Farmers Markets and Fluff: MaryCat Chaikin of Relish Placemaking Consultancy

A few weeks ago, the Creative Somerville Series welcomed MaryCat Chaikin, co-founder of Relish, a project management and consulting practice for placemaking through food-based and creative economy initiatives. While Relish itself is still in its infancy, Chaikin, along with her partner Mimi Graney, have been doing their work in the Somerville community for more than a decade. They’ve established several local farmers markets, founded Union Square’s renowned Fluff Festival (a celebration of Marshmallow Fluff, which was invented in Union Square), and were instrumental in transforming the neighborhood through creativity and inventiveness. On a lovely night at Aeronaut Brewing Company, Chaikin took us back and told the story of how she came to co-found a placemaking consultancy and what it’s like to run one.

From Food and Science To Farmers Markets

With an undergraduate degree in geology and a strong interest in local food, Chaikin’s early career was a collection of jobs—for restaurants including the acclaimed Craigie Street Bistro (now Craigie on Main) and The Blue Room, in exhibitions and natural history for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and eventually through her own catering and personal chef business. The common thread, she said, was an ability to organize and a desire to curate.

She connected with Mimi Graney, who at the time was Founder and Executive Director of Union Square Main Streets, and they began to work together to run the Union Square Farmers Market—a proving ground for Chaikin and Graney to develop their working relationship and their unique approach to placemaking, events and economic development. Chaikin and Graney—who was organizing events like the Fluff Festival at the time—sought out local talent—musicians, school groups and businesses to participate in their events.

Chaikin and Graney were attuned to dynamics of social equity—they developed a token payment system so that farmers market patrons receiving food assistance were not singled out and received matching funds for more purchasing power. They took a proactive approach to their market’s socioeconomic diversity, by marketing its food assistance program through promotional materials that asked, “If you know anyone who can use this service, please help us spread the word.”

Relish: From Storefront to Consultancy

While Chaikin and Graney worked together on the farmers market, a short-term storefront rental in the neighborhood opened up and Relish (version one) was born. The venture was a seven-month urban agriculture pop-up where the team hosted a retail store and classes in home-based food production including beekeeping, chicken-keeping, gardening, canning, pickling and more. Chaikin said, “We started with no money and ended with a little bit of money … that gave us the confidence to move forward.” Although Chaikin and Graney ultimately decided against the storefront business model, it raised their level of ambition and solidified their vision for Relish.

In the spring of 2014, with the Relish Storefront behind them, Chaikin and Graney decided to team up and form Relish 2.0. The approach: Provide consulting and project management services for placemaking and creative economy initiatives, with a special focus on food. Why food? Chaikin explained, “so many local businesses are are food-oriented, so it’s a great place to start.”

The Relish Model

Farmer’s markets are still Relish’s bread and butter—Chaikin described them as the “flywheel” of their practice, providing the base income for their business. In addition to the Union Square Farmers Market and the Somerville Winter Farmers Market, Relish helped establish and runs a market at Assembly Row and nearby Watertown’s first farmers market. (Want to visit Relish’s Somerville farmers markets? Here’s the schedule.)

Relish also provides consultancy services both for clients and to cities in Massachusetts as MassDevelopment’s placemaking “house doctor.” The cities Relish works with are struggling with economic decline and urban disinvestment, and are looking for “their Fluff Festival.” Chaikin loves the process of getting to know each the city, the local players and discovering the city’s unique opportunities and story. “A community’s perceived weakness can actually be their greatest strength,” she said.

Although Relish focuses on urban placemaking, cities are often not Relish’s direct clients. “We see the city as an ally, rarely as a client,” said Chaikin, noting that the municipalities infrequently have the funding for placemaking projects. Instead, Relish is most often hired by nonprofits and developers. This means he “consultant life” involves a lot of time spent looking for and responding to requests for proposals.

The proposal process led to an early lesson learned for Relish. Chaikin showed us a Relish project she loves—”Kite Day Happy Full” is a zigzagging vending machine temporary installation for a vacant site in Kendall Square that dispenses local food. Yet the client, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, ultimately didn’t bite on the proposal that Relish had spent months working on. Chaikin says that the experience spurred them to learn to move more quickly on proposals, and also to wait before enlisting their vast network of collaborators, avoiding “burning out all our contacts immediately.”

It’s All About the Data

Since the range of experiences Relish can ultimately deliver to their clients is so diverse, the team has had to define the value they add in a sophisticated way. Chaikin said, “the level of community involvement and social capital” is the difference between event planning and placemaking.

Chaikin and Graney are always looking at the relationship between urban vibrancy tactics and their larger social and economic impact. They regularly collect data on their markets and have developed survey methods for customers and vendors that reveal the deep impact they have on the community.

The Union Square Farmers Market, for example, plays a pivotal role in the local economy—a study found that it generates $2.5 million dollars in economic impact per season. Chaikin cites data that says that farmers market customers on average spend $1 in surrounding businesses for every $1 they spend at the market—provided there are surrounding businesses to spend money in, of course. This data makes the vital connection between interventions that can seem Fluff-y (pardon the pun) and their role as urban investments. “If you have the data, you have the advantage,” Chaikin said.

When Chaikin looks ahead to the future of Relish, she hopes for longer-term projects and relationships, but their smaller scale projects and tests, and even foibles (like the sponsored chairs that they installed in Union Square that disappeared, “because they were really cool chairs,” she adds) have helped them build Relish’s expertise and point of view.

Her advice to both cities and creative placemakers? “The fun of experimentation is the flexibility with trying things on a smaller scale before moving forward.”

photo credits: Somerville Beat

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.


For the Love of Letterpress and Local Makers: Mike Dacey of Repeat Press

June was a pull-out-all-the-stops fantastic month for the Creative Somerville Series. Our speaker Mike Dacey, founder of letterpress studio Repeat Press joined us as a shining star in Aeronaut’s week-long celebration of their first year of business. Dacey was part of Aeronaut’s “Neighbor Night,” which he fit in with perfectly, given his role as a founding member of Fringe, a Union Square-based shared work space, hosting over 15 local businesses, and given his growing involvement in the Union Square planning process in Somerville.

Learning Letterpress

Mike’s story starts with his suburban upbringing. He got interested in skateboarding, and from there, with its graphic culture. He realized that someone was making the graphics that would show up on his board and got interested in graphic design.

CSS 061715 Mike DaceyThe college he attended, Hampshire, in western Mass, was by chance, located at a major hub of an almost lost art, wood type printing, due to the region’s historic paper mill industry.  took advantage of Hampshire’s open-ended curricular opportunities and sought out an apprenticeship with a local printer. “I think I emailed every letterpress shop in the valley and said, ‘Can I come hang out?’” he says.

Dacey was fascinated by the craft and he was ahead of the curve on the current explosion of interest in letterpress. He described walking into shops and getting looks from the middle-aged printers. “What are you doing here?” This is where old men hang out.”

Dacey eventually found someone to apprentice with (this mostly entailed putting letters back into their boxes, he says) but who let him play around with his own creations as well. And after school it was a no-brainer to continue the work and try to build a letterpress business. He bought his first press (being ahead of the curve meant he could afford it) and set up in South Boston.

Repeat Press and Fringe

Dacey found a space to set up his studio and started printing as a side hustle. He printed for local bands and honed his craft–including eventually adding contemporary letterpress using custom plates to his skillset, instead of just existing wood type blocks.

After a short interlude in Philly, Dacey returned to Boston and eventually moved over to Somerville motivated by friends and cheap rent. Business was picking up, and among other things, his band friends started to get married and ask him i he printed invitations. At some point, the workload was high enough for Dacey to quit his job.

When Dacey speaks about Fringe, and why it worked he speaks with passion and purpose, “A big thing that sets Fringe apart from other co-working spaces is that Fringe was founded because people needed space to work. It was never about making money. People have more ownership over the space. The community aspect is something very different from other spaces around.”

Fringe generates what Dacey calls “internal foot traffic.” Members not only pool resources and advice, but they’ve built a small ‘ecosystem’ in which clients who are brought in to work with one member, often find themselves being introduced to and hiring other members.

Dacey relayed the story of Cuppow, a product brought to life by the Fringe ecosystem. A drinking lid for a mason jar, the idea was architected by one member, who went to another for engineering and manufacturing advice and help. Soon, many of the Fringe businesses pitched in, helping with branding, packaging and more, thinking, as Dacey recounts, “if we can sell 500 of these, everybody gets paid and it’ll be funny. They sold 500 units in the first few days.”

And while at the end of the summer, Dacey will be the only founding member of Fringe still in the building, none of the businesses based there have closed because they went out of business or grew out of the space, notes Dacey. rather, they moved out of the city or had other life plans that took them out of Fringe.

The Future of Fringe

When asked about what will happen with Fringe as development increases in Union Square, Dacey tells us that the future is not as certain as he’d like it to be. They’ll have a lease that is renegotiated every year, instead of a multi-year commercial lease, which means a lot of uncertainty for the businesses based there. Part of Somerville’s creativity, he muses, was that its cheapness made it easier to take risks. “Somerville used to be a place where you could start something without a lot of money,” he says.

Dacey says in plain terms that new construction is just not consistent with the rent levels that businesses like his need to survive and thrive. He’s joined in as an adviser to the planning committee for Union Square and the new green line stations to add in the perspective of the local maker-based business community.

Creative Juice

When asked about what he’s creatively interested in these days, Dacey is clear that its relationships, and not just craft that is driving him. As the excitement of letterpress and his own business have become more moderate over time, more of his passion comes from the Fringe community.

CSS 061715 crowdMore than a few local business owners see him as one of their core sources on business issues. During Q&A, Fringe member Erin Heath, co-owner of Forêt Design Studio complements him on his business advising, and Dacey tells another audience member to be confident charging fair compensation for her work. “You shouldn’t feel bad charging for your time when you like what you do. You shouldn’t feel guilty for that, you should feel lucky.” If there’s anything he’d tell his younger self about running a small business, he says to not be afraid to make investments in resources or help. “Don’t be afraid to pay people for stuff you don’t want to do, like taxes,” he says, and after a pause, adds, “do your taxes.”

When asked about his dream project, he similarly says that for him it “is more of a relationship than a single project,” citing his relationship with local branding studio Oat. What he’s most excited about in his life now, are his friends, many of whom he works with on a daily basis. And why he loves Somerville? “You have all things about a city but it feels like a community, a neighborhood.”

Thank you Mike Dacey, happy first birthday to Aeronaut, and happy neighbor night to all.

photo credits: Somerville Beat

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

RSVP here for tickets for our next event on July 22 with Mimi Graney and MaryCat Chaikin, founders of Relish Management.

Four-thousand Mile Bike Rides and Thirty Feet Foodsheds: Colin Davis of Something GUD at the Creative Somerville Series.

May’s Creative Somerville Series brought us a fantastic speaker–Colin Davis, founder of local foods-based subscription service Something GUD and Redemption Fish Co., an aquaponic fish and vegetable farm. CSS 052015 Canteen bowlsThe night also brought a new feature to our series: Dinner vending by The Community Canteen who seemed to inspire culinary happiness and satisfaction with their silver bowls.

After telling the crowd a little bit about the distribution of profit in the food industry (very little of it currently goes to farmers,) Davis went on to Something GUD’s approach: To cut out the middleman, just like a CSA (community supported agriculture) but with more curation and variety, tailoring to customer’s desires.

Davis, who once rode a bike across the country meeting with sustainability entrepreneurs, just say “I just rode a bicycle 4000 miles and hope that you’ll speak with me for an hour,” he advises, took us back to the series of jobs and ventures that led to him starting his current ventures.

Davis started out as a sustainability consultant. While he enjoyed the subject (he is passionate about, if not obsessed with sustainability and efficiency) he soon found himself frustrated with his role in the larger process of change. He was tired of clients looking over his sustainability recommendations and only choosing the solar panels (which had the least impact on energy efficiency) because of their marketing cache. Being an employee also just wasn’t Davis’ style; He jokes that he wanted to wear flip flops to work.

Startup 1: kWhOURS

In search of a career with more flip flops (and meaning,) Davis struck out and founded kWhOURS, a service that would bring automation to energy audits. “Being unemployable you have no choice but to try startups,” he says. Davis soon found himself traipsing around Silicon Valley raising money. The venture raised a serious budget, but there were a number of issues with the project, including that it was slightly before its time–it’s hard to remember ye old days before iPads and smartphones capable of running complex programs–but they existed and the software game changed after their introduction. Davis realized they needed to shut the company down.

kWhOURS did teach him how important testing ideas in the market was, and using lean methods of product development. He told the audience with conviction to familiarize themselves with “lean,” eg. The Lean Startup and its philosophy of market testing through minimum viable products.

CSS 052015 ColinStartup 2: Something GUD

After ramping down kWhOURS, Davis knew a few things: He wanted to work on issues of sustainability but he wanted to do something that had a much more direct relationship with customers, and with basic issues: Food was the perfect candidate. He also was tired of raising money, and started Something GUD with his own money and money pulled together from friends and family.

The company started with a small number of passionate fans that allowed Davis and his team to experiment. These were customers who were understanding when the company got it wrong, and then tweaked and pivoted the business model. One of their pivots? They originally hoped to meet all the food needs of their customers through a meal-based format (similar to companies like Blue Apron) but that was too complex of an order and they scaled back.

Colin says that the experience of running a bootstrapped company helped him understand more deeply why people make the short-term choice (such as buying less energy efficient equipment) even when they’ll pay for it in the long term–for people starting and running businesses money is tight today, not tomorrow.

Scale and Size

CSS 052015 Colin and MiaDavis spoke about his team with respect and gratitude. He says,”on paper I’m the CEO but in reality I just fetch resources.” His challenge is to be able to rise above the daily commotion and the issues that have to be attended to right now and to make more time to work on the issues that push the company forward proactively. (We were speaking with him the day after a red-eye, by the way.)

Top on his list is to grow his customer base. If Something GUD achieves this, they will be able to get to a scale where they can support local farmers more consistently, which supports both the farmers, efficiency goals, and Something GUD’s bottom line: “We can buy the whole cow every time” he says. With greater scale, Something GUD could create assured demand for their vendors (a farmer’s best friend) and even put in orders that farmers can plant and raise to.

And Davis does think there’s room to grow. While there are a number of companies like his in town, and CSA subscribers, he doesn’t see that market as his target, necessarily. The customers he wants to take are Whole Foods’ who he credits with reintroducing the idea that food quality is worth paying for.

Yet Davis hopes to scale Something GUD carefully and ethically. He cites examples of much larger companies that operate like his, who work with farmers in rural areas. If they fail or switch their sourcing, they could wipe out small farmer economies in those areas, and they might never return. So the plan is to grow in a way that recognizes the power his company has in the ecosystem of small businesses that he’s trying to support.

Company & Community

Davis also talked about his approach to equity in the company which is much less tightfisted than entrepreneurs are usually advised to be, “I gave out equity like Pez”, he jokes. Giving out equity (with measures in place to make sure recipients are committed and stick around for a while–he made sure to tell the audience,) helped him grow his company without venture capital, and also meant that those who chose to work with him were really committed to the company and the idea. “The only people who show up are either crazy and desperate or really love what they’re doing,” he says.

CSS 052015 sceneSomething GUD is based out of the Aeronaut Foods Hub, where the Creative Somerville Series takes place. Being in the Foods Hub, and in Somerville has helped Something GUD grow by word of mouth, as people walk past their counter, beer in hand. “I’ve gotten to tell our story thousands of times,” Davis says.

Something GUD has also benefited from, and paid it forward in the small business network in Somerville. At one point, Davis relayed a story of how he had been at a talk with Ben Holmes, one of the founders of Aeronaut. Holmes (who was standing next to our Creative Somerville stage at that very moment–how very meta) told Davis he was starting a brewery. Davis told him, well, he was going to start a business too. So when Aeronaut found their warehouse, Davis was one of the first tenants to settle in the Foods Hub, which now hosts multiple small businesses.

More are opening soon, and they help to build out that ecosystem of local, independent business relationships that Something GUD relies on–“We can source some of our greens from thirty feet that way,” he says pointing towards the corner of the Foods Hub.

That’s local.

photo credits: Somerville Beat.

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

RSVP here for tickets for our next event on 6/17 with Mikey Dacey, founder of Repeat Press and Fringe.

Event: NEA Women in Social Impact Design Webinar

Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to be on a panel on women in social impact design run by the NEA and hosted by Katie Swenson of Enterprise Community Partners.

It’s going to be a great conversation–the panelists include Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design, Liz Ogbu, urbanist and social innovator, Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard Business School and myself. We’re going to look at the larger issue of mission as a key component in the lives and practices of female design practitioners, but also how the social impact design field can do a better job at demonstrating and pushing for equity–especially gender equity–in practice.

“What women want and what the profession and society needs should not be in conflict.”

-Katie Swenson

Katie wrote a great blog post previewing the conversation here and I wrote a piece on the view from architecture’s two equity-based movements here.

RSVP for the webinar here.

Hitting Fifty! Looking Back at Five Months of Blogging

When I began blogging in November I didn’t know what the process would have in store for me. I didn’t set out to start a website and build my ‘tribe’ and I didn’t even know how long I would be doing it for.

I only wanted a place to think ‘out loud’ and sort through everything I was learning.

But consistency has paid off and it’s played a strong but background role in helping me shape my interests and ideas into action.

Blogging has helped me give shape to ideas that were ambiguous and tighten nascent connections among my endeavors.

I wanted to take a moment of celebration for ‘hitting fifty’ by calling out five of the things that have shifted for me since I began blogging that I am really excited about.

#5: I Founded the Creative Somerville Series.


This speaker series, which I run with Elyse Andrews of the Somerville Beat features local creatives and entrepreneurs in an intimate Q&A format, that eschews the ‘fabulous life of…’ approach that a lot of lectures end up at. Although the series is young, we’ve been sold out for every event we’ve hosted, and it’s clear the series is resonating with people.

I’ve loved being inspired by our speakers, the founders of Aeronaut Brewing, Kate Balug of Department of Play, Erin Heath and Rose Mattos of Forêt Design Studio and Trevor Holmes of Wistia. I’m also meeting wonderful people (see item #1) and love working with Elyse and our slowly growing crew of volunteers. Want to join in? Check out our schedule here.

#4 The Build Yourself+ Workshop is Taking Off.

Build Yourself Workshop_Old Girls Club

I taught the Build Yourself+ Workshop, an empowerment workshop for women at the Boston Society of Architects for the first time this spring and it was absolutely fantastic. Evals that came back from the workshop are showing that the experience was life changing for many women.

I’ve always had plans for taking the workshop to the next level but a wonderful piece in Fast Company from a few weeks ago has expanded the workshop’s visibility and the workshop’s focus and challenge-based model is clearly striking a nerve. I’m looking at expanding the workshop to other cities and to other fields.

Want to join in the conversation? I’m moderating a panel at the BSA bringing together women in different fields this week, and next week I’ll be part of a National Endowment of the Arts webinar on women in social impact design.

#3 Issues of Impact Have Risen to the Top.

I’ve always intended to use my design skills in service of social impact, but blogging has helped me define a more sophisticated approach, language and set of strategies that I specifically use. Months ago, when I first started blogging I wrote this epic post (it was a manifesto of sorts) on how I thought landscape architecture could drive health outcomes.

That impact focus, driven in part by learning about lean startup concepts, has become a core part of everything I do, whether it’s the challenge-based model of the Build Yourself+ Workshop, or the strategy behind work I’ve been doing for clients. I’m currently taking an Acumen fund class on “Lean Impact Assessment” with my research partner Gilad Meron, and Katie Crepeau of the Impact Design Hub and am excited about how the class and our conversations. I’m excited to continue expanding my take on impact-focused work, and to investigate some instincts I have about how impact assessment can be more creatively driven.

#2 My Research on Social Impact Design Business Models was Funded by the NEA.

Social Impact Design Research Funding

Ok so it’s not really fair to include this one as a blogging-related outcome, since we laid the groundwork way back in the fall when our research group, Proactive Practices applied for the funding.

PrintBut this was my first self-initiated project in the realm I work in: The intersection of design, entrepreneurship and social impact. I can say that I have used this blog as a platform to explore that intersection and draw out key connections and insight and direction. The blog has also demystified writing for me, and made ma a more confident, easy and fast writer, which I know will come in handy as we move forward with this project.

#1 I Have a Crew I Love Here in the Boston Area.


Most importantly, blogging has been a behind-the-scenes organizing force for me to learn, meet new people and get deeper into the city I’ve lived in for almost five years. Blogging gave me a place for reflection, a way of pacing out life, a week at a time, and a way to ‘file away’ thoughts as I met people. I’ve met fantastic folks in the area, and through events like the Design for Equity conference this fall, the Creative Somerville Series and the Boston Society of Architects.

Do you ever get that feeling that you’re surrounded by great people who you respect and admire, and they’re really digging each other? I am starting to feel that way in the place that I live and that’s a huge blessing.

I’m not going to conclude this post with a “and here’s to another fifty!” I’m going to conclude with a feeling of gratitude that slow steady progress can spiral into so much more. Here’s to so much more.

photo credits: featured image adapted from flickr user Elaine. Creative Somerville Series photo by Ben Holmes of Aeronaut. Build Yourself+ Workshop photo adapted from Nina Chase.

Running a Pop Up: How I Design Meals (and Everything)

When people find out I cofounded a pop up dinner club, (and run an empowerment workshop and run a research collaborative)  they sometimes struggle to make it all fit together. So you’re a designer but you do all this other stuff? How’s that all work?

I don’t just design things, or spaces, I design experiences. When I design a landscape, or a book or even a meal, I’m thinking about the kind of experience I want people to have, and then filtering that impact down to all the touchpoints I can control. In landscape design, that’s the signage, the circulation, and how it sets up assumptions for how you’ll interact with others, the topography, the site furnishings, how you move through the space and the viewpoints I set up.

In meal design, there are also touchpoints, both physical and non-physical. There’s the way you enter the space, the signage, the lighting, the way people are seated (do we sit them with people they know? Are their groupings?) and what’s on (or not on) the table when you arrive. There’s the way we give or hold back information (menu information, what’s a surprise, and what’s not?) There’s even room to play in how we serve you and how you serve yourself, and how the meal sets you up to interact with others (Can you pass the…?) And I’m not even designing the food.

I just came across this UK-based pop up that is a collaboration between a set designer and a chef and I thought, yes, this is exactly what my chef partner and I have been doing.

Here’s some eye candy to enjoy below drawn from a recent camping-themed pop up they held on the theme of ‘camping.’ They give a sense of just how much the little details add and how central experience design is to creating a memorable meal.

Photos of The Art of Dining Gone Camping pop up linked from the websites above:

featured image photo credit: Rochelle Li

Helping Social Impact Designers Faster! Our NEA Grant for Proactive Practices

Exciting news!  Proactive Practices, my research collaborative which investigates emerging business models of social impact design just got a research grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. The project was born for me a few years ago out of a very basic question. I’d seen celebrations of social impact design blowing up in the design press and media, but the attention was mostly focused on a fairly self-congratulatory what, (the projects and the designers behind them) instead of the how the works got done. I wanted to know which organizations were producing these projects, what business strategies and models they were using to do this kind of work and build sustainable, thriving businesses, and what the trade-offs were of the different models they had chosen. The project started for me as an independent study while I was in graduate school, and I linked up with Nick McClintock and Gilad Meron who were also asking these questions. Our research team has pushed the project forward, interview by interview, article by article, diagram and talk and presentation by presentation since, but now, thanks to the NEA and a matching grant from The University of Pennsylvania, we finally have a significant project budget to push this forward faster and get useful information to design practitioners who want to make social impact.

Here are 3 specific reasons why I’m excited about this grant:

We have a real budget:

Our team has poured countless hours into this project (I know I spent almost 100 hours on it in the last year.)  We’ve prioritized it. One of my research partners and I even made a pact one week to donate to the Republican party if we didn’t hit our project goal. But this is the kind of project that requires making enough headspace to really get into it and be able to both plan and to work. With a significant budget we can also hire people to do things that are either not our strongest suit, or the best use of our time. We can hire web developers or graphic designers and get our interviews transcribed, pay for web plugins and other resources that will help us get our information to our audience faster and more effectively.

We have a timeline:

I am an impatient, action-oriented person. I get antsy if I find myself spending too much time planning and not enough time doing. While I initiated this research project for my own purposes—After three years in graduate school, I wanted to know what practice options were out there for designers to make social impact—I never intended to sit on my findings. Our research team has shared our learnings through talks and articles, but not enough, and not fast enough for my taste. I am a recovering perfectionist, I have been hugely influenced by ideas from books like The Lean Startup that advise you to put your work out there in successive beta launches that are good not perfect. I’d rather get good work out there now that practitioners can use today, than wait to craft something perfect, but not all my research partners agree. Both positions have merit, and having the funds to get closer to perfect, and a timeline to get closer to good is great mediator between our values.

We have specific deliverables:

We’ve always had specific goals of output for this effort—A publication and a web presence. But now we’re on the hook to produce those outcomes and need to get them done within the next year. I often like to work backwards from my specific deliverable—I’ll lay out a publication even before I have the content to feed into it because it helps me use my time more efficiently and only spend time developing what I actually need to develop. It also means that from the get-go I’m thinking from the perspective of my end user, about how they will actually use what I’m developing for them, how it can solve their problems and fit into the context of their lives. Knowing exactly what we’ve committed to producing means we’ll jump into that process faster and with more specificity. We can go through the iterative cycles of making something that changes the way social impact designers practice faster. I can’t wait until the day I’m back on this blog announcing the launch of insight and information you can use. If you want to be notified of our launch, sign up for our list.

Working for the EARTH! Rose Mattos & Erin Heath of Forêt Design Studio

Rose Mattos and Erin Heath of Forêt Design Studio joined us at the Creative Somerville Series last month, to talk about their story and their floral and event styling studio. Rose and Erin, who met while working for Anthropologie, described their friendship as an almost “cosmic connection.” Erin who was working under Rose, thought her boss new boss was the coolest and invited her to a party she was hosting her first Friday at her new job. The mutual girl crush was started and led to the strong friendship and business that is now Forêt Design Studio.

Foret Design Studio Creative Somerville Series-01

Both women love flowers, as Erin says, she recently discovered that in high school she’d written to a friend, “I don’t want to work for the man, I want to work for the earth!” Rose and Erin sought out professional opportunities in florist shops, and were told that the work was too dirty and they wouldn’t like it, and were turned away again and again.

Erin found work on a flower farm, and they began collaborating together on flower arranging and installations outside of their day jobs. Their style focused on a looser type of flower arranging that wasn’t as formal as the more contemporary, tight style common in Boston. Forêt means forest in french, and one of the guiding aesthetic values of the studio is the founder’s love for natural elements like branches and acorns, and not just flowers.

Foret Design Studio Creative Somerville Series-03

Founding Forêt

The ladies don’t describe the process of starting Forêt as a jump.They seem to have just flowed into it as their freelance work load got higher. But they do cite a key moment, when they applied for space in Fringe Union, a coworking space in Union Square that’s home to small businesses and design studios. We were excited to put our “eggs in that basket,” Rose says.

Once the ladies moved into Fringe and developed a workload, they actually fell into roles They realized they didn’t want to go into work every day and ask “Who should do this task, we should do that?” Their motto is divide and conquer. “We weren’t interested in creating more work for ourselves,” they say.

If the two of them worked in complementary roles, they realized they could accomplish double the work and focus on what they each were good at, and were interested in. Erin took on bookkeeping, administrative tasks and client contact, and Rose has specialized into an artistic director role. They both are actively involved in design and events and visit farms together where they can talk at length about the particular tone of red they want in a flower for their upcoming job.

The Dirt
Erin and Rose are so positive and obviously work so well together that they’ve managed to turn even the bad times into good outcomes, reflecting that “they made us stronger.” From events that don’t always go as planned (they cite an event in their businesses’ early days in which they became a scapegoat) to a meeting with a financial planner who told them,”You need me but you can’t afford me” (they vowed to prove him wrong,) to missing friends’ weddings because they were planned after the Forêt schedule got booked, a flower-based business isn’t always instagram-perfect.

Knowing themselves seems to be at the core of their success. They try to work with clients who really understand their unique style and will refer clients who seem to want something very different to other designers who can meet their needs better. Compromise with clients and companies is part of the business, of course, but especially when working with big companies, they’ve learned over time to stand up for their needs.

Foret Design Studio Creative Somerville Series-02Just do it

Despite their precision about shades of red, Erin and Rose seem to have a fluid working process and approach to their creative work. When asked about the influence of their art backgrounds on Forêt, Rose advises, “If you understand the principles of design you can transform them into another medium.” Whether a painting or a floral installation, she’s working with issues of color, scale and variability. When asked for advice from people interested in following their path, Rose and Erin advocate just starting by getting flowers or other beautiful items and starting to play with them and arrange them in your home.

Creating Connections
One of the elements Rose and Erin love most about being based at Fringe Union and in Somerville is being part of the inspiring creative and small business community. Fringe Union members give each other advice, expand each others’ networks, and they collaborate. The audience at the Creative Somerville Series was filled with fellow Fringe Union members, and one of the last works Erin and Rose showed us was an amazing floral arrangement they made as part of a moody photographic collaboration with a fellow Fringe resident. In addition, the ladies develop long-time relationships with local growers and suppliers, and try to source as much material as they can locally.

The core relationship, of course, is that of best friends and now business partners, Rose and Erin. One story they told seemed to encapsulate it all: One day, before founding Forêt, they both spontaneously decided to buy the other flowers. They showed up at each others’ houses and found each other gone–they had missed each other on the way to each other’s houses.

Cosmic connection indeed.

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

RSVP here for tickets for our next event on 4/29 with Trevor Holmes of Wistia.