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State of Craft Interview

Bruce Baker

Jeweler, Consultant for Craft Marketing Topics
Dates Active: 1970s on

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Bruce Baker, inspirational workshop presenter on booth design, marketing, sales and craft trends, former jeweler, dance instructor, and store owner.

Oral History conducted by the Vermont Folklife Center

Middlebury, Vermont

June 20, 2008

You show me a successful art business and I will show you a business that is able to, first of all, have the right-brain/left-brain balance: somebody's got to be the creative and somebody's got to be taking care of business.

At the end of my freshman year I got a full scholarship, a talent scholarship for drama and I ended up doing a lot of dancing and when I got to be a senior in college I realized that the performing arts are great, but my least favorite thing in the world is looking for a job and I gave it up in the interim and started making jewelry.

I really realize from that once a person makes something, once they create something and they take pride in ownership in it, they're never the same. They have a totally different appreciation for something made by hand and whether it be something decorative or functional, it totally changes their perception about it; it makes it special.

It dawned on me at 29 or 30, however old I was at the time: my dad thought I did nothing! Because I was an artist. I didn't, you know, get up at, you know, 5:30 with the rooster and I didn't go, you know, punch a clock or whatnot. My dad thought I did nothing. But, you know, it's really a shame that so many creative people have to live under that sort of blanket, as it were, of somebody who doesn't see what they do as worthy.

(Bowling Green had) a good art program. It taught us about design and craftsmanship. It didn't teach as much about creativity and it didn't teach us anything about business. And the only ones that really made out were either people that came pre-wired with the left-brain analytical business side or partnered with someone who did. Other than that, everybody, you know, pretty much fell off and is doing something else.

I fell in love with Vermont It was like the real deal 'cause I was a back-to-the-land, Mother Earth News reader; couldn't wait for the Mother Earth News to come. I was reading the magazine and I didn't even have a garden to grow. And when I got here it was like all of a sudden: Yeah, let's get sheep, let's get goats, let's get chickens! What about rabbits, turkeys, guinea hens? You name it, we had it. And it was great fun, but it was a lot of work and the worst part is never, ever does it stop. Farming does not stop. So you never can get away.

I was working with Tom Baker, my business partner in Baker & Baker, when we built our jewelry business in Frog Hollow in a very small studio. We formed a partnership and in about two years we went from absolutely zero to having probably over 100 wholesale accounts and we were, by the end of 6 or 7 years, we were selling to Tiffany's, Saks, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, 4 or 5 different mail order catalogues and that was the highlight of my working career as an artist, but it was a lot of work and it was all the time running, running; designing; going to shows; this, that, and the other.

I found myself doing, first of all, 18 workshops a year and then 24 and then 36, and one year I had over 48 workshops that I did, so I was really running around a lot. And I love it! I love the process of being in front of a group of people. It wasn't only artisan; I was working with mainstream groups. I love being in front of a bunch of people and just telling them what they need to know to make their business better, to sort of identify and overcome their barriers. I love it!

That's where most artists fail, is they are control freaks and they tell themselves this story: I can't afford to hire someone or I can't afford to have this person do that because I can't afford it. But the reality of it is that's just such stinking thinking because the reality is if you have skill and talent and you do something and you can turn out a product that is desirable and marketable, that's all you should be doing. Somebody else should be answering the phones, somebody else should be doing the bookwork, writing the checks, the accounts payable; the accounts receivable and all that should be handled by somebody else who doesn't have your talent!

You know, people ask me this today: What's the difference between an artisan and a designer? And often I say, "Designers are happy." Because, I mean, ultimately, what that translates for me is that a designer is a person who isn't a control freak; they can design something and send it to somebody else to cast it; somebody else to make the mold; somebody else to do all these things; and an artist has to be -- an artist gets addicted to the process and sometimes in the process we either don't have the tools or equipment to be productive or we get so into the process that we get carried away with the process and the customer doesn't appreciate the process and doesn't want to pay us for it.

That's really, to me, the shame of art higher education, is there's -- you could count on one hand the number of schools that teach artists how to be business people.

(About becoming a consultant in booth-making):

Our booth was butt-ugly; it was just UGLY! It was the wrong color, it was made out of {aspenite}, it was cheesy and cheap and, you know, even when you get great anything and you display it badly it doesn't get noticed. People see the booth and go: Ooogh! And so I realized that needed to be done.

It all started with that butt-ugly booth in Boston. And the next year we came back and we were stylin'. Our booth was gray and it had carpet and the carpet came up off the floor, into the cases; and glass, very contemporary It was, like, you walked in, there was music, we had track lighting, we had large-format photography in the back, and nobody had this. People were like: Wow! Where'd you guys come from? And people started noticing. And then Brookfield somehow got wind of that they said would you teach a workshop on this? And I said yes, I would. That was 1981 and that was the first workshop that I ever taught.

The main thing, honest to God, there's two things: First of all, light your booth because if people can't see it they will not buy it. And, second of all, merchandise for high touch. High touch. If you can get somebody to touch something you're four times more likely to sell them something. And so many people put it out so it looks pretty, but many times in looking pretty, it's so pretty that people don't want to touch it because they don't want to mess it up. So sometimes the best -- the best merchandising methods aren't always the most visually appealing, but the best merchandising method will make a person have a touch response. And that's the key.

I noticed every workshop that I would teach I would be introduced as: Bruce Baker, contributing editor the Craft Report, you know; the authority on booth design, and all this, and so it just happened. I never really dubbed myself that, but people that take my advice, people that are willing to change -- first of all, they have to listen; second, they have to be willing to change and take the advice -- do get results. And I've got a stack of testimonials this high and that makes me very proud.

I don't know where this idea started in our culture that an artist is this lone, lonely sort of Van Gogh type. When you look at the successful artists like, you know, John Hepplewhite, Paul Revere they didn't make those pieces in isolation, they had small factories, including Tiffany's, which we revere today! It was like post-Vietnam, where art turned back to this one lone individual, doing everything. And it's a very strange model because it doesn't work very well.

In those days Vermont was not our market. We lived here because it was a great place to live, but where do we go? We would go to New York, to Rhinebeck, to New Jersey, to Morristown, to Boston, to New York, to sell our work. We brought that money back and nobody knew. It was all under the radar! Nobody knew where that money was coming from; it was outside money being brought in.