Toni Sikes, founder of Guild.com, talks about how art makes the home -- and what consumers are crazy about right now. Plus, get her top five tips for creating an artful home.
Ten years ago no one would have dreamed that you could buy a wide selection of handcrafted furniture, one-of-a-kind art glass and original artwork online — except for Toni Sikes, founder of The Guild, now the biggest retailer of online art (11,000 plus pieces!), with headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin.
You are an artist at heart, but you don’t have an art degree?
My undergrad degree is in math and my Masters is in marketing research. I don’t have any training and I can’t make anything! But I have always loved art. It’s been very important to me all my life.
So how did you get involved in the art business?
I had a boyfriend when I moved to Wisconsin who was a sculptor, and I got very involved with him and tried to market his work. We had many friends who were artists and I saw how all of these talented people struggled to get their work out to different markets. I very much wanted to do something to help them. I started the Guild Sourcebooks in 1985 as a way to help them sell their work and make a living through their art. The Sourcebooks introduced this wonderful work to targeted markets, such as architects. And that was the genesis of the business, which we launched in NY. And then moved back to Wisconsin.
I wanted a real life, that’s why we’re in Wisconsin. We loved New York, but my husband is from here and he has family here and it feels like a real life here.
And the online business for consumers?
In 1998 I started a separate company called guild.com as an online retail company. The underlying goal was still the same but it was all about broadening the market to consumer. We showcase the artists, but they make and ship all the items directly to the buyer. We also did a print catalog, which we renamed The Artful Home in 2004. In all, there are more than 11,000 works of art available to consumers on our site and in our catalog.
You feature artists from Wisconsin?
We have artists from all over the country, and we do have fabulous artists from Madison and Wisconsin. As a matter of fact, our number one top-selling piece of furniture, a spiral coffee table, is made by an artist, Richard Judd, from 20 miles south of here. We want to bring artists from everywhere together with consumers from everywhere.
So, it’s getting art out to the masses?
Yes, I believe strongly that original art and beautiful things are important in our everyday lives to everybody, and I think most people believe that. When we survey our customers we ask them what is their motivation to come and visit us and buy from us, and they almost always say, "I love beautiful things." They don’t necessarily say, "I love art." They want to surround themselves with beautiful things and that’s how we can help them.
An important underlying principal is that we want people to feel comfortable exploring, looking at and thinking about art. That’s something that the traditional art world hasn’t necessarily been very good at. As you know, a New York art gallery is not always a fun and friendly place to go. And as a result there are a huge number of people who don’t feel connected to art, and we want to change that.
You do a lot of what I’d call art education in a really non-patronizing way. I wasn’t really sure what "giclee" was until I read about it on your site.
The education part is all part of the mission. There have been a couple different things we’ve tried to do since the day we started the web site. One is to describe the artist’s work and processes so the consumer knows what he or she is getting. Another is to celebrate that artists make a broad range of work. Most people when they hear the word "artists," they think painting or a piece of sculpture, and I feel very strongly that a teapot can be just as important as painting—in many ways more important because it’s something you pick up and use every single day. So we present all of these artists in different categories and they are all side-by-side as equal citizens in the art world. So the artist who makes a piece of jewelry is next to an artist who makes an art glass piece next to an artist who makes a painting. It’s all art and it’s all valid and relevant and important. There aren’t the caste systems in our world that you find in the art world.
And yet it’s fine art. It not just anybody or anything that you’re putting on your site. How do you pick what to share with consumers?
All the work we share is juried. We have four merchants on staff that are very experienced in the art world and we work with juror Michael Monroe, the best known and most revered curator in the fine craft world. He ran the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian for about 30 years and is now running the Bellevue Art Museum in Washington State. We accept about 10 percent of all of the submissions we get. We’re looking at new artwork every single month and are adding work all of the time.
What does it mean if artwork has been juried?
It means that when someone buys from us they are buying artwork that has been selected by art experts with a couple of key criteria in mind: We look for a strong sense of design, we ensure that any item is well made and we, quite honestly, like to look for artists, particularly younger artists, who we think will become bigger names over time. We like to think that the pieces of art will work over time and will go up in value.
Can you name an artist whose work has taken off?
A lot of artists’ have become very popular, but Brian Kershisnik is an interesting example of the kind of thing that happens with us. Brian was one of the very first two-dimensional artists we brought onto the site in 1989. He lives in Utah and is a very devout Mormon, and really early on we would get his prints and occasionally his paintings. From the moment we put his artwork on the site, people bought it. Years later, he is still our number one best-selling print artist. And now he is doing 6- to 7-foot paintings and has three museum exhibitions, and we are still carrying his prints!
Your consumers seem to know what they’re doing!
It’s an interesting point. I have learned that the consumers — even people who don’t consider themselves to be collectors — have a good eye. We have learned to trust their eye because they will pick out what is good, and Brian is a perfect example of that. They picked out a young budding artist who is becoming a national person on the art scene!
What are consumers telling you they’re into right now?
They love art glass. It’s our number-one category and has been from the beginning. It’s about 25 percent of our sales. There is a category of person who buys art glass over and over again. They are collectors or they turn into collectors.
Our biggest growth area over the last two years has been artist-made furniture. I’m not sure what the underlying cause is. I could speculate that people are becoming more willing to make a commitment to something much more expensive than the other things we have on the site. We’re finding that people are thinking about living with and keeping these pieces a long time. They’re willing to take a little bit of a risk in the design and the kinds of things they have in their homes. To buy artist-made furniture might require that you’re more of a risk taker. They’re beautiful pieces of furniture, but they’re unusual and the person who wants that may be more willing to experiment.
It sounds like your customers and your artists have their finger on the pulse of what’s cool right now.
I think the artists do have the finger on the pulse of where people are. Artists are the most sensitive people I know. They are feeling those trends way before the consumer press is picking up on it, and the things they make reflect what they’re feeling. As an example, I belong to the National Association of Furniture Makers and they were doing seminars on renewable resources more than a decade ago. These artists are very tuned in and forward thinking.
What’s your next big category?
We’d love to find more functional things that artists are making — that’s everything from the serving dishes you use, to the pillows you put on your sofa, to the lamps you have in your bedroom, to the cake stand in your kitchen. That’s a growth area for us. People are looking for interesting, artistic accessories.
A welcoming home, it seems, is important now more than ever.
The whole entire category of home furnishings has grown over the last five to six years and that has been fueled by 9/11 to a large extent, and fueled by our need to feel that our homes are our sanctuaries, our nests. Obviously, we live in a chaotic crazy world and it’s pretty wonderful to retreat from the world. And we’re accessorizing all parts of that retreat, from music to comfort food to soothing things like drinking tea.
What does your own retreat look like?
It’s very eclectic. It’s very much a reflection of my own personality. Absolutely filled with color. My idea of hell is an environment that’s all black and white. Color has a huge impact on me and I’m very attuned to it and its impact on how I feel. I feel the artwork in my home is my own personal journal — everything from things purchased on my travels to things given to me by my sisters and mother and artist friends.
And I love to change my home around. I love to arrange and rearrange. That’s my hobby! I take things off the shelves and put them back in different ways and move the furniture around and my poor husband sighs, but he knows that’s what I do to make me happy. He tells the story of the day I brought a new lamp home and said, "We’ve got to paint the living room!" True story. It was a beautiful lamp by the Kinzig sisters and I wanted to rearrange around it.
You should write a book.
I am! An Artful Home book will be coming out in Fall 2007. The book encourages people to live with original artwork and beautiful things, and to think of their homes as their own personal canvas on which to exercise their creativity. We’ll also have our first The Artful Home retail show in New York this fall.
Do you have a favorite piece of art? Something you’d grab first if there ever was a fire?
Earlier in my life I fell in love with a painting I saw in a gallery in Montgomery, Alabama. I was recently divorced and pretty broke. But I kept going back and looking at it. Finally the gallery owner offered to let me buy the painting over time so I paid her $25 month for a year and a half. It is a beautiful painting of birds and sky and it’s the first thing I see when I wake up every morning. I have other things that are much more expensive, but that piece of art was my first attempt to make a commitment to art and to myself.
Your Artful Home 101
Toni Sikes shares her top five tips for creating an artful home.
1. Find beauty in everyday things. I think of the coffee mug as a metaphor. Those beautiful everyday things can make such a difference in how you feel about your home and your life. That’s how I start my day every day—with a mug that makes me happy.
2. Trust your instincts and make your own choices about the beautiful things you want to live with it. I look at some of my friends who are intimidated about buying art, and I wish I could take their hand and tell them to trust their gut. The gut is almost never wrong. If you love something it’s probably right for you.
3. No rules. Really. It’s OK to make mistakes (especially if you’re buying art from a place with a return policy!).
4. Learn about the artist whose work speaks to you. Find out about their inspirations, techniques and processes. That’s why we share that information with the customers at guild.com. People are inspired by learning about their favorite artists, like Brian Kershisnik.
5. Forget the perception that you have to have a lot of money to buy art. I believe that luxury isn’t measured by price but by the amount of attention lavished on the details. Everyone, no matter his or her income, can create a home that’s filled with luxury — the luxury of something carefully made or much loved.
Anne Krueger is a frequent contributor to HGTV.com. She has written for In Style, This Old House, Martha Stewart Living and The New York Times.