When we first started doing Studio Tours back in 2012, we were pretty limited on where we could go to get our inspiration. That isn’t to say the inspiration was limited–we’ve visited a fantastic line-up of New York City artists close to home. But getting the sign-off to pack up and head to another state definitely wasn’t the goal from the start. Five years later, we’re still featuring monthly studio visits. Thanks to all of the love and support shown by our online community, makers, and the UG team for our tours, we’re able to keep growing the series. Now, we’re finding ways to stop by the studios of creators a little farther from home. Around 195 miles or so from home, in this case.
My latest trip started at Penn Station in Manhattan, eaaarly in the morning. A few hours later, I arrived at Penn Station in Baltimore, Maryland, where Kim Strassner was waiting for me and our Tabletop Buyer, NéQuana. Kim filled us in on some neighborhood history as she drove through B-more to the studio, woodshop, and office space where she and her husband, Mike Pararas, design and craft their personalized wooden cutting boards and lazy Susans. It didn’t take long before I realized how much work Kim, Mike, and their team put into each board they produce. The letters in the customized pieces are carved using tiny blades, precise hand movements, and great attention to detail.
In addition to walking me through how a slab of wood becomes a beautiful, handcrafted cutting board, the couple gave me a look at Kim’s first-ever board with words, answered a few questions about what keeps them going strong, and introduced me to their two adorable Havanese dogs. Keep reading to see inside this woodworking wonderland for yourself.
What are your most essential tools?
Kim: My computer is my most essential tangible tool. I do the sales, marketing, sourcing, accounting, customer service, and social media, and we both do product development. So for me, most of what I do is computer-based. My most essential intangible tool is the knowledge I have acquired over the years in the many different industries that I have worked in. (People ask me, “What’s your background?” I say, “Which decade?”) And my current and future connections.
Mike: For me it’s the computer, camera, scroll saw, and sanding equipment
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
K: I love our space but it’s not where I find most of my inspiration. I find inspiration when I am out and about, meeting people, or when we are traveling. I also find inspiration reading the customer comments; it’s really what keeps us going.
M: Yes, I agree the customer comments look as if we wrote them ourselves, but we didn’t! I find my inspiration while Experimenting in the woodshop when the wife isn’t looking.
Where does downtime fit into a day in the studio?
K: We bring our dogs with us every day and they need walking, so it’s a good excuse to take a break and get outside during the day to enjoy the fresh air.
M: When I’m caught up I will sometimes:
A) Sit out on the deck with a cold beer and my dogs and watch the trains go by on a nice day.
B) Take the dogs for a walk.
C) Take a nap.
D) Shoot some pool when the pool table isn’t covered with other CRAP.
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
K: In the beginning, we were making boards with funny or witty sayings, but what we quickly found out is that what people really want is to personalize them. You learn that what you like isn’t what will always be the best seller so you need to be able to adapt, fast!
M: Coming up with THE IDEA for unique products is the easy part. Manufacturing, packaging, promoting, logistics, and making a profit is the real challenge.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
K: Hurry, you aren’t getting any younger!
M: Don’t be afraid to try something new. Even if the last thing you tried didn’t work out. Pay attention to the trends. Because we are made-to-order we can adapt quickly.
How do you set goals for yourself?
K: Hmmm, really my #1 goal at the moment is to increase sales from month to month as compared to the year before. And so far so good!
M: The goal that is always in my head is to come up with at least two or three new products a year at varying price points and for different uses to attract new customers and to keep our current customers coming back.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
K: Usually major victories come when we are too busy to celebrate, like when we were on Oprah’s Favorite Things Holiday List in 2015. Sometimes something happens and we think it’s a celebratory moment, but it’s not, so we’re (I am) cautious. And, of the two of us, I’m the practical one.
M: Kim just tells me to go back in the workshop and cut some more.
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
K: The Holstee Manifesto that hangs at the entrance of my workspace. It really just says it all about life and how I want to live my life.
M: I have a roof slate that I laser engraved with: “The road to success is ALWAYS under construction.” So true.
What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
K: I’m always looking for knowledge in the social media and ecommerce space. I listen to podcasts; I talk to other makers about what is working and what isn’t working so that we can learn from each other; I have a few experts in these fields that I contract work out to and that I also learn from.
M: I would like to learn how to use a CNC router and laser because this will enable us to expand our product line.
How do you recharge your creativity?
K: By taking a room in my house and transforming the space. I love to change wall color, artwork, or rearrange the furniture. This gets my juices flowing, which carries over to our business.
M: You never know when a creative moment is going to pop into your head. It could be while sitting in traffic, or sitting on the beach. Sometimes seeing something online or in a shop will spark an idea. But to recharge it is good for me to step away and clear my mind and try not to think about work.
Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
K: We collaborate with other local designers, foodies, bloggers. We also love to help non-profits with their fund-raising efforts.
M: We look for like-minded individuals who are making products that we think will compliment what we are doing.