Art & Culture

Making Moves

Making Moves
MAKER Berkeley’s Sabine Herrmann is the owner of the Etsy shop Plantillo. (Photos courtesy of Etsy)

Local creators thrive despite pandemic

During the last year of the pandemic, we’ve all developed new hobbies: baking bread, making cocktails, gardening. But for the Bay Area’s Etsy sellers, “making” is more than entertainment; it’s a livelihood. During the course of the pandemic, the Bay Area’s makers devoted themselves to creating products inspired by their homes, from wine barrels to succulents, and the results have paid off—for some makers, this has been the most successful year of their business.

Beth Albers and Claire Whitehead developed their Etsy Shop, Emma Claire Shop (www.etsy.com/shop/EmmaClaireShop), after meeting at their daughters’ competitive cheer competitions. The two women share an interest in design, and wanted to open a business together. Succulent globes hung up in Disneyland—where they went for a cheer competition for their daughters—inspired them to create air plant products.

“We wanted to create something different than what we were seeing everywhere,” Whitehead says. “We wanted something unique, unique to the aesthetic of the Bay Area and California.” That was in 2016, and the two women have sold their products on the online platform ever since.

California remains their muse—and the place where all their products are sourced. “Our air plants are all grown by a family farm in San Diego, and our wood is from local hardware stores,” Albers says.

Originally, Albers and Whitehead went with Etsy rather than a brick-and-mortar shop because Claire had run an Etsy shop before; but the choice served them well during the pandemic. “For the last year, we have just kept thinking, ‘Thank God we didn’t do brick and mortar. We would be in so much trouble.’” Whitehead says. “We were in shock for a few weeks, but after a few months, things began to pick up. People can’t go shopping, so they come to our shop.”

“We have actually done better than ever this year, despite Covid,” Albers says.

Albers and Whitehead aren’t alone. In fact, gross merchandise sales were up 118% in 2020 on the site compared to 2019. As ecommerce exploded when brick-and-mortar stores closed down, independent shop owners who utilized the Etsy platform benefited. Other makers, including Sabine Herrmann, owner of the Etsy shop Plantillo, have reported record growth this year.

Herrmann first developed her Etsy shop, Plantillo (www.etsy.com/shop/Plantillo), when she was struck by the diversity of the plants around her while walking through her Berkeley neighborhood.

“The idea came to me while hiking in the beautiful Berkeley hills, Tilden Park and even in my neighborhood,” she says. “It was in the springtime, when everything was blooming and so beautiful. I took a lot of photos on my walks, and I wanted to do something with them. I have a small house without a lot of wall space, so I thought I should try some fabric. I got it printed on fabric digitally, and then I made my first pillow.”

Herrmann liked her first pillow, but wanted a more realistic look, so she cut the fabric to fit the exact shape of the photo, creating a realistic—and comfy—indoor garden. “It looked really nice, but it didn’t look realistic, so I followed the outlines of the plant, and the Plantillo was born,” she says. “It was really realistic, and it didn’t take long for me to post the first product on Etsy. I got my first order just a couple of days later, which was fantastic.” Herrmann now runs the Plantillo shop full-time from a studio space in Berkeley.

When the pandemic struck, Herrmann had just a few hours to grab her materials from her studio in Berkeley before lockdown. “I grabbed some fabric and my sewing machine, and I went home,” she says. “I had no idea what was going to happen. For a little while, I made masks. I donated them, and I put them on my Etsy shop. That got me back into being creative.”

After several months of working out of her small house, Herrmann returned to her studio to make pillows again, although strict protocols kept artists from interacting with one another. Herrmann did quite well during the pandemic, as new home decorators searched Etsy for products to make their homes feel pleasant instead of suffocating. “My product has done well because it’s a home product,” she says. “It’s a happy product, an outdoorsy product. And when people are stuck in their houses, they want to be looking at happy things that remind them of nature.”

From her first plantillo to her full product line in 2021, what hasn’t changed is Herrmann’s inspiration: long walks through her East Bay neighborhood. Herrmann takes all her own photos of the diverse plants that surround her. “You don’t need to go far,” she says. “Even going around the block, you can see some amazing plants … . It’s so inspiring. We are so lucky, living here, that we have redwoods growing next to cacti. The diversity of flora and fauna we have here is amazing.”

Backyard Inspiration

Quarantine kept us tethered to our homes, but for local makers, inspiration is often found in their own backyard. Like Herrmann, Armando Santiago developed and sells a product uniquely sourced from his home. Santiago moved to the Napa Valley from the East Coast after a 40-year career in the Air Force—and found a new calling. “I came to live out here in the Napa Valley with my wife,” Santiago says. “She was a wine club manager here in the Valley. She took me to the Napa home show, and I saw things made from barrels. And I said, ‘Wow. I could do this.’ I was bored at home, being retired. You can only play golf so many days of the week.”

Santiago began experimenting with woodworking using barrel wood, with no plan to turn it into a career. “I was just playing, using barrels I got from my wife. I just gave products away to friends and family,” he says.

Eventually, a friend with an Etsy shop suggested Santiago build an online storefront on the platform. “She told me to put my pieces up on this website, Etsy,” he says. “I had never heard of it! But I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll give it a try.’ And lo and behold, stuff started selling. Etsy becomes your personal salesman. You’re selling to like-minded people, who want to buy something handmade and local. Etsy gives you that exposure to people who are looking for custom items.”

Santiago now runs his shop from a home workshop in his garage, which he equipped with professional tools. “This became more than ‘keeping busy.’ It became a job,” he says.

Santiago took a hit when the pandemic began, because many of his handmade barrel platters and other art were purchased by people wanting to mark special occasions—weddings, anniversaries, birthdays. Santiago can have any piece laser-engraved with a personal message or a date. When events were cancelled, Santiago’s customers couldn’t use their pieces. He offered them credits, however, and many ordered pieces later. He maintained his usual number of orders, about 225 a year.

“Everything I make is handmade, and I am a one-man operation,” he says. “I buy the barrels, I make them, I pack them, I ship them. Everything I sell is an item that I would include in my own home. I want people to feel that. And I get the sense that people do.” www.etsy.com/people/BarrelArtNapaValley?

Freed Enterprise

Etsy wasn’t just a boon for veteran sellers during the pandemic. New business owners relied on the platform as well, especially those whose original business plans were put aside due to Covid. “Initially, I was planning to do farmers markets to introduce my product,” says Debra DeMartini, the owner of DEBZ Sonoma (www.debzsonoma.com), a gourmet food shop with hand-mixed salts, sugars and cocktail glass rimmers. “I was looking at schedules and gearing up for the farmers market season, but with the pandemic that just wasn’t possible.”

DeMartini, who has worked in the restaurant industry for her entire career—and maintains a full-time job—planned on using Sonoma’s popular farmers’ markets to launch her products locally, but turned to e-commerce out of necessity, opening her shop in May 2020. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed it. “I’ve always been a restaurant person, so this is really different, but it’s given me the opportunity to learn something new and learn as I go,” she says.

DeMartini’s 27 different products—from tomato basil salt to vanilla bourbon sugar—made their way across the U.S. and beyond, where they were used in unusual ways in pandemic kitchen experiments. “A child was using the lavender lemon sugar on her yogurt,” she says. “She was maybe seven, eight years old. And I never would have thought of that, but it’s her favorite thing. That’s been the most wonderful part for me, to see how people use these products. I always say, ‘Don’t overthink it, just try things.’”

DeMartini feels Etsy has helped her as a new business owner. “What’s cool about Etsy is that people don’t have to be looking for you,” she says. “They might be looking for something else entirely, and just find me. I am really grateful for that.”

While Etsy has helped customers find her shop, DeMartini’s unique products are all her own. She sources salts from international salt mines all around the globe, and develops organic spice blends to match the region she is sourcing from. She buys herbs and alliums from vendors all over California, determined to include only certified organic products in her blends. “Eventually, I would like to have a lot where I can grow all my own herbs and alliums. That’s my goal,” she says.

The shop is international, but DeMartini keeps strong local connections by offering free delivery to anyone who lives in the Sonoma Valley and gifting free products and samples to local families curious about her products. “My goal is to help people and their families make great food at home,” she says. “Salt is the base for food. You’re going to be using it anyway, so you might as well have fun with it. My tagline is that I sell the sous chef in a bottle, for people who might not have cooked much before.”

Quarantine provided an opportunity for people to engage with homemade goods in a new way, and some tried making their own. Social distancing and the rise of e-commerce may have relegated shopping to our computers, but it didn’t stop the Bay Area’s makers from working with their hands. Whether they are making succulent pillows or wine barrel platters, the artisans who call the Bay Area their home didn’t slow down during the pandemic—they adapted. 

“We can’t work together at the kitchen table anymore, but we do a lot of front-porch chats, we go for long walks,” Albers says. “We have had to find a new routine.”

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