Sonjie Feliciano Solomon was born in Manila, Philippines and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Sonjie received a marketing/business degree from Georgetown University. She has traveled extensively throughout Asia and Europe and her work as a copywriter for traditional and interactive advertising agencies led to stints in New York, Hong Kong and Boston. Unsatisfied with staring at a computer screen all day, she craved the fulfillment of creating things with her hands and returned to art school.
After receiving a degree in industrial design with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design, she worked for a variety of furniture and product design companies. And her sculpture and paintings have been shown in solo and group shows in NY, MA, FL, RI, MI and Korea. These projects straddle the line between art, craft and design.
In 2011, she put her first product out with her bootstrapped company, Hatch Things, which aims to create simple solutions for parents. This move was inspired by her life as the mom of 3 active boys and desire to solve some basic parenting frustrations.
Your background sounds interesting. Explain how you went from copywriter to artist and designer? How did you decide to make the transition into product design?
I had always loved art but I was unsure I could have a career in the arts. (As a first-generation immigrant and the child of successful doctors, I was raised to think about making a career first, leaving my passions for later.) So I studied business at Georgetown. After graduation, I thought that a job in advertising seemed like the most creative job in the “business” world. So I gave it a shot and became a copywriter for a couple of different firms in New York. After working in NY, Hong Kong and Boston for both traditional and early interactive agencies, I realized that I still wanted to go to art school and was thrilled to get into RISD — which had been a dream of mine (deferred). I entered thinking I was going to study illustration, which was most similar to the classes I had taken in drawing and painting, but quickly switched to industrial design once I took my first 3D design class. I loved “thinking in 3D” — thinking through the challenges of how objects existed in the real world and how users would interact with these objects. Before school, I didn’t even know that industrial design was even a thing you could study — I was never exposed to design classes before and never really thought about how products were developed.
Cast cement tables
After graduating and having my second son, I worked for a few years for other designers, learning how to turn concepts into real products and bring them to market. After my third son was born (we were going for the girl…), I wanted to take those skills and focus solving the problems my husband and I were experiencing as parents, so I started Hatch Things.
With my advertising background and product design training, Hatch Things is the combination of all my educational experiences and work rolled into one. I’ve taken products from concept, to design to market.
What sort of things do you explore in your fine art practice? Has it influenced your commercial work in any way? Or are they completely separate?
There isn’t enough time in the day to work on both, so I tend to go back and forth between art and design. Art requires time and quiet to think and experiment with materials. My life isn’t really conducive to that right now with 3 active sons and growing a business. With product design and starting a business, I can work on tasks and check things off a list and feel as if I’ve accomplished something.
While I’m all for emotional self-expression, my work (both fine art and design) has gravitated towards problem solving. Setting up a set of parameters and trying to find the best answer to the questions I posed to myself.
In my sculpture, I combine industrial design tools and materials together with the craft processes which are traditionally thought of as “women’s work” such as quilting, sewing and needlepoint. Aesthetically, my goal is to create works that appeal to a universal audience — much like natural phenomena do. When we are open to observation, most people have some sort of emotional reaction when they look out into a vast churning ocean, a sunbeam breaking through the clouds or rain through a foggy window. A sense of mystery, calm and peace wash over you. I strive to recreate some element of the ephemeral in my work — to manufacture moments of surprise and delight.
Untitled #20 – Water Series, 2010, Enamel on plexiglass
The other challenge I pose to myself is to create an innovative process or system for making the artworks. Using my industrial design training, I devise systems and processes to create these works using computer-aided design and man-made materials. Combining my educational background in product design and my training in women’s handicrafts, I knit together two different sets of skills. Once the planning is done, the execution becomes meditative with its repetitive tasks and rhythm. And I find peace.
I want people who see my art to have a reaction when they first see it — and then wonder how it was made and how it works. I want them to be curious about my process.
In design, it’s all about a practical solution to a daily frustration. And taking into account the needs of the target market, cost, and logistics.
While the art and design may look different, for me it is about problem solving. I’m all for emotional self-expressing, but setting up or finding an existing problem then working towards an answer is usually my process.
It seems like motherhood and your Hatch business are pretty intertwined (you turn daily frustrations into to design solutions.) How do you come up with your ideas? How do you decide which ones to focus on?
I actually had my first son when I was at RISD. I did 2 semesters then took a year off to have him and returned the next year to resume the program. I always had baby on the brain throughout my design education and many of my projects were influenced by maternity and motherhood. In fact, one of my projects while in school was for a baby cry analyzer — and there is now one on the market 10 years later!
After working for other designers on accessories, housewares, furniture and tensile fabric structures, then focusing on fine art for a few years, I wanted to put my own products out. But I knew how expensive prototyping metals or plastics would be so I thought about what I could do inexpensively on my own — in my house while the baby slept! Again, it came back to sewing — and this was happening at the same time I had my 3rd son.
With my 3rd son, we were back in NY. I had a very expensive winter maternity coat with a zip out panel for babywearing — it was the best investment I made for toting a newborn through the slush and snow while shuttling the other 2 boys around town. I just threw the coat around both of us and quickly got out the door without having to put baby in 3 winter layers. But it was very expensive and dads couldn’t make use of a maternity coat. I wanted to design a universal cover that urban parents would be comfortable wearing and that’s how the ColdSnap was born. The ColdSnap has been out for a couple of winters and this year, sales have been steadily climbing — I think word-of-mouth really sells this product. ColdSnap is carried primarily in boutiques and specialty stores but Amazon recently started to carry it and that’s been great for our small business.
After launching ColdSnap, I started thinking about a next product. By then, our youngest son was too big to carry and we were back to using strollers. And I started to look at how to solve the problem of strollers tipping backwards, especially when we walk everywhere and our strollers become like car trunks to us toting everything from toys, groceries and kiddies around town. Look around the playground and you’ll see strollers tipping over from all the stuff they carry — this is what SureShop solves.
Have you encountered a problem that you are working on but haven’t yet figured out a solution for?
Boy, that’s a long list…
Can you tell us the process from having a product idea to getting it manufactured? Do you do a lot of prototyping?
When I decided to try to design the first product for Hatch Things, I consciously thought about what I could prototype on my own and that I knew I could source easily. I’ve done work which required expensive tooling and metal work and I didn’t want to make that investment yet. I can sew so that was my starting point. And I could quickly go through multiple revisions. Once I had a decent prototype, I brought it to a couple of boutiques to get feedback which was so helpful. And a couple of stores were ready to order it so I decided to go ahead. A friend in the neighborhood had a line of clothing she produced and was able to manufacture a small run for our first order. I created a tech packet, pattern, instructions which were sent to the manufacturer.
Small shopkeepers are so wonderful both for their personal customer service and also generosity of knowledge and information about their customers.
Yes, I do a lot of prototypes. And even when something is in production, we can make changes and call it version 2 (V2).
Besides the shortage of time, what’s the hardest thing about having your own business and being a mom? (We know having your own business is like having a kid itself!) What’s the single most helpful thing that has helped you get through it?
Focus. and separating the two jobs — especially working from home.
Feeling like you are never going to be 100% at either job. I hear from other women (and men) entrepreneurs, who have young children, that this is a common feeling.
For me, my outlet is running. When I turned 40, I ran my first marathon and I recently completed my fourth New York City Marathon. I know that being an entrepreneur is an endurance game and find parallels to this in my running.
What skills do you think make s a good product designer?
Balance between being self-critical and confident in your informed thought process. Knowing who you are and what you are good at helps. Are you better at designing for function or form. It depends on what kind of a designer you’d like to be. There is a need for both.
Do you have any resources for someone interested in industrial design (website, publications, book, professional groups, etc). Do industrial designers need to go back to school for a degree?
It’s very hard for me to keep up with what’s going on in the world outside of my family and the business at hand. But if you are looking for inspiration, you can browse through the portfolios on Coroflot.com and portfolios.risd.edu.
Whether or not a degree is necessary really depends on your environment and background. I certainly needed it — I came from a family of doctors and really didn’t have exposure to making things other than painting in school. The design process is a way of thinking and you can be taught, especially the technical processes. The basics of analyzing a problem, researching your market, setting parameters and designing in a way that is cost-effective yet aesthetically pleasing can be learned in school, but being an entrepreneur can only be experienced in the real world. Mistakes and all.
Thanks Sonjie for sharing your story. We’re so excited to see what’s you come up with next!