It really works — all three of us have strengths that the others don’t, and that’s why I think our partnership has been able to succeed for so long. So many people told us not to go into business with your best friends. Lawyers, accountants, parents. They were all like, “You’ll regret it.”— Hillary Petrie, Egg Collective
In May 2017, in the heart of a city still reeling from the outcome of the presidential election, a trio of female furniture makers attempted to manufacture something new and necessary: a group exhibition of New York women designers, dedicated to supporting equality worldwide. “Designing Women” was hatched by Egg Collective, a young company helmed by three fast friends who met and bonded over their shared love of design at Washington University in St. Louis: Crystal Ellis, Hillary Petrie and Stephanie Beamer. Their overwhelmingly successful concept brought together a who’s who of emerging and established names from Lindsey Adelman to Deborah Ehlrich, and turned the Egg Collective showroom into a locus of empowerment and optimism, as well as sophisticated and purposeful design.
That the show was a hit should come as no surprise. Since its launch in 2011, Egg Collective has embodied the strength of female partnership and the benefits of cultivating community — rather than competition — within the design industry. We sat down with two out of three founders, Crystal Ellis and Hillary Petrie, to discuss their diverse backgrounds in art, architecture and woodworking, how teamwork is essential to a healthy business, and the beauty of being able to design and manufacture entirely within the five boroughs of New York City. (Fittingly, the third member of the Collective was holding down the fort in their Brooklyn wood shop.
RONEN LEV: All three of you were at school together, at Washington University in St. Louis. When did you decide to start collaborating as a group?
HILLARY PETRIE: We were in studio together and realized we had a similar way of working. We’d go to each other for a critique and really developed a way of collaborating that got stronger throughout the four years of school. When we graduated we had a professor who asked us, “What are you guys doing?” None of us really had a plan. She then asked, “Why don’t you stick around St. Louis? I have this wood shop” — she had a wood shop in her basement — “and we can continue to talk about ideas.”
CRYSTAL ELLIS: We took her furniture design class and I think we hit it off with her. So right when we graduated college we all got our own jobs that paid the bills but we started designing and building furniture out of that basement wood shop and that’s when we coined ourselves Egg Collective.
RL: Including your professor?
CE: She was involved in it as well. At that point it was the four of us kind of working on ideas together but separately.
HP: And not in any sort of business capacity. We were just making it, photographing it and putting it on a website because we didn’t know what else to do.
CE: It was our creative outlet.
RL: Were those prototypes for anything you ended up developing later?
CE: The only thing that’s still around is the Julie, which we prototyped before we started the company.
CE: We name our pieces after people, and so we thought it was right to name the Julie Credenza after Julie, our professor, who was part of the design process for the first prototype for that piece.
RL: And where did things go from there?
HP: We didn’t know what we wanted to do. I took a job for a professor in urban design. Crystal started working in an architecture firm in St. Louis. Stephanie [Beamer] went straight into fine furniture making, an apprenticeship which lasted many years where she learned the foundations of building. Later on, Crystal and I got that experience as well.
RL: In St. Louis?
HP: There was a lot of shuffling around. After about a year in St. Louis, Crystal moved to New York and then went on to do grad school at RISD. I went to New Orleans and stayed there until I moved to New York. Stephanie stayed in St. Louis for many years and then came to New York as well about a year before we started everything.
RL: So as three very creative people, as three designers, how do you come together and create a process and a business environment that works for everyone?
CE: When we started the company we knew each other’s strong suits — we’ve known each other since we were eighteen and collaborated basically that whole time. We all love design, and we all still design everything together. But after the initial brainstorming for pieces, our roles diverge. Usually what I’ll do then is make a few different variations, and then we all come back together and talk about them.
HP: Our work is very sculptural, and Crystal has a huge influence on that. She comes from a very artistic family — her mom was an artist, her dad was an engineer, so an interesting combination. And she’s our creative director, so it all makes sense. We’ll have a very rough idea, an idea of shape or form or maybe sometimes function. She takes the concept and figures out what it could actually be, or if it’s a bad idea, which happens a lot.
Stephanie runs our wood shop and manages our entire production team. We make everything that we design in wood in our 5,000 square foot wood shop [in Sunset Park, Brooklyn].
I manage our out-of-house production — metal, stone, glass — working with sub contractors here in New York. We’re really tightly involved in the process. That’s something we love, and we want to make sure we’re delivering the highest quality product that we can. We know we’re experts in wood, but we’re not experts in metal and stone and glass. So we want to work with the people who are the best, and New York’s been a wonderful place for that because there are so many talented artisans and makers and people who have been honing their craft as well for so many years.
And I do our front-of-house day-to-day — bookkeeping and HR and all those things that creative people aren’t the best at, but I’m learning.
CE: Hillary gets things done!
HP: I’m very Type A. Anyway, it really works — all three of us have strengths that the others don’t, and that’s why I think our partnership has been able to succeed for so long. So many people told us not to go into business with your best friends. Lawyers, accountants, parents. They were all like, “You’ll regret it.” I think we have a special combination of skills that allows us not to butt heads in areas that may cause problems down the road. And also, I trust these women so much. If they feel strongly about something, it’s like, okay, I trust your intuition or idea or opinion here.
We’ve had some situations where we’ve walked into spaces and you kind of see heads spin. Places where we’ve been employed, to places that we’ve used to produce our work, or even just being on a loading dock getting materials delivered or being at a trade show and delivering work. But a lot of the time it’s an initial response and then it goes away pretty quickly once you’re like, “I got it.”
RL: Do you think getting started in this industry is different for female designers? What’s been your experience as a female-founded, female-run company?
CE: Overall we don’t have any horror stories, which is maybe lucky with everything coming out in the news right now.
HP: We [women] are the minority in design. It’s interesting, because in most schools it’s 50-50 even tipping towards female, but when it goes into the profession, for some reason women fall off, and it becomes a male-dominated industry.
CE: That 50-50 in schools is more recent so hopefully there will be a trickle-out from that. But yeah, we’re definitely the minority in the design field, and in the manufacturing world we’re even more of a minority. The three of us all had manufacturing jobs before we started the company, we were all the only women in the wood shops we worked in, and maybe even the first women to work in those wood shops in a lot of cases.
HP: And also when we show up at a wood shop and you’re a woman and there are all these men working on the floor. There’s this metal shop we work with… It can be intimidating to walk through. You have to educate yourself and know what you’re talking about and what the processes are. We always say, prove you’re able to be there.
CE: We’ve had some situations where we’ve walked into spaces and you kind of see heads spin. Places where we’ve been employed, to places that we’ve used to produce our work, or even just being on a loading dock getting materials delivered or being at a trade show and delivering work. But a lot of the time it’s an initial response and then it goes away pretty quickly once you’re like, “I got it.”
HP: Hopefully we’re changing people’s minds in those situations.
RL: Were you interested in woodworking as a kid?
HP: I was interested in the arts and creative classes. I did some basic wood shop projects with my dad.
CE: All three of us have parents who encouraged us to do whatever it was we were passionate about. My dad always told me, “Do whatever you want.” regardless of typical gender roles.
HP: Crystal’s first job was welding.
CE: Yeah, he got me a welding job. I said I want to be an architect and make things, and he said, “All right, I know how you can make things.” He ran a mining operation and they had a machine shop where they made really big machinery and equipment. And I was the only girl with a bunch of burly men. My second job was in a wood shop. My dad also knew a guy who built furniture and helped to get me a job there. So I worked for a woodworker for a full summer and learned to make things from him.
RL: How did you come up with the idea for your Designing Women Exhibition, which you held here in the showroom in May?
CE: It was January or February and we were reeling [from the election and inauguration] and feeling what a lot of women were feeling, which was “Ugh.” We wanted to do something to try and focus on feeling more empowered and positive. It’s hard when you want to do something meaningful. How do you actually bring awareness or effect change? The idea of doing an all-women’s show came to us. Women are so underrepresented in the design world and we know so many female designers here in New York. We reached out to people of all ages and materiality and stages of their careers and the answer was a resounding yes.
HP: We even reached out to people we didn’t know, but who we admired. It felt like this really strong, energetic community of people building each other up and recognizing each other and supporting each other.
I feel like we entered the marketplace in a time when there was a groundswell of young designers coming to New York. It felt like American design was coming back to life.
RL: Was New York always where you wanted the business to be?
HP: We considered starting in St. Louis because all of us are from the midwest and New York felt daunting. But in the end, New York had so much to offer in terms of other skilled artisans and the design market. We sell the majority of our work in the New York market. It’s just the right place for us to be, but we love St. Louis.
RL: Do you feel that you’ve found a sense of community here among other makers?
CE: I feel like we entered the marketplace in a time when there was a groundswell of young designers coming to New York. It felt like American design was coming back to life. There were a few people who paved the way who we think of as being our mentors, like Lindsey Adelman and Tyler Hays, who were really championing American design and New York design. They planted the seed here in New York and we’re all growing from that. It’s fun to see our colleagues and friends around us flourishing and their businesses growing. It does feel like a community.
HP: As a creative company you want to share your vision with people. And what better way to do that than in your own showroom, here in a place with many exciting showrooms? You can curate exactly the experience you want people to have and how they interact with your furniture in an environment that you want to create.
RL: How would you describe the overall experience you’re striving to create here in the showroom? What kinds of words would you use to describe it?
CE: It’s always hardest to talk about our own work! Materiality is extremely important to us — the way that things age, the form of things. We talk about our work as “sculptural” often, but at the end of the day we are making functional items. For example, this sofa [Egg Collective’s new Howard Sectional Sofa] may be beautiful and feel tailored, but also it needs to be comfortable.
RL: You have some beautiful paintings and sculptures on display here. Can you tell us a bit about how you choose what you bring into the space?
HP: These look like paintings but they’re actually photographs by a Connecticut-based photographer, Tealia Ellis Ritter [Crystal’s sister]. They’re mainly photographs of the ground but then she manipulates the negatives before they’re processed. The colors are amazing.
CE: We also represent Stephen Somple, who’s got a sculpture on the wall. Although they look kind of wild they’re very rigorous pieces. He is combining forms through force. So he’ll take a flat shape and then drop another shape onto it, each piece is a record of impact.
HP: We met him because he was working for one of our sub-contractors Then he became a friend because we’d see him a lot when I dropped in. One day I found out he made art.
RL: Typically, what’s your process for putting your own work out into the world? Do you tend to work mostly with direct clients or designs, and do you allow customization?
HP: We mostly work with designers, and for many of the pieces in our line we allow customization. But we learned early on that taking on entirely custom furniture was not for us.
CE: We want to put our vision out into the world. We don’t necessarily want to make someone else’s vision. But we will change the size of our designs for particular designers who need it to be a slightly different size to fit, or we’ll work on different materials or color combinations. Most of our lacquered pieces we have standard colors, but a lot of people will ask if we can match a paint color or something like that.
RL: Having had such important mentors in your own lives, do you find yourself mentoring younger makers, here or elsewhere?
CE: We try to. We get people reaching out to us, asking questions. Sometimes we can’t answer everything but mostly we try to be there for young designers to help them figure out their path in the world.
HP: I think the advice we give most is to get out into the world and work in it. You can’t just do your own thing right away. It’s important to learn from the people who have gone before you and learn the necessary skills. We had a combined 18 years of work experience before we even started. So just get your hands dirty and understand the industry that you want to work in and get to know it very well.
RL: How do you envision Egg Collective growing from here?
CE: Something we’ve been talking about recently is how to reach more people and other markets, because we are based in New York, we are relatively small operation, and at the moment we basically represent our own line of work. So we’re thinking about whether we can design things that are more easily shippable or have a shorter lead time. We have started our design process for the spring, so we’ll see where that takes us.
RL: Do you have a lot of the pieces in your own homes as well?
HP: I have so many pieces in my home but they’re all slightly damaged or the prototype or “the weird one.” I recently got married and the girls gifted me two brand new Ritter Nightstands, and it’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever experienced.
RL: Do you guys live near each other?
CE: [Laughing] It’s kind of comical. We’re basically live in a triangle. It’s great.
HP: Yeah, we do. We like it that way, though. Yesterday, I had Stephanie’s dog, and she was on her way home from the shop and stopped at my house to pick up the dog and ended up eating dinner with us. It’s a nice way to make your community in New York.