It was legendary author Kurt Vonnegut who said, “The practice of art isn’t to make a living. It’s to make your soul grow.” Iconic South African designer Carrol Boyes has accomplished both. The one-time English and art teacher began designing house wares after school hours back in 1989.
She had turned 35 and was adamant that she was not going to be one of those people who live with regret for all they did not do. “My dream was to be an artist and to earn enough money to survive from my art,” says Boyes. “I realised that I would have to try to make it at some point, or end up spending the rest of my life wondering whether I could have.”
A fine arts graduate with a major in sculpture from the University of Pretoria, Boyes was also a realist. Knowing how difficult it is for artists to pay the bills, she opted to take a more practical approach.
“I wanted to create things that would be accessible to most people, rather than an elite few,” she says. “My aim was also to combine sculpture with functionality. It’s easier for people to justify buying an expensive object that they have fallen in love with if they have a practical use for it.”
The result is a range of high-quality tableware and home accessories that are exported throughout the world and have succeeded in putting South Africa on the design map.
Recognising that superior design addresses people’s needs, Boyes initially focused on knives, forks and spoons, objects that quickly became fun to hold and to use. “Cutlery is traditionally quite plain and unadventurous. I decided it was time to introduce something new and quirky.”
Boyes is surprisingly humble, insisting that her main goal was to earn a living rather than make a fortune. But it was probably her old-fashioned approach that paid off. She left teaching in 1990, having paid off all her debt and with enough cash to survive for six months. She recalls applying for an overdraft, but the business was unknown and she was turned down.
“In retrospect, that was most likely a good thing as it forced me to be extremely conservative. As far as materials and equipment were concerned, I bought only what I could afford. The initial expansion of the business was definitely curtailed by the fact that I did not have access to huge sums of money.”
Boyes was comfortable with the rate at which her enterprise grew; others would be ecstatic – it thrived, experiencing 100% growth every year for the first six years. “I always seemed to underestimate the rate at which we would develop. Every six months the premises would suddenly become too small and we would have to employ more staff.”
The business was given its first big shot in the arm by Peter Visser in 1989. Situated in Cape Town’s Loop Street, his uber trendy store, Peter Visser Interiors, was the last word in home décor. “People went to the shop to see what was hot and because my products were displayed there, they were immediately given the stamp of approval. It really all came about by word of mouth. To this day, I believe that is the strongest marketing tool available.”
This initial interest sparked a flurry of magazine coverage and publicity. Boyes had accomplished what many entrepreneurs dream of: she had introduced something new and idiosyncratic to the market, giving her a competitive edge that has yet to be challenged.
From there, Carrol Boyes Functional Art began to appear in other interior decorating stores and galleries, and the demand exploded.
By 1992 Boyes was not coping. Help arrived in the form of her family. The company’s head office in Cape Town was bolstered by the construction of the main manufacturing plant on her father and brothers’ farm in Letsitele, Limpopo. This facilitated future expansion, enabling Boyes to bring on board a general manager and a management team to oversee production.
She took the opportunity to begin to extricate herself from her all-encompassing role in the business. “As the company got bigger and bigger, I began to realise that I was really good at some things and less so at others. The day-to-day supervision, for example, is something that I leave to my management team. My function is to steer the direction and vision of the company and to drive the creative side.”
Boyes spends a great amount of time on aeroplanes, promoting her brand around the world, but she still ensures that she visits the factory at least every second month.
She is also quick to admit that her management style may sometimes be less than democratic. “I listen to and consider what people have to say, but I often end up making decisions on my own.”
One of the factors that contributed to the phenomenal success of Carrol Boyes was the early establishment of an export arm that has taken the brand on a worldwide journey. It was also in the early 90s, with the business still in its infancy, that the signature pewter and stainless steel pieces began to receive attention from local expats living down under.
Ex-South Africans returning to visit their families could not help noticing that there was nothing like Carrol Boyes anywhere else and that sales were booming. This interest opened a new door for the business. “Exporting is one of biggest challenges for any South African,” says Boyes.
“It requires endless patience and persistence, the resilience to compete in a world in which you are completely unknown, and more financial resources than you ever anticipate.”
Boyes attributes her success in the export market was purely due to the fact that she did not give up too soon. “It’s tempting to believe that because we have language in common with places like Australia and the UK, we will have similar approaches to everything. That is not true. I had to get to know the different markets, spend time understanding diverse aesthetics, and get used to other ways of doing business.”
Today, she has agents in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries, maintaining that it is vital to have someone on the other side who understands the market.
2003 saw the beginning of the second phase of growth, with the first dedicated Carrol Boyes store opening at the Cape Town Waterfront and the second in Pretoria. The attractive, eye-catching stores have had enormous value for the business as they are based in retail centres, and draw customers almost as a matter of course. There are 20 local stores today, three overseas – including one in New York, an online shop and any number of stockists.
Worldwide, the Carrol Boyes brand has come to represent a coveted, high-end product range associated with fine living. “That’s a result of the decision I made early on to steer the product line in this direction, in terms of marketing, pricing, positioning and target market.
I had no desire to compete with manufacturers at the lower end of the market – there were too many, and they were doing it too well. My interest was in creating three-dimensional, sculptural forms. The hand finishing and composition of my creations takes them into a completely different realm from ordinary cutlery, and enables me to find a specific market for them.”
It’s a market comprising both young and old – anyone who enjoys having something special in their home. Although household items are traditionally targeted at women, the nature of the products is such that men love them too. “I think that has something to do with the metal and the way the products are manufactured, as well as the fact that there is an inherent sense of humour in every piece.”
While the business’s growth was consistent, it did not always come easy and Boyes faced several financial challenges. “It’s always the finances,” she says. “I constantly had to find the balance between having enough money to expand, and not sinking into so much debt that I would not be able to sleep at night.”
One of the aspects she found most exacting was her role as employer. “Employing people has always been very stressful for me,” she notes. “The idea of having someone’s life in my hands was nerve-racking. It was a responsibility I took very seriously and still do to this day.”
Dealing with a company that grows exponentially year on year can be chaotic. At first, Boyes did absolutely everything herself – from drawing and sculpting the design, to making moulds, pouring the moulds, and then grinding and polishing the finished product.
“As the orders increased, I brought in people to help me with all these processes, but I still do all my own designs.”
That said, Boyes is an artist who enjoys the world of work. One of the things she enjoys most about owning a business is that she has the opportunity to learn about everything – banking, labour relations, legal systems, dealing with people at the hardware store, negotiating good prices for raw material. She’s done it all.
But she also learnt that you can’t do it all forever if you really want to move to the next level. Among the tasks she handed over were finance and human resources. There is a point at which a business grows to such an extent that to make progress, the founder has to bring in people who are experts in their field, rather than continue to be a jack of all trades.
“Recruiting new staff is always tough; people may come with excellent credentials, but until they are actually doing the job, you never know what you are going to end up with. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer to employ people who are personally referred to me.”
When Carrol Boyes pieces came onto the market they were unique. But is it possible to maintain the edge when the competition hots up? The truth is that Boyes has had many imitators, but no real competition.
It’s a subject about which she is sanguine. “No-one can match the product quality standards or uniqueness of what we do. If you copy someone, you can only ever be a copier,” she says. “But our customers know what a Carrol Boyes original is and they do not want second best. We have never felt the impact of imitators on the bottom line.”
She has felt the emotional effects however. It was in 1996 when she first noticed that there were people creating replicas of her work; she remembers that it felt like she’d been stabbed in the heart.
“But I got over it,” she laughs. “You have to accept that whenever you create a new aesthetic, an innovative way of manufacturing something, there are people out there who will try to copy you. Being first and being ahead goes a long way to ensuring longevity.”
The modern world seldom looks kindly upon those who dream of turning their artistic talents into financial rewards. “Determination is essential,” says Boyes. “People do not believe in artists, nor do they believe that a sculptor can also be an entrepreneur.
It’s such a fallacy. Creativity combined with common sense is bound to yield great results.”
Boyes’ practical approach belies the level of resolve she required in the early days. Introduce something completely new onto the market and the detractors quickly line up. “Nineteen people may love your work, but the twentieth one will hate it and will tell you so; you cannot allow that to affect you. That may sound trite, but there is huge risk in letting criticism get you down.”
With the down economy here to stay, how difficult is it to sell high-value items? Boyes believes that to panic at this point would be a big mistake. “If you have a good business model, stick to it. At times like this, it’s advisable to look at ways to do things better.
I believe that the current climate offers huge opportunities for those who are inventive and prepared to take a few risks while others are running scared.” With the business on track for about 20% growth by the end of the year, she clearly need not be alarmed.
Her focus is on growing the overseas market and opening more dedicated stores. New product development is always on the cards and, at 53, Boyes is building up a team of young artists who are learning about the business and being primed to introduce new inspiration.
An eye for the unusual
Carrol Boyes has distinguished her products in the heavily overtraded décor market by focusing on the unique and unusual. Entrepreneurs are envied for their originality, and it’s an attribute that Boyes has honed, recognising that good design is timeless and creates a new language that is easily understood.
To turn a compelling idea into a sustainable, successful business, Boyes has focused on drawing inspiration from the world around her, from what people do, how they live, and how they like to embellish their environment.
In a sense, she is required to know what people want before they know they want it. It’s not an easy faculty to build: “I often fall asleep with a potential design playing on my mind and then, in the moment of waking – that space between the sub-conscious and the conscious – it will come to me.”