Catherine Connolly is the CEO of Merida. From the historic textile center of Fall River, MA, Merida creates beautiful, durable rugs that reimagine traditional weaving methods with efficient technologies and inventive techniques.
Interview by Stefane Barbeau | 05.01.2017
Stefane: Hi Catherine!
Catherine: Hello! I think what DIGMA is doing is such a service to the design community. It’s nice to see this kind of thing here on the east coast. I see similar things on the west coast where Merida has a studio. The interior designers there are a very collegial group and in genuine support of the industry. I am so impressed with places where design is strongly supported, like Denmark and Belgium, especially when it comes to sustainability.
Stefane: Do you have a design background?
Catherine: I joined Merida 10 years ago, and came into this from a market research and economics background. It’s been trial by fire for me and I have learned so much about design. I had to, because the only way for us to grow as a company was through design innovation.
Merida was founded 30 years ago and started as an import and finishing business. Back then, sisal carpet was bought from the Yucatan peninsula and sold – mostly to Mormon temples where they were used – as wall covering for improving the sound. Merida was one of the first companies in the US to use sisal to create area rugs and hand-finish them with fabric borders. Most of our products were private-labeled for retailers like Pottery barn and Crate and Barrel.
“It’s been trial by fire for me and I have learned so much about design. I had to, because the only way for us to grow as a company was through design innovation.” Stefane: Was there a transformative period where you realized design was crucial to your growth and competitiveness?
Catherine: Our products set the standard for quality and beauty, but there was no ‘brand’ to speak of, and our rugs were being knocked off in Asia at a tenth of the price. And then 2008 happened. Our customers dropped off by 40%. We needed to understand how to weather the storm. We actually took advantage of the recession; the belt-tightening forced us to look internally and focus on the core values that make us unique: sustainability, inventiveness, honoring the people who make things. We have amazing craftspeople who were not being used to their full potential, and yet they were loyal and fully committed to the company.
We changed our distribution model to drop the retailers and to connect directly to the designers who are specifying the rugs to clients. We also clarified our brand message through our website and marketing collateral. The model change gave us room to hire more designers, and to get bigger looms. We managed to grow our local manufacturing by figuring out how to engineer our looms for flexibility, allowing for smaller production runs, customization and experimentation.
“The model change gave us room to hire more designers, and to get bigger looms.”
Stefane: Who are your competitors?
Catherine: This year we’ve finally shifted all our revenue from retail to direct-to-designer. We’re seen as high-end, but we’re significantly more affordable, which makes us competitive in two arenas. At our mill in Fall River, we have a unique manufacturing approach that is a combination of loom and exquisite handwork. Literally every rug is made to order, so we can offer different levels of customization: size, shape, colorway, and even completely new designs to create a bespoke rug. Part of our design approach is to give designers maximum flexibility, so they are in turn empowered to guide their clients. It brings the designer into the process, and dialogue is set up between the designer, their client, and our people. Price does matter to everyone these days, and nobody else can do this at our pricing.
Stefane: How’s that?
Catherine: Our designers and craftspeople have a deep understanding of the variables they can work with. Their experience and systematic understanding is quite special. The thing that makes small-batch manufacturing costly is setting up the warp for weaving, which can take several days. Typically we would have to do a lot of volume to justify changing the creel or beam. Most of our designs are what is called “weft-driven,” which allows for enormous design flexibility and variation while essentially eliminating the loom set-up time. So even within the normal constraints of the loom, we can offer our clients lots of flexibility to create a custom rug by varying the elements that read the most visibly. It’s a way of manipulating technology that takes an experienced design team working in tandem with highly skilled craftspeople.
“Part of our design approach is to give designers maximum flexibility, so they are in turn empowered to guide their clients.”
Stefane: Where has design helped your company in a surprising way?
Catherine: To me, it was the revelation that what we’re doing is this perfect blend of art and science. At first, my goal was to look at numbers and to increase efficiency because I figure that would directly impact our bottom line. This was a disaster. If nobody wants to buy the product, then efficiency is irrelevant. People don’t buy on price alone, especially in our industry. Our innovation is in our process. I keep coming back to our workers. They’re so important to the process because they’re on the front line of fabrication. We received a Workforce Development grant to do cross training. This lets them spend ten percent of their time on rethinking fabrication. Our finishing capabilities have gone through the roof. We do not have a production line but work on teams – from salespeople, to designers to the craftsmen – to figure out the best way to make the interior designs conception come to reality.
I’ve realized design, in our context, is bringing many elements together in order to output something really unique. It’s raw material manipulation to produce unique value in the marketplace. Construction, constraints, problem solving…those are all part of our vocabulary now.
Stefane: How is design used strategically at your company?
Catherine: People knowledgeable about textiles know that the feel and look of our rugs are unique. People know they’re a MERIDA product. It’s easy for some people to be fooled by complexity. People who are tuned in do see it. Sam Kasten, for example, a master craftsman who started at Nantucket Looms, a winner of Grand Atelier, came to Fall River last year to visit the plant. Originally he wanted to use us for handweaving, but then he saw what we were doing on looms and hand-finishing and said it was something he had never seen before. He wanted to sell our rugs in his wife’s showrooms in London and Paris. This was a nice affirmation that our strategy is working.
“I’ve realized design, in our context, is bringing many elements together in order to output something really unique.”
The challenge is to help designers pitch to their clients. They’re looking for guidance, and we do a good job of establishing trust. We’ve got a solid website, and lots of well-designed sales tools for our own team and for the designers who are specifying our rugs to clients. Once we establish how we’re unique in terms of customization, non-synthetic materials and sustainability, the conversation is much easier.
Stefane: What challenges do you face with hiring design talent (inside or outside)?
Catherine: Lots of challenges. Fall River attracts design talent because it’s close to RISD. Two of our textile designers are RISD graduates. Sales and leadership roles are harder to fill. We’re headquartered in Boston and the talent pool for our industry is largely in New York. But I just had a dinner with a group of top designers in Boston, and we’re starting to see a high caliber of talent here. The New England design community is growing, and that’s great for us in terms of hires and for revenues.
I came at it personally with no design training. But I developed a quick appreciation. I took a color theory class. I spend a LOT of time with clients. I have the luxury of working with designers who can communicate well. They’re not the stereotype of frustrated artists, they’re at the top of their game and are smart business people. I tend to approach things from the market standpoint, and then go backwards from there, and we meet in the middle. There’s no working in a bubble here for anyone. Everyone is very collaborative, and this way of doing things will help ensure our future success.
“[Designers] are not the stereotype of frustrated artists, they’re at the top of their game and are smart business people.”
Stefane: How do you quantify the value of design in the success of your company?
Catherine: we’re very much in startup mode. We’re very collaborative and everything has to work. We still use metrics for every new launch. We have to sell X amount in order to get the right return, that kind of thing. But now we’re realizing we have to have a certain percent allowance for brand and process. It becomes more hazy, but it’s crucial to have that breathing room for experimentation. For example, we spent 1.5 years developing a new product, but at the eleventh hour decided it just didn’t meet our standards, so we scrapped the project. It was going to damage our brand. But there’s still value there and we’ll be able to use some aspect of it, but for now it’s on the backburner. We’re in the midst of developing a process of looking at what was learned from a project regardless of its success or failure, and then reapply it elsewhere.
Stefane: Why are you located in MA?
Catherine: This is where we have our plant, and the American textile roots of Fall River works for us. We have a studio in LA, as well as in Boston, and soon we’ll have one in New York City. We need to be able to see clients in person, so we can’t just operate in one state. But hands down, this is where the skills we need are.
Stefane: What other companies do you admire?
Catherine: I love Urban Electric, based in Charleston. They’re a phenomenal company, and they really ‘honor the makers’. I love Matouk as well. They also make textiles, and they’re near us and have been super generous with time and use of their machines when we were in a bind. I also love Shinola in Detroit. All of these “made in America” companies are doing such amazing things to grow and to really take advantage of their location and opportunities.
Stefane: thanks Catherine!