Donna Gorman expresses her love of contemporary design through bold shapes and colors in textiles across multiple product lines. She learned the business of design over two decades working with Finnish design house Marimekko, and used that knowledge of licensing, design, and production as a springboard for her own company Donna Gorman Design. Her work can be seen in products she has created for Seabrook Designs, Crate&Barrel, Target, Dansk and other retailers, as well as in her children’s line Flip Kids! and in her women’s and home accessories line called See Design. Based in Connecticut, Donna also lives and travels abroad extensively, cultivating a creative lifestyle and a savvy global business.
I wanted to ask you about your two decades working at Marimekko, where you served as vice president of licensing and design until 1992, at which point you started your own line. To what extent did your tenure at Marimekko impact your aesthetic, or did you already share part of this design DNA?
When I started at Marimekko, I was 24 years old and at the beginning of my career. I had a small collection of hand-painted children’s clothes, which I was selling through reps in various cities, but I was totally unskilled in the business of textile design. Marimekko hired me anyway. I had an aesthetic which worked well with them, and they offered me a job in 1982. I learned the tech part and the business on the job. I approached them because I loved what they did. I almost fainted when they offered me a position in the studio so quickly — it was like a dream come true. I have always had tremendous respect for Marimekko and their design, and it was a privilege to work with them and their designers. After 24 years, I can say that I learned a tremendous amount there about design and the business of design.
Tell me about how decided to launch Donna Gorman Design and what products you started with.
Well, I launched my company right after Marimekko was sold by the Ratia family to Amer group, a large multi-business company from Finland. Things were changing in the company — the design pendulum was swinging very far away from Marimekko and much closer to the Ralph Lauren look, and my role had become too high-level corporate. I was no longer designing anything. I was directing designers and managing people, something I don’t like to do.
So it was the perfect time for me to make the split, and I was ready for a change. And then Kirsti Paakanen, Marimekko’s new owner, asked me to stay on as a consultant. So I continued to work with them on a client basis until about a year ago. That, too, was great, because I was launching my business and I already had a first client!
When I started to do my own new design work, I actually struggled quite a bit. I was very well connected because of Marimekko, but most of the people I knew only associated me with them and did not see me as an independent designer. So I actually got no business from people I knew initially. I also had to break away from Marimekko and develop my own design style, meaning what I had to offer to these companies that they could not get from someone else. It took a little time before I started getting clients. The clients I did get, I mostly arranged licensing agreements with. I would design a product or collection, and they would pay me a royalty. As time went on, I continued to develop more relationships with retailers too. So I would develop program for them directly, which would be manufactured by miscellaneous companies of their or my choice. It was a nice clean business in that sense.
Also independently, I was able to combine my other interests into my work, so I co-authored an entertaining book called The Artful Table. With that I used my love for photography, food, design and entertaining to create a product. It did not make me much money, but it got me a lot of attention and my clients appreciated it.
What are the different components of your business now, and how do you see it all evolving from here?
Business has changed so much and continues to change very rapidly, especially with this weak economy. It is tougher and tougher to get companies to invest in new design projects, particularly in home furnishings and particularly if it is contemporary design. It is much safer to recolor the same old thing, or a copy of something, than it is to develop new ideas. That is unfortunate for everyone.
Hence, along with my Flip Kids! children’s collection for Sweet Potatoes, and some other small licensed collections I have been working on for existing clients, I have decided to import my own collection of resort products. I call the collection See Design. I import caftans, sarongs, bags, pillow covers, etc., from India. This is a new project for me since I am directly involved and own the inventory that I am developing, and it’s much riskier than what I am use to. But I decide what the collection looks like and what the designs are, not a buyer I am trying to sell some ideas to. So this gives me more control of my work and my image. And once again, it ties together different aspects of my life. Since I have a house now in a resort area, I really understand the lifestyle.
In a way, I am going back to what I did right out of college with my hand-painted kid’s clothes before I worked for Marimekko. But, of course, the stakes are higher now since I am having the collection manufactured and am approaching large retailers.
I understand you were trained as a photojournalist. Did you work in this field prior to being with Marimekko, and does this background influence how you approach design?
I have always loved photography, and it will always be an important part of my life but never professionally — although I photograph my own work and take lots of photos that influence my work. It is still a great artistic outlet for me when I have the time. I own many fancy cameras, some I hardly ever use. The point-and-shoot digital is the camera of choice most times. My college degree is in photo journalism, which is not just visual photography, it’s journalism. Capturing an event, getting the story visually, stopping to take the shot before you offer to help someone. I knew I would never pursue it as a career when I graduated, but since I was not in art school, it was the most artistic major I could find within the limits of where I was.
In a way, I think it helped me more with my design career, because it taught me how to hustle for work. You learn that as a photo journalism student, it’s not just about taking pictures. It’s about getting THE shot — and the assignment.
Your textile designs can be juxtaposed beautifully within a modern context — with modern architecture, modern furniture, and so on. Do you design with this interplay in mind, or do you see your designs fitting into a wide variety of environments?
I am only interested in contemporary design. I am happy when lots of people like my work and refer to it as transitional, but strong colors and bold painterly shapes are what most inspire me. That is why it is not a surprise to me that I worked with a Scandinavian company for so many years. I just always felt comfortable with the aesthetic. I remember when I first started at Marimekko, one of the most fun things was I loved a lot of the things that the other designers there loved. We saw things the same way. That had never happened to me before in my life — I was always a bit fringe about what I liked. I guess I grew up in a conservative area.
As I get older, I am really interested in taking more and more risk with the environment I live in. I am incredibly bored with things otherwise. My environment has always been a place for me to experiment with my ideas.
You’re based in Connecticut but live and travel abroad regularly as well. I’m curious about the logistics of your business — are you working and communicating with staff and production from wherever you happen to be?
I travel to factories a lot. I love to meet the people and see where my products are being made. Communication these days is so much easier than it ever has been. Of course, you need face-to-face also, but I get a lot done on the web and on the phone.
Some of my readers are just beginning a creative career. Do you have any particular words of advice about how you’ve approached your work or about launching your own line after such a long relationship with one company?
I really don’t have any blanket advice for a young designer, except to work really hard. And make sure you honor your customers’ opinions. If you sell a concept to one company, don’t approach their competitor for business if you can help it. It burns relationships, though sometimes it is unavoidable. But if you can avoid it, loyalty helps to build relationships with companies.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they directly impact your work or just make you happy?
I love bright colors. I often paint patterns using the same simple colors and then transpose them into specific colorways once the pattern development work is done. I also love flowers, nature-inspired design, and travel, which is something that has always meant a lot to me and my work. I also love being able to integrate my work into my life. It helps to tie the string of ideas together, which is really helpful. Living a “creative lifestyle” is something that is really important to me personally, but it definitely gets reflected in my work.
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