Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Visit with Frank Hyatt

Recently I fell into correspondence with Frank Hyatt of HP Designs.   Those of you who are in the business know that Frank retired recently, selling the rights to some of his designs and lacquered boxes to other designers.  He also maintains a website to sell off the remainder of his inventory of painted canvases and boxes if you want one last chance to grab a memento of HP Designs.
http://www.hpneedlepoint.com

Frank is a wonderful correspondent.  He also was kind enough to tell me a bit about his career and allow me to share it with you here.  Thanks, Frank!  You have worn many hats in the needlepoint business, and what you have to share is fascinating to those of us who are just regular stitchers.

So let me introduce Frank Hyatt, who will make you laugh and make you think.

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 I will try to be short and to the point.

Many people know me in association with Gene Plummer who was both my business and life partner for 25 years.  Although many think that HP stands for hand-painted it actually is the first letters of our last names Hyatt and Plummer.  The fact that he is no longer with us is one of the reasons I’m quitting the business—it’s just not as much fun.  

We fell into retail needlepoint as a means to move back to San Francisco from Portland where we had moved in 1991.  I never really acclimated to the Northwest so when Gene’s brother called and jokingly offered us a needlepoint store I jumped at the chance; Gene, however, was less certain.  He claimed that in consideration of our ignorance about all things needlepoint it would not be a smart move.  I, on the other hand, countered that we were both English Lit majors and didn’t know a lot about anything but it hadn’t stopped us from doing dumb things before and it shouldn’t now.  My logic won the day and we moved back to San Francisco to become operating partners of “Elaine Magnin Needlepoint” in 1994.

As I mentioned, both of us were completely ignorant about needlepoint--our only previous experience was purchasing a printed kit from Michael’s as a gift for Gene’s sister-in-law.  Ironically, I remember being underwhelmed at the images and shocked at the prices—seemed like a whole lot of nothing for a whole lot of money.  I was equally confounded as to how a woman who lived in Pacific Heights and was on the board of the San Francisco Opera could derive any pleasure from such a pedestrian and old-fashioned hobby.  Only later did we understand our gaffe--Gene’s sister-in-law was an avid stitcher of hand-painted needlepoint and a good customer of Elaine Magnin Needlepoint.  After 30 odd years, Elaine retired and sold the store to Gene’s brother Gayle who, over the years,  had watched his wife spend large amounts on needlepoint and (against her advice) decided that owning a needlepoint store would be a sound investment.  Only later did he learn how much time and money would be required to make his investment profitable at which point he decided to close the doors.   Thus, he called one day and in the ensuing conversation offered the store to us.  

Whatever I thought needlepoint was quickly vanished my first day in the shop.  The shop was tiny--only 220 square feet--and traditional.  Thread-wise, it only stocked Paternayan wool, DMC cottons, and Balger in silver and gold--but design-wise, the shop had hundreds of unbelievably beautiful hand-painted canvases by the likes of Jane Aurich, Joy Juarez, Melissa Shirley, Kate Molineaux, Gay Giannini,  Dede Ogden, Amanda Lawford, Julie Poitras, and so many more.  I had never seen hand-painted needlepoint designs before and I was definitely impressed by both the artistry and the prices.  I momentarily regretted my fool-hardy rush to become a purveyor of needlepoint--I was prepared to peddle $30 kits as sold at Michael’s but $900 canvases--what on earth was I thinking!  I dismissed my doubts, bought some new clothes and decided I would cross the sales bridge if I ever came to it--I was yet to be convinced that anyone spent that kind of money on a product that, no matter how beautiful, required the additional expenses of threads, time, and fabrication. Besides, the designs that I saw were the ones that hadn’t sold not the ones that had. 

Very quickly I learned how to basket weave.  I read the “bible” by Jo Christiansen and taught myself many of the stitches plus learned as much trade jargon as I could absorb.  Fortunately, when it comes to selling it is far more important to sound knowledgeable than actually be knowledgeable--knowing the difference can buy one the time to become both.  Under the guidance of Mark Parsons we modernized EMN into a boutique needlepoint store--with thousands of designs and over fifty different fiber lines.  In addition, we started to sell antiques and accessories suitable for needlepoint finishing--I have never seen a surface that I didn’t think about slapping some needlepoint on.   Eventually we found the lacquered boxes and began to retail them as well.  When we sold the shop and went into wholesale the boxes were already a proven product so we quite naturally took them with us--although, the price point did change significantly. 

A word about business plans--although boxes and canvases don’t appear to go together, the underlying logic is, as in all things, form and function.   People will always do needlework of some sort (think of poor old Penelope stitching by day and unraveling by night) providing a utilitarian use for the stitched piece is always helpful.  It is currently the fashion to treat needlepoint as art but, needle-pointers should never forget that, in addition to repelling unwanted suitors, it is also useful as rugs, upholstery, clothing and shoes, etc— all one needs do is tour castles in Europe to see the practical uses for needlepoint. 

After acquiring the store I became “addicted” and stitched dozens of needlepoints most of which I gave away or used as shop samples.  I learned the hard way that needlepoint is best done for oneself and not as gifts to be given to others--eyes light up at  $50 coffee makers but $500 pillows cause wtf looks of bewilderment--for needlepoint there is Visa but for expressions of  surprise and confusion priceless.   Because of the constraints of our small shop, we didn’t hold classes so I memorized stitches from Jo Christiansen’s “bible” and gave individual lessons at point of sale.  I would quickly write stitch charts and then show the customer how to do the stitch in the margin of the canvas.  Of course we stocked various stitching books especially the ones which organized stitches according to use.  Provided one is patient and willing it is not that difficult to turn ordinary basket-weave stitchers into competent and sophisticated needle-workers.     

I am not sure if you were a customer of mine at EMN but if you shopped the online store in the late 1990’s you were.  We started the online store and sold it along with the brick and mortar to Alan Ferrara 2001.  Sadly, Alan went out of business a few years ago and a 50 year tradition in San Francisco disappeared.   

Initially, when we started HP Designs we purchased designs from other artists--Wendy Rayment, Molly Fehrenbach, and a few others—but, eventually, I became the primary designer for our wholesale line.  Our design aesthetic was a continuation of what we had stocked in the shop--florals, animals, geometrics, oriental, Christmas, etc.  I always designed by category and what was most likely to sell, not what pleased me--good thing too, my tastes run toward dark and morbid.   In retail Gene did most of the buying and later he was the primary arbitrator of what designs we wholesaled. He always chose designs that he thought would have sold in the store and he was usually correct.  

All of the designs, whether mine or from others, are all painted by various painting services operating in the industry.   The boxes are hand-poured and produced in China.  The painting services are either the best or worst kept secrets in the industry but everyone uses them.  If you have ever painted a canvas, even a small one, you know how time consuming it is, and when you think of how much needlepoint is sold every year at the shows you soon realize that the designer and artist is not necessarily the painter.  Artist, designer, and painter are three separate and distinct categories--to find a canvas design which is the product of all three in one person is a rare and expensive item.

Hand-painted needlepoint is primarily an American phenomena and has never really caught on elsewhere in the world.  Elaine Magnin who began the store was one of the architects of American style needlepoint.  Elaine, along with many other retailer/designers trained and hired artists to paint for them.  That is not to say that there were no designer/artists wholesaling in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s (there were a few) but in those decades the European print and pre-work companies still dominated.   Only with the establishment of off-shore painting services in the 80’s did the American needlepoint industry blossom into what it is today.  The historical perspective is important, not only because it is so recent, but because it shows a prevailing trend in the evolution of the needlepoint industry—specialization.

Like everything else in modern life needlepoint too has undergone specialization --fifty years ago the shop-owner wore almost all of the hats--retailer, designer, painter, teacher, finisher etc.  Today these are all separate and distinct jobs within the industry--today one does not need to design, paint, or stitch in order to sell needlepoint.  In fact, many needlepoint designs start as “art,” get adapted to needlepoint  by a “designer,”  painted onto canvas by someone overseas,  sold here in a combo needlepoint/knitting store, interpreted by a stitch designer then stitched with specialty threads by the buyer who then takes it to another expert to finish.  I am not complaining merely stating the obvious--when the pie is split between so many no one ever gets full.  For a fact it is getting harder to make a living at needlepoint.   If you have attended the trade shows for a number of years then you too have seen many people come and go-- talented people who brought an original and classic design sense to market but were unable to stay due to the strong competition for so few dollars.   It would be interesting to know how much in total sales a market actually does and how it has changed over the years; based on the turnover of designers, I would guess it is relatively stable (or stagnant-depending on if you are a glass half full or a glass half empty person).

To me it is clear, specialization within the needlepoint industry has brought about a flowering of the needlepoint craft into an art form.   One only needs to see the work of stitch designers and their pupils to understand that American style needlepoint is more than hand-painted canvases.  I hate to be the one to state the obvious but in a world in which everyone is an artist art tends to lose its meaning or least its mystery and as a result its value.  End users (retail customers) of hand-painted needlepoint designs now want and expect a quality and complexity of goods and services that is increasingly difficult for many in the supply chain to keep up with and make a profit.  Unfortunately (for sellers), there is a limit to what end-users will ultimately pay for their hobby.  My guess is that in the future the various specialties in needlepoint will need to be concentrated into fewer hands.  Ironically, we will go full circle to how it used to be—the shop-owner wearing all the hats.   This will happen one of two ways designers will become retailers or retailers will become designers.  

For all my pessimism, I want to end by saying that I have no regrets being involved in an industry in which all involved, whether sellers or buyers, are less interested in money and more intent on expressing themselves artistically, whether with paint and brushes or threads and needles.     

Frank Hyatt

Written by Jane/Chilly Hollow
Blogging at http://chillyhollownp.blogspot.com
and at http://chstitchguides.blogspot.com
© Copyright September 15, 2014 Jane M. Wood. All rights reserved.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Jane! What a fascinating man. I love his thoughts on needlepoint's evolution to its current status and what it may further become. I had a brief email exchange with him the other day, so it's a lovely serendipity to find this on your blog today.

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  2. Thank you, Frank Hyatt, for talking with Jane and writing this wonderful piece. As I go to work today in the needlepoint shop, it will be with a slightly different perspective and with much appreciation for those who helped shape an industry.

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  3. I didn't want my conversations with Frank to end. He's funny, smart and very knowledgeable so I'm very grateful he put up with my pestering questions long enough to do a wonderful interview!

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  4. Thanks for sharing. I enjoy my needlepoint alot and knowing about the people who helped to shape needlepoint today is very interesting. Happy Retirement Frank!

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  5. Thank you Jane for facilitating and thank you Frank for sharing this wonderful perspective on the art we all love so much!

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  6. I greatly enjoyed reading about Frank Hyatt's adventures in needlepoint and hearing his take on what is to come in the craft. I have to say, though, that I greatly miss HP Designs, as it included so many elegant, sophisticated canvasses that I loved. And those gorgeous lacquer boxes! Fortunately, I have several of the latter and many of the former--some still to be stitched. Thank you, Frank Hyatt.

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  7. I saved this to read when a moment of quiet made itself available to me. I'm so glad I waited, thoroughly enjoyed the reading. I'm positive I met both Frank and Gene probably more than once. Will admit to a stash of Tiffany blue boxes acquired at a cash and carry at some point way back.
    I agree with Franks thoughts as to the future of the industry. Falls back on 'what goes around, comes around'. My head saw me offering designs as limited additions that I would hand paint myself upon re entering the industry. Of course, the reality is, there are bills to pay and I should eat now and then.
    Happy retirement Frank, enjoy every well deserved moment.

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  8. HP Designs live on through other designers such as Barbara Russell, Julia's Needleworks and Amanda Lawford...who also has those beautiful lacquer boxes.

    Frank, what I miss most is when you and Gene would come into the shop with your portfolio of new designs just before market debut....and the stories that Gene and Pat would tell! Hopefully they are still sharing stories up there.

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    1. Those were good times. I miss them too.

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  9. I too waited to read this until I could read it all! Thanks so much for sharing this bit of background about our passion!

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