Heather Connolly and Myles Geyman formed Stak Ceramics in 2013 and have been creating beautifully clean desk and countertop products from their Pittsburgh studio ever since. 360 sat down with Myles to talk about how Stak began and where he sees it going next.
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360: Can you share the origin story behind Stak Ceramics?
Myles Geyman: I was working as an engineer designing ladders and platforms for airplanes back in 2008. I didn’t have much of a creative outlet. I had a background in sculpture, and at some point, I bought a couple kilns off Craigslist and started messing around with clay. I had a lot of fun and eventually got obsessed with the process.
At the same time, Heather moved back to Pittsburgh from Portland to open up a community ceramic studio. A mutual friend introduced us because he knew I was looking for more space. At that point, it was starting to take over my entire house with molds in my kitchen and casting pieces in the dining room. Dust everywhere. So, I started going to her studio more and more often. Eventually we started working together… and dating.
Around that time, we also started going to craft shows: the Renegade Craft Fairs in Brooklyn and Chicago. As a result of going to the shows, we got interest from retail outlets and boutiques for smaller wholesale orders. Initially, it was just a few extra dollars to cover the cost of having a ceramic hobby. But we kept reinvesting the money into equipment and materials. Then in 2014, I got laid off because business levels dropped. That night Heather came home and I had streamers, balloons and champagne. I was like, “If we’re ever going to do it… now is the opportunity.” We’d recently moved into a storefront studio—so, that was the moment.
360: That sounds deceptively easy. Did it take off immediately?
MG: We had a lot of early success selling through small boutiques. Then, we started getting more and more online sales as well. We’d get free advertisements from bloggers and social media personalities who would come across our goods and blog about it. That always gave us a nice little bump. We also sell through an online and catalogue company called Uncommon Goods and they give us a lot of business. They started out ordering 20 things at a time. That grew to 80 things. Now we’re doing orders for 4,000. All in all, though, it’s been a very organic growth that’s been reliant on reputation. Heather and I are both art school grads so we’re learning the business side as we go. But we’re starting to think about ways we can grow and become more intentional about our marketing.
360: How do you guys manage to walk the line between form and function so gracefully?
MG: That’s kind of ingrained in us. I have a degree in product design. Heather has a degree in painting and ceramics. So, our skill set leans toward being able to merge form and function. Beyond creating products that just do what they’re supposed to do – which seems obvious but sometimes gets lost – we do really try to keep a minimal aesthetic. Through the surface treatments and the design, we try to create work that is inviting and calming.
We have leaned toward focusing on desk accessories and things that work with technology, so it feels right that we’re not using milled aluminum or molded plastic. It’s almost as if we’re able to kind of soften the technology. We add plants, flowers and light colors. It makes it more accessible. Not everyone wants milled aluminum, powder-coated steel or bullet-proof cased material. We can do something a little less aggressive. There’s also something to mixing an ancient material with contemporary technology that really appeals to people.
360: How has the community of Pittsburgh influenced your work?
MG: It’s a wonderful community. Heather grew up here. I moved here maybe 16 years ago, and I love it. We really are part of a larger maker community. There’s a lot of other people, and even couples, who are trying to run creative businesses. So, it feels like we’re part of something. That’s actually how we were introduced to Steelcase – through some of the other businesses in the community. It’s a really creative, collaborative vibe. And it keeps growing, too. There’s also this whole other side of the city that maybe has more of an engineering and manufacturing tilt. It’s been great to see collaboration with them, too – to see creativity coming out of those kinds of minds. They help us with designing products that are more repeatable.
360: What’s next for Stak?
MG: We’re really excited to be in a place where we can grow our business in an intentional way and where we can start to think about introducing new products. We can start to use our creativity and some of the things we’ve learned to expand and grow in a way that makes sense for us. We’ve been making the same forms for a couple of years, and we’re looking forward to finding what comes next. We’re also really excited just to have the time to create. We had a baby recently and obviously that’s taken some time. Heather’s started to be able to get back in the studio a few days a week again and that’s been great for us.
360: What’s the wildest thing you guys have ever built or been asked to build?
MG: Last year, we made ceramic lampshades for this large-scale pendant light that was kind of a mobile design. It was a lot of porcelain, and the molds were very large scale. We had to have two people tip the mold over just to empty it. We made it for a restaurant called Balance in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. We collaborated with a woodworker who made these wooden bows that the lights hung from. It was a really cool project, but it took a lot of planning and figuring out. Each one ended up weighing 37 pounds. They turned out beautifully. We’d love to do something like that again.