Designer Interview on “When Creativity Knocks”

When Creativity Knocks: Designer Connection
Interview with Modern Surrealist Marisa Pawelko

Click here to see the interview on

I’m very excited to introduce to you an amazing designer and artist, Marisa Pawelko. Marisa is the Founder and CEO of Modern Surrealist LLC who has been working in the craft and hobby industry for 6 years! My first introduction to Marisa came during last summer’s Craft and Hobby Association trade show. I was wandering the trade show floor when I noticed people walking around with these fun and all blinged out holders for scissors! I finally walked right up to one person to find out where these things were coming from! I was directed to the Westcott booth, where I found a very bubbly and effervescent Marisa doing here thing and helping show attendees adorn these awesome scissor holders. At the time, I remember being impressed by Marisa’s unique, artistic flair and the generosity of Westcott. Not only were they providing the holders and all the embellishments…they were also giving a pair of Titanium Bonded™ scissors. So, I stayed and played…and I have to tell you that these are my very favorite pair of scissors in the entire world! Nothing sticks to these things!

Believe it or not, it wasn’t until this interview that I learned that the correct name for those scissor holders were scissor holsters! Makes sense, since these babies strap on so you have your scissors handy at all times! Very convenient! An exciting tid bit….which you can read more about in Marisa’s interview…is that we are going to be the very FIRST to get a peek at Marisa’s new licensed product….decorative scissor holsters manufactured by Westcott. I am so thrilled for Marisa!

I think you will really enjoy this interview. I certainly did! Marisa not only gives us a great insight as to who she is as a designer, she also offers up some awesome advice that is worth taking to heart. Marisa Pawelko is a designer whose joy shines through in her work…and she’s a generous spirit as well! 

            – Interviewer Theresa Cifali

Meet celebrity crafter Marisa Pawelko winner of the CHA Indie Craft Contest. Armed with a formal education in furniture design, Marisa used her talents to design products for the gift, toy, fashion and accessories markets before turning her focus to the craft industry. In 2005, sparked with an idea to create a recycled baby memento-keeper out of one of her son’s baby food jars, she founded Modern Surrealist LLC which quickly developed an international following. Marisa enjoys inspiring crafters on her “Memoirs of a Modern Surrealist” blog with thrifty project ideas for “upcycling” ordinary objects, into extraordinary custom creations! Her work has been featured by PBS, HGTV, The Illinois State Museum and in countless exhibitions and high end boutiques around the world.

How did you begin your career in the Craft and Hobby industry?
I arrived at this point in my career in the most roundabout way, learning valuable skills at every twist and turn! During college I majored furniture design and sold my handmade accessories to artsy boutiques. In my first full time job, I served as a project manager/art director specializing in product development for the seasonal and licensed giftware industry. The experience taught me valuable lessons in both business and the design process. The products I created back then were featured by a diverse range of retailers across all tiers including: Walmart, Target, Kmart, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Family Dollar, Sam’s Club, Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond and Walgreens (to name a few). Then I spent a couple years designing décor, props and centerpieces for corporate and special events. After the birth of my son in 2005 I decided to take some time off. That is when I came up with the idea for Relic Boxes –Decorative Time Capsules™ inspired by decorative crocks, which much to my surprise developed an international cult following. I began selling my handmade Relic Boxes™, funky jewelry and embellished t-shirts to high end boutiques abroad in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Although I was flattered that so many people loved and bought my creations, the demand for my designs far exceeded the time I had to create them. Keeping up with all the orders in my little makeshift sweatshop while caring for a toddler proved to be the most challenging obstacle I have ever faced. Back then the business was a labor of love and no matter how many nights I stayed up crafting until dawn, it was seemingly impossible to turn a profit! It was utterly exhausting! The only thing that kept my business going was my refusal to let a customer down by turning away their order! The moment that saved me was when I read online about a contest being put on at the CHA Winter 2009 Trade Convention, called the Indie Craft Contest. I had been experimenting with a new idea for making jewelry out of plastic bottle tops and decided to enter it into the contest. Prior to then I had never even heard of the Craft and Hobby Association. Nor did I realize that this kind of career in the craft industry was an option. I was completely unaware of the existence of the kind of work that I now specialize in. Once the door to CHA was entered by winning the contest, I joined the association and quickly learned of the professional opportunities available doing what I love!

What inspires you as an artist?
I get inspired by all kinds of things! I travel a lot and get ideas from looking at indigenous arts and crafts around the world. I also find inspiration in looking at pop culture, fashion and shopping. Many times I will see something in a shop and think “I could make a better version of that!” or “That would make a great craft project!” Oftentimes, I get inspired by past projects to push the idea further, branch out, make a continuation or improve my technique. It took me some time to learn that time away from home and the studio is vital for inspiration. So take a day off! Go on a trip! Have fun! Not only do you deserve it, but you will come back refreshed with lots of new ideas and inspiration!

In what mediums do you primarily work?
I enjoy working with mediums that are affordable and forgiving! I also incorporate “upcycled” and found objects into my work. Lately I have been working a lot with Westcott Brand® Cutting Tools, The Duck Brand® Duct Tape and Velcro® Brand Fasteners. The diversity of projects that can be created by combining those three brand’s products is absolutely mind blowing!

How you would describe your artistic style?
I call myself the Modern Surrealist because the title allows for total creative freedom! I like juxtaposing random funny things that don’t necessarily go together! I enjoy vivid colors and patterns that clash! I also love to color coordinate! I am attracted all t
hings sparkly, blinged, animal print, glamorous, bohemian, rebellious, thematic, kitsch, whimsical, tacky, garish, juvenile and over the top! I have a great appreciation for tongue in cheek humor and innuendo. Subtlety in design has never been in included in my repertoire. With the exception of animal prints, I stay far, far away from anything resembling earth tones!

I know you do a lot of design work for manufacturers.
How did you become involved in that aspect of the industry?

By joining the CHA, I was introduced to the world of professional project design for the arts and crafts industry. When I was in college, the students would get in these heated debates on the distinctions between art, craft and design in an effort to pin down a clear hierarchy between the three. The work I do today incorporates all three! At my first CHA show in 2009 it became apparent that partnering with craft supply manufacturers would allow me to find success creating the kind of projects that I enjoy. It was definitely one of those “Eureka!” moments! Unlike my previous cottage industry business model, I would only have to make one (or a few) of each item, rather than hundreds of multiples! I had been working with CHA member manufacturer’s products for years and I finally got to meet the actual companies who make those products and partner with them to create projects to inspire their customers! The kind of work I specialize in now is vital to the industry because manufacturers need new ideas that will inspire end users and in turn help sell their products. Coming up with new uses for craft tools and supplies not only leads to increased sales. It also attracts new consumers who might otherwise not think to use that product. It’s a niche industry through which I have learned a lot, met lots of amazing people and expanded my talents. My business now specializes in project design, product development, demonstration, industry consultation and spokesperson appearances.

Who are some of the brands you work with?
I regularly collaborate with Westcott Brand promoting their amazing line of Titanium Bonded™ and Non-Stick cutting tools. Another great manufacturer I collaborate with is The Duck Brand® (ShurTech). I recently filmed a really fun series of craft project videos for their marketing. Velcro® Brand is great manufacturer who originated the concept of “hook and loop fasteners”. I frequently contribute projects for Velcro® Brand’s marketing and website. In addition, I have also done projects for Hasbro, Mod Podge, Plaid, Deco Art, Art Glitter, Glue Arts, Clear Snap, Sandtastik, Marvy Uchida and Globecraft Memories to name a few.

What is your favorite part of working directly with manufacturers?
I find it very rewarding to provide a creative service. Imagine for instance that you sold the same bottle of glue for years on end. Likely you would eventually run out of fresh ideas that demonstrate the product’s capabilities. That’s when I come in, with a fresh pair of eyes and a head full of ideas, to show how their wonderful product can be used in an entirely new way! Sometimes manufacturers want to expand their market and make their product more appealing to a new demographic. Other times they just need someone enthusiastic to show off what a great product theirs is! In that way I like providing them with my creative service! The other equally marvelous benefit is the pleasure I get from inspiring and interacting with the end users themselves!

I hear you have a new product line coming out.
Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about that?

You heard right Theresa!!! Allow me to break the news to you first! My licensed line of decorative scissor holsters manufactured by Westcott hit retail shelves this month! This is a huge accomplishment and very proud moment for me as a designer! I have been working closely with Westcott to develop this product concept for over a year. It is a great honor to have my name, face and website featured on the packaging of each and every scissor holster! The thought of the product I designed being in the hands of hundreds of thousands of crafters has me jumping for joy! I encourage everyone to buy my scissor holsters for themselves and for all their friends and family! There are currently four different styles available and they make a great gift for the crafter who has it all!

*Holsters Available at Walmart (sewing section)

Do you have any advice for crafter’s who are looking to build a crafty business?

Identify what you love to do and figure out how to turn that it into a business. My kind of business is centered on the craft industry however the majority of my time is spent on communications, writing copy, taking photos, preparing presentations and marketing. Those are all good skills to develop in addition to general business skills. I definitely recommend joining the Craft and Hobby Association and attending their biannual trade conventions whether you are looking to break into project design, how-to books, teaching classes or simply seeking supply manufacturers to place wholesale orders with. It’s also inspiring just to walk the show and see what’s out there! When it comes to running your business here’s what I find most important:

• Customer service is everything!
• Be willing and prepared to work hard!
• Present something different that sets you apart!
• Harness the power of social networking!
• Believe in yourself and never ever give up!

Is there anything else you have to share?
Another opportunity realized through my work with Westcott and the CHA has been the ability to give back to the community by organizing some amazing events and creative collaborations to benefit, a place for creative minds who want to give. At the CHA Summer 2010 Show, I organized the Westcott sponsored “Marine Theme Silent Auction and Fundraiser” to benefit the Wyland Foundation and combat the BP oil spill in the gulf. At the CHA Winter 2011 Show, I took the lead in coordinating the display and silent auction of the “Group Canvas Project” to benefit the Kids in Need Foundation that supplies underprivileged youth with school supplies. At the upcoming CHA Summer 2011 Show, I’ve organized several very talented craft designers to create items for the “Westcott Mixed Media Designer Showcase” a display and silent auction in the Westcott booth to benefit Charity Wings, with a portion of the proceeds going towards in the battle against human trafficking.

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