kind Eames Lounge Chairs as part of the chair’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. The chair’s embroidery pattern, “Everyday People,” a series of simple, but meaningful, line-drawn characters and animals, is now one of the company’s core offerings, and introduced a theme that carries into k studio’s upcoming releases.
“The main thing I’m thinking about when I make all these people and critters and put them in situations together is how they interact with one another,” Klein says. “I think about this with myself and other people, everyone — how are you connecting with other people?”
That particular piece was about strangers connecting. The new offering, building on a theme introduced at the Lafontsee Galleries show, concerns family.
“I was really interested in family and what it means: How you fit into the world based on who you are and who your family is,” said Klein. “I found that people were buying the paintings that most closely resembled their own families. I thought it was really nice that people were connecting on that level, so I decided to make it a little more customizable with the textile line.”
In the Family Series, buyers select a family from a dozen characters of various ages, including both people and pets. The pattern can be applied to any k studio product.
Also new this year are additional shaped-pillow offerings – pillows fabricated in the shapes of people characters, animals or faces that are suitable for hanging.
“I’ve been making pillows for years, and it only just occurred to me that a pillow doesn’t have to be a square,” Klein said.
From Humble Beginnings
K studio wasn’t an overnight success.
Klein graduated from Kendal College of Art and Design with aspirations as a studio painter. Instead, a friend working with Herman Miller brought Klein in to assist in developing a prototype office system as a, for lack of a better term, creative sewer.
After that, she began making pillows for the Herman Miller showroom, then moved onto embroidery, developing the design and sewing skills that drive k-studio today.
Her initial attempt at launching the firm, a retail boutique on South Division near what is today the Avenue of the Arts, failed. The Kleins regrouped in a commercial space attached to Shelly’s home, where the company is still located today.
They introduced their products at industry trade shows, quickly attracting retailer interest with their sustainable business practices. Every product is made from organic and environmentally friendly products such as hemp, organic cotton and recycled wool.
This year, with the discovery of a source that will use non-toxic dyes — rare in the textile industry — k studio will expand the pallet of color choices.
“One of the things about using all sustainable materials is that there isn’t a lot of color available,” Klein says. “We’re hoping that will come together in time for the show.”
Until recently, every item was hand-sewn by Shelly. Her staff had primarily sewn components, allowing Shelly to handle final assembly. As the company grows, she has had to focus more on the design and marketing of the firm, and is slowly delegating the finishing responsibilities.
She credits her mother for much of the success of the firm.
“Without her, I would really have been lost,” she says. “She knows all these things about running a business that I don’t. It’s allowed me to bring my art into people’s homes.”
Daniel Schoonmaker is a freelance journalist and a copywriter for Alexander Marketing Services in Grand Rapids. He recently wrote for Rapid Growth about the Green Chauffeur
Shelly Klein and her cast of characters
Several pillow designs on sustainable materials (3)
Mary Klein (mom) and Shelly work as a team
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved