Interview with entrepreneur Valerie Thai on her evolution from freelance design to pyrography and laser cutting.
Designer Valerie Thai studied painting and print making at UBC and then studied communication design at ECUAD. After Emily Carr, she landed a gig as the art intern at Adbusters Magazine, where over a few years she worked her way up to Art Director. It was at the magazine where a bunch of coworkers began meeting and hanging out after work and making crafty things together… pretty much a social gathering of gals to collaborate and make things whilst having some drinks. Together, they started making and selling their items at local craft shows and eventually officially became the Hob Snobs Craft Collective.
In 2006, Valerie left Adbusters to freelance, and the craft collective disbanded as each member pursued their own paths. Cabin + Cub started as a freelance design company and slowly evolved to include a line of products.
Online retail opened new doors to wholesaling to more brick and mortar shops, and today Valerie’s wares are carried in a selection of boutiques across the country. Over the years the product side of the business has steadily grown and now makes up 50% of her business.
How did you learn to work with a laser cutter?
I discovered laser cutting while surfing the web and seeing a company using the technology to make intricate wooden clocks. When I learned that most laser cutter machines can cut designs created from Adobe Illustrator files, I gave it a try. I was already proficient in the program as a graphic designer, so it felt like a natural progression to move from hand done pyrography to laser cutting. Laser cutting not only allowed me to achieve greater detail and cut smaller and more intricate designs, but it also opened doors to the ability of making multiples of products, which became more difficult when making hand burned items.
Why was it important for you to introduce a line of items made out of wood opposed to other mediums?
I have always been drawn to working with wood. I think being born in Vancouver and growing up here around all the scenic landscapes of mountains and forests really helped to shape my aesthetic. For me, wood is such a warm material that I can’t help but want to touch it. With pyrography and laser cutting, it is such a beautiful material to work with and it smells like campfire when I do work with it. Also, I found after years of working as a designer and using a computer daily, it felt nice to work with a natural medium that I could hold and build with. I started working with bamboo, which is very environmentally friendly and sustainable, and recently I have started experimenting with birch and walnut wood.
How do you connect your work with personal expression?
When designing my products, I always try and make things that I like or feel like I would want to wear and make me smile. Since I am really drawn to nature and the outdoors, I think that comes across in most of the designs.
Were you always a creative person?
I was always in love with the arts. As a child I would draw and work on craft projects constantly. I dabbled in an endless list of art and crafts growing up – from obsessively making paper dolls, to creating hundreds of collages, to making gifts for my friends while in high school. This led me to study fine arts and design in university. I think I also get my creative drive and talent from my parents as well – my mother studied window display design, so growing up, studying arts was always encouraged. My dad was an entrepreneur, and I think that is where I get my business side of things from. Along my creative journey, I have had the privilege of being surrounded by many creative people, both in school and in the workplace. I think being surrounded by supportive creative people really encouraged me to experiment and explore my own talents for sure.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
One of my biggest achievements was being a featured seller on Etsy. Overnight, my online shop exploded with orders as well as gained some media attention. Up until that point, I was making and selling items, but viewed it all as more of a side gig and hobby. At that turning point, I realized that what I had was a viable brand and business that I could grow. The response and feedback to the featured article was amazing, and I learned that I could create and share product that I love with others and make it into my living.
What are your influences when generating creative thoughts?
Most of my inspiration comes from nature and the surrounding landscape. I feel lucky to live in a city where I can access waterfront, mountains, and forested walks quite easily… I think this really shows up in my work. In addition to the wilderness, I also feel my work really draws on Canadiana, so wildlife motifs and classic Canadian symbols also are present in my work. Other inspirations include vintage graphics and illustrations as well as children’s books. As for products, the majority of my wares are accessory items, however I started experimenting with making objects and household items, such as calendars, note pads and coasters. Overall, I try to keep my designs very simple and quiet, since I want the natural material to shine through as well.
What do you hope your products make people feel?
In one word – happiness. I love seeing a person pick up one of my pieces and crack a smile. Or even better, I love when people gift my items to bring smiles to others.