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Designer Talks: Wendy Kvalheim

When it came to forging her career path, Wendy Kvalheim went down more than one road. First, she dreamed of becoming a classical dancer. Then, she studied biology and childhood education. But after attending art school and landing a job as a sculptor at the Johnson Atelier Institute of Sculpture, it was design that proved to be the perfect fit. Today, she's an owner & designer at Mottahedeh where she leads the charge in creating bold new porcelain designs while staying true to the brand's classical influences.

How did you get started?

I started out in a very different way than one would expect: I was in love with dancing as a child and teenager and thought I wanted to be a classical dancer. I studied a lot of biology in college and got my degree in childhood education. After being married I went to art school to study the technical aspects of making reproductions and worked as a sculptor in the modeling and enlarging department of Johnson Atelier Institute of Sculpture. We started a family and then we bought the Mottahedeh company when I was 36 years old.

You never know where life is going to take you and it is important to take in all experiences, as they may one day be valuable. Learn from everything.

Do you have a greatest career moment?

It was the first time Merian, the exquisite pattern that is a reproduction of artwork of Maria Sybilla Merian, was shown at The New York Tabletop Show. It was my first design that came to market through my work.

What is the basis of your design strategy?

We look for holes in our product assortment, such as a needed colorway or the desire for a particular type of item like a pasta bowl. I look for things that I viscerally like the moment I see a design or shape. We look for designs that have a great story or meaning. We must be who we are and not try to look like other companies. You can lead the market or you can follow the market. We must be bold.

What do you consider to be your design expertise?

I am first and foremost a sculptor. I have an eye for proportion and shape. I am very attuned to color and know how to work with lithographers to achieve complex and unusual color in ceramics. Mottahedeh uses more colors in a design than most products have.

We look for designs that have a great story or meaning. We must be who we are and not try to look like other companies. You can lead the market or you can follow the market. We must be bold.

Where do you seek inspiration to kickstart your creative process?

Antiquity, the classics. Predominantly Chinese export porcelain history.

How do you overcome creative blocks?

I wish I knew. It is important not to be afraid of what people may think, it is important to try to take yourself out of it and just experience ideas with a childlike nature. Creative acts are ones of discovery and the creation of them is not our possession. I try to listen to my first impressions. As we make antique inspired products, it is easier because they are already classics that have withstood the test of time.

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How do you know when to stick it out and when to let go of an idea?

I don't. We wait to see what the market says.

Is it difficult to strike a balance between your creativity and the objective for commercial success?

That is the most difficult part. We try for a product life of 5 to 20 years and we have quite a stable of strong sellers. The more you have of products that continue to perform, the more secure you are. For example: Tobacco Leaf, Blue Canton, Famille Verte, Duke of Gloucester, Imperial Blue, Blue Lace, Cornflower Lace, Sacred Bird and Butterfly, Blue and Coral Torquay, Chelsea Bird and Chelsea Botanical.

How would you define your personal design aesthetic?

I like refined colors with some subtle flow and detail in the work. I like most home furnishings with some kind of texture or well defined shape. I would say I like to take the cues from nature as the clearest representation of beauty. I think things should express beauty, whether in simplicity or complexity.

Is there one design or collection that changed everything for you? What was it? And what do you think of it today?

I think it was the first time I was asked by Mildred Mottahedeh to draw some Ming designs for something. I went to the Metropolitan Museum and looked at Ming blue and white porcelains and tried to draw them. They were inspiring for their fluid preciseness. So natural but simple. I realized it was no easy thing. We find the balance or the idea. Many of the Chinese early design are like that. I still think that.

Do you have any rules regarding design?

Make it the best it can be. We work on something until it is done. While we try to make deadlines, the best job is the most important. We are not making fashion items, and as it takes about a year and a half to make a design, we are hoping for longevity.

How many Forty One Madison Tabletop and Gift shows have you attended?

48.

If you were not a designer, is there another career path that intrigues you?

Three: Sculpture, opening a small café specializing in baked goods, interior design.

Is there one person who you admire or consider to be your greatest mentor or design inspiration?

My advisor at Pratt Institute, John Pai, who encouraged me to think beyond the expected and was confident that I could achieve what I decided to do.

What advice would you give to young designers who are just starting out in a commercial marketplace?

No task is too small or beneath one in the pursuit of skills. Hard work is very important. Garner all types of skills and learn the nuts and bolts of the trade. Be very curious but focus on one thing at a time.

What is the favorite gift you ever received and what was the occasion?

My son, who is a gemologist, designed and produced a ring for my birthday. He and my husband sourced the stones. It is a clear orange garnet with magenta stones on either side, beautifully cut. It is special.

What do you use on your table?

Prosperity, Famille Verte, Palace Blue, Ch'ing Garden, Haviland and Parlon's Syracuse, Waterdance, Golden Butterfly, Chelsea Botanical.

Any other thoughts you would like to share?

Einstein is purported to have said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge". Many have knowledge, but imagination is a rarer gift and if you have it, value it.