Creating a Niche
One year ago, the challenge dinnerware start-up Ink Dish set for itself was to produce designer dinnerware for less than $100 per place setting. The company's target market is young urban professionals, or people buying their first home, who want to invest in edgy, fashion-focused dinnerware that is priced affordably.
Caroline Pople, Ink Dish's design director, grew up with the gentle traditions of English tableware. Her mother, Julie Pople, has been in the industry for nearly 30 years designing for the top names in Staffordshire and Limoges. After earning a degree in silversmithing and allied crafts at the London Metropolitan University, Pople teamed up with her mother. Together, they worked for Royal Doulton, Lenox, Villeroy and Boch, and Oneida, to name a few.
As time went on, Pople found her own style. Her Marissa pattern for Corelle became a bestseller at Walmart and Target, and she also designed ranges for Debenhams in the UK, working for fashion designer Julien MacDonald.
Identifying the MarketThe family design business went from strength to strength, but Pople was dissatisfied. She found that industry customers found many of her favorite patterns too adventurous for what they perceived as their market. "I knew there was a market for more fashion-forward and innovative dinnerware," she says.
Industry research confirmed Pople's hunch: 25-35 year old consumers, bored with what was available on Main Street, bought more plain dinnerware than any other age group. David Harding, Pople's partner and Ink Dish CEO, quantified this through a series of surveys. The research showed that a large segment of the market wanted to buy patterned dinnerware but couldn't find designs to reflect their taste at a price they could afford.
As a new company, Ink Dish only had the capital to produce one pattern. Their research on young consumers had also revealed that a large percentage (35% of those ages 18 to 29) had tattoos. Pople developed the concept of tattoo-inspired dinnerware and brought in Sunset Strip Tattoo artist Paul Timman, whose A-list clientele includes Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore and Ben Affleck. The pair created the Irezumi (Japanese for "ink") line based on Timman's award-winning Japanese-style tattoo designs. Irezumi features traditional motifs such as koi fish, cherry blossoms and dragons.
Production IssuesThe next challenge was discovering how to produce the chosen pattern. After a lot of research, Ink Dish decided to apply the design as an inglaze decal. From a usability point of view, the decal is fired at a temperature just at the melting point of the glaze. This allows the design to actually sink in and gives each piece extraordinary durability for everyday use, including in the dishwasher. From a design point of view, the decal is developed photographically from the original art to give the most accurate reproduction possible.
For Ink Dish, it was important that the new company be socially responsible, and choosing the right factory took careful research. After speaking with factories in multiple countries, Ink Dish selected a top ceramic company in Bangladesh. This partner factory has passed extensive compliance audits from Macy's in the U.S., John Lewis in the UK and other top retailers throughout the world.
The factory helps employ hundreds of people who would not normally have work, helping to feed families in a country where there are not many other options. No child or forced labor is ever used, and all employees are paid a fair wage and given three breaks per day (with food). On-site medical facilities include a full-time doctor and can be used by employees' family members.
In addition, the factory is ISO:9001 compliant, which, in addition to being a key quality standard, requires extensive documentation and training on proper work practices. After being fully satisfied that the factory fulfilled its high standards, Ink Dish had its first pattern produced.
Crossover DesignsInk Dish began selling the Irezumi line to selected design-led retailers across the U.S. After just a few months on the market, Irezumi was named number-two on Metropolitan Home's prestigious Design 100.
Irezumi was followed by two more Paul Timman designs, Cherry Ink and Tribal Lines. Cherry Ink is based on a traditional Japanese style of tattooing called Sumi, a delicate, painterly technique without the usual black outlines. The design features a cherry blossom motif in shades of pinks and purples. Tribal Lines has a more traditional tattoo look, taking inspiration from Maori and Polynesian patterns.
All three designs were featured at their first trade show appearance in August 2009 at the New York International Gift Fair, where Timman also gave live tattoo demonstrations. It was important to Ink Dish to transcend the usual cultural boundaries associated with body art and make sure that people who had never gone under the needle could still appreciate the beauty of tattoo art.
"Our aim is to create crossover designs, where the traditions of tattoo art are still respected and upheld, but which will also appeal to the fashion-savvy mainstream consumer," says Pople. Happily for Ink Dish, tattoo art is currently an important home décor trend. But trends come and go, and Ink Dish believes it is more important to create timeless dinnerware pieces.
Plates as CanvasInk Dish's next project was with fine artist Alyson Fox of Austin, Texas. Fox's eclectic and quirky artwork is inspired by paper, fabric, books, ceramics, thread, wallpaper, office supplies, photographs, old tattered things, new polished things, furniture, and even cement. Fox, whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Nylon, Domino, and Lucky, has a whimsical take on design.
The collaboration with Fox underlines the central concept behind Ink Dish's philosophy that plates should be a canvas for artwork, bringing exciting patterns to the table and altering perceptions of what dinnerware can be. Ink Dish believes ceramic design should enliven every mealtime and fulfill the fundamental reason behind a dinnerware purchase: the expression of personality.
Equally important is the belief that young buyers should not be priced out of the opportunity to acquire such tableware. Though art-focused contemporary ceramic companies exist, not many people can afford to enjoy dinner plates priced at around $100 per piece, certainly not for every-day use. Ink Dish uses a mass-market model to help keep the prices low while at the same time bringing stimulating artwork and exciting decoration to a wider audience.
For more information, contact Ink Dish at 847 21st St., San Diego, CA 92102; (857) 241-7104; fax (619) 342-7733; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.inkdish.com.