Bertis: Susan, where are you from? Where did you grow up?
Susan: I was raised in Corsicana, Texas, which is about 50 miles southeast of Dallas. We are known for our fruitcake factory, which I think is kind of a funny little tidbit. Or we are also know for the first oil derrick, oil well, drilled west of the Mississippi. It’s now only about 22,000 people, but, I grew up the whole way through in Corsicana, a small little town, and proceeded to go to college out of state. Then I moved up to New York, where I had originally wanted to go to college.
I wound up living there and going to Parsons, trying to capture the design school that I wasn't able to get. Then I moved to San Francisco for six years, and then back to Manhattan for another 12 years, where we started Hable Construction in 1999.
Bertis: Why did you name it Hable Construction?
Susan: So, our great-grandfather was an immigrant from Germany. And he started a road construction business in Texas, south Texas and Louisiana. And then the company, we had one of those family splits, you know, the “great divide” in the 70s and fell apart. So Katharine, my business partner and sister, who also recently moved to Athens, and I decided we were going to take the name back and turn it around. We weren’t exactly sure what we were going to be making, but we said it would be perfect because we always knew we were going to be constructing.
Bertis: It's an evocative name because it’s not something you would think, "Oh, hip really cool colorful design stuff on fabric." You would think, "Hmm, what's that?" It would arouse curiosity, but it wouldn't foreclose it into anything, it’s vague enough, but it’s your name, and it's a great name.
Susan: Right. And we would get plenty of calls from contractors. (laughs)
Bertis: And what brought you to Athens?
Susan: In New York, we had an employee named Lucy Allen, and she kept telling me about Athens. She’s from a family that is about fifth generation Athenians, and she paired us up with her sister, Rinne, who in turn, started photographing our product. And Katharine and I had an epiphany. We said, "Oh my gosh, we aren't die-hard New Yorkers, we really relate to this beautiful voice from the South." So, we started sending our products down here. It would be spring, and we would be under snow in New York, but at the same time from Athens, Rinne would send these beautiful pictures back. And we would be like, "Oh…." She gave a voice to our company that we never had. So, we then started flying down here for photo shoots, and we had customers that are related to
Bertis, you know, some of the REM guys, and they'd come in and shop.
Bertis: Because they had a shop in New York.
Susan: We had two shops.
Bertis: With pillows and great stuff for your house.
Susan: So, Michael (Stipe) would come into the shop…
Bertis: …in the neighborhood.
Susan: And he would buy all these presents for people in Athens
Bertis: Christmas presents, right?
Susan: Right. He would sit on the floor of our shop, literally on the floor, and just go down his Christmas list. And we started talking about Athens, and then all these little pieces started coming together. Rinne had all these people to her house. We'd have these dinners, and I'd start meeting all these unique people that lived in Athens. I called my husband and said, “You’re never going to believe this, but these people are, they're in London, but they come to Athens. They're in New York, but they come to Athens.” He came down and loved it, and we bought a house and moved here permanently.
Bertis: So tell us, Sue, Katharine chime in, describe in a paragraph without showing any pictures, what do you y’all do? What are you even doing?
Susan: A lot. A lot of different things.
Bertis: What does your company do? What do you personally do? Because I don't really know. I have a lot of your stuff. I mean, I think we have some stuff in here from y'all, don't we?
Susan: Yes, you're sitting in one of our chairs. (laughs)
Bertis: (Laughs) Yes, that’s right. These chairs are Hable Construction chairs. They're actually made in North Carolina, by Hickory.
Susan: Well, there are two parts: we have the before I moved to Athens, Hable, and then there’s the after moving to Athens, Hable, which has been incredible, and I think that's the story. But before, we had two retail stores in Manhatten. We started with Katharine and I creating a company based on my art, hand silk-screen printed on fabric. It was textile based. We did not want to be in fashion, it was moving too fast. We tried. Katharine is incredible, she can sell anything, and I can pretty much, I'm an artist, so I can pretty much make anything or design anything, so we thought we'd pool our talents, and we started just with that. And that was at a time, now there's so many other ways of making fabric by the yard for the market, but when we started, it was at the beginning. I mean, there was no Social Media, there was really no computer-based design. Everything was made by hand, and we thought we'd make everything, we tried to make everything, in the United States. And so we had to dig.
Katharine: Well, silk screening, it wasn't really being revitalized, yet. We were one of the first people of that round of the late 90's that revitalized silk-screen printing. There were these bigger companies that had been doing it for a long time.
Susan: But not little, artisan…
Katharine: …small companies like us. We found a craggily, old guy in Red Hook Brooklyn, who had 100-yard tables in this old factory that had been there over 100 years. And Susan bum-rushed him and said, "Can we move in?” And we had a space. It had an old mattress in the back and a refrigerator, and…
Susan: …well, yeah, there was a space in the back with wax tables, old wax tables, which sticks the fabric. They had pin tables and wax, And there were clumps of wax everywhere. And the walls had…
Katharine: ,,,gunshot holes….
Susan: People from the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) had been shooting through the glass, and so…
Katharine: Susan was like, "I have found heaven on Earth," but it was pretty much a dump. (laughs)
Susan: Well, I wasn't technically trained in textiles, so we said, "You know, it’s almost like if you're going to make chocolate, you might as well work in the chocolate factory." So, that was our way of thinking. Our mom came up help us, and she kept asking, "What are those holes?" And we were like, "No Mom, just turn your head and look this way…” But it was just us, and a whole bunch of men, they had never worked with women, we had no heat, I mean, in the winter…
Katharine: It was so cold.
Susan: It was kind of funny, but it was real. We were so serious about what we were doing.
Bertis: So this is about 2002-2003?
Susan: It was right around 2001. The area was not so cool at the time. It was rough and weird – no condos like now.
Bertis: Brooklyn on the cusp.
Katherine: Right, right.
Susan: Anyway, it was gorgeous to me and Katharine. It was our little printing factory. Actually, we have the most gorgeous photographs that Rinne took. I think they make the factory look like it was this kind of dark and moody, beautiful place, you know? But anyway, it’s where we got started, and we loved it.
Bertis: So now you design in your backyard?
Susan: Yes, so after moving to Athens, I was terrified. I'll be honest. I didn't know how, Katharine and I had worked together for so long. I've always had the fabric to touch, and if I wasn't busy, I was cutting squares, I mean I, you know, and so it really gave me a new perspective of how, what we will do for our company? And I started thinking, "Oh my gosh, I'm now in Athens, and I didn't realize High Point, N.C., was so close.
Bertis: It's only four hours away.
Susan: I didn't know that world. From a connection here, I called the president of Hickory Chair, which is, their story is very similar to ours…
Bertis: Family business.
Susan: Family business, made everything in the United States. And I just thought our companies have this wonderful story that's very similar. I called and the president at the time, Jay Rardin, and he said, "Well, there's no furniture. I can’t offer you to design any furniture here, but you say you do fabrics? Textiles?" And I said, "Yes sir." And he said, "Well, we like to be the first at doing things, so why don't we have our first designer fabric line?"
And I said, "Great! We're going to come to market, and we're going to check you guys out. You can meet us and see what we do." Actually, the creative director at the time knew some of the products we made. We worked with a catalog, and he had…
Bertis: Garnet Hill?
Susan: Yep, Garnet Hill catalog. And we've worked with them (Hickory Chair) for, gosh, now over 15 years? Which is unheard of.
Susan: But you know, for us, these relationships are wonderful because the market just switches so quickly, and it's so fickle.
Bertis: And UGA (University of Ga), don't you hire a lot of students now? And you taught at UGA? You've done some test instructing with UGA?
Susan: So UGA, another thing that I thought when we moved here was, "Oh, there's this fabulous textile program." At the time, I knew the guy that was running the program, and I would critique at the school. And so moving here, the woman I first hired had gone to UGA. She stayed for six years, and then we always had this influx of interns. And you know, they looked at our company as being this real commercial company, which is odd to me because I didn't. I've never thought of it as being that way. But I think commercial is selling something, making a profit to afford to buy more fabrics and further the cycle. And I wanted to share that – that is how business is run. When we started, we were very naïve. We just said, "Oh, let’s make pretty things." Ultimately, though, when you have any kind of company, creative or not, there has to be some end game unless you have lots of money…
Bertis: An end game is so crucial.
Susan: And I'll be honest, the recession was probably the hardest lesson for us, but it gave us some knowledge about business that you could only get from living through it. We had to make more hardcore changes and choices, and we aren't as quick to make decisions. We're more thoughtful, so it wasn't all bad. But the University has been this wonderful place for me.
Bertis: Y’all both honed in on something that I've just listened to you talk about. You have your business, you have your designer, you have your design world, you have the creative things going on in your head, you have these products that come out of it, and you get to teach and share your gift. But you both have honed in on the word relationships, as what’s really important. And I know with kids, there is good research that shows what helps a kid get out of where they started, especially in these generational poverty situations.
What is the thing that gets some of these kids to go to college, to have a life? The most common element of those kids who do get out is the presence of a caring adult in their lives. And it's often a coach, it's often a teacher, probably it’s sometimes a parent. Hopefully, it's a parent, and often it is. The kind of thing you’re doing in education, broadcasting beyond just the school day, it’s so often the key that turns something on. Somebody goes, "Oh hey, I get it now. I know I have to work hard in school, because I want to go to college, because I want to learn."
Susan: Well, all my interns – they see me hustling with my children, with my husband, hustling with my business. They see me running.
Bertis: You're juggling.
Susan: And I always say to them, "This internship is about life and having a company. This is not just about making flowers in the studio. You guys, take it from me. You want to have your own company? This is how it really goes." And sometimes, depending on the year – and there have been some hard years – hard business years, hard family years, times when I just feel flattened – and I love having interns in there because they see it all. And, for the most part, (laughs) I love that they see it all.
Bertis: So, I'm going to give you two sets of questions. What is great about the Athens art community, and from your perspective, what does the community need most? And what are the greatest needs for your business or organization to grow and stay here in Athens?
Katharine: Well, just being here a short time, we have a sewer in New York who's been our sewer since '99. We've gone back and forth about needing another. Our sewer’s a fabulous man, but is getting older. We're his main source of income, so I don't want to switch from him. But finding sewing, production sewing, is a challenge. We can take some things up to a High Point, but I think you almost have the opportunity to create a cooperative here, where people – almost like what Natalie Chanin has done in Alabama, where people sew from home, and they tell you how much they charge per hour or how much they charge per piece and then they make it – can make a good wage. There's a lot of opportunity for that here.
Susan: It’s hard to find that here. And we also need someone that's very meticulous, and I think that's the catch, too. I have friends here who say that they have a blouse that they love, and they want that blouse in four, colored fabrics. And they have the fabric, but they need somebody to be able to do the pattern and make that blouse for them. I feel like there is such a cottage industry just waiting…
Bertis: Waiting to happen.
Susan: And too, for people who want to sew at home – they have family and they don't want to have to go to a place – I think that this is a really good thing. We do have to use computers with our business. We design furniture from our studio, and we design accessories from our studio. We need the computers for textile design, and it’s becoming that if you send a design somewhere, it has to be in computer form. So, we rely on the University for those students, but a lot of those kids don't stay in town. I think Athens is the best incubator, but it’s very hard to find people who want to stay here that have real high-level skills.
Bertis: But the more that do, the more critical mass, and you can have it all. You can do that kind of fascinating work.
Susan: And I think there are jobs coming. When you're asking what Athens needs, I think there are people that need those skills, and there are more businesses moving here that could use those types of skilled people. It is such a great place to raise your children. It takes seven minutes to get anywhere. I mean, these are fabulous things.
Bertis: You can be in the world, while still being here.
Katharine: Obviously, one thing about the art scene in Athens that hasn't been mentioned, yet, is Susan and I do High Point twice a year. (High Point Market in High Point, N.C., is one of the world’s largest home furnishings trade shows in the world.) We decorate about 2,500 square feet, and we have our furniture and rugs and things like that. But Susan has approached artists from here as well as used her own art to decorate the space.
Susan: And we’ve sold some very large pieces, and it just comes through reaching out and doing projects – collaboration. It's such a great way to see art, local art.
Katharine: And also, they're (the artists) appreciative because it’s a different venue. It's actually people who create art to sell and put in someone’s home. You know? It’s not so, so precious. You can paint all day and hide it away, but unless you're willing to sell it, you're not going to have a business with it.
Susan: We’ve been lucky because people say, "Where is all the art from?" And we get to say, “Athens.” There are so many artists here that do such incredible things.