Artist and entrepreneur builds glass empire from inspiration, and ignorance
When Karen Feldman moved to Prague from the United States in 1994, she didn’t expect that 21 years later she’d still be in the Czech capital, running her own wildly successful business, designing, producing, and selling exquisite handmade crystal glassware. While she had a background in art —she graduated from Bard College with a degree in fine art photography—Feldman knew nothing about crystal and perhaps even less about business. Yet she had always been a person who found inspiration and the impetus for projects in her immediate surroundings, and she was captivated by Prague’s tradition of artisanal glassware.
There were aspects of that tradition Feldman wanted to revive, namely the emphasis on design that was characteristic of Czech glass, circa early 20th-century. With no background in the field, Feldman began sketching designs that drew on a wide range of ideas and influences, from an Art Deco-style typewriter ribbon tin to Islamic tiles dating back to the 13th-century. The next steps were to find artisans who could translate her sketches into finely etched glasswork and to carve out a niche in the Czech and international home design markets. Once she did the former, the latter fell in place as the result of a confluence of circumstances that seem like lots of good luck. Within a few short years, Feldman’s business, Artel, was exhibiting work at major international gift and design fairs and she was garnering mentions in top international publications.
Soon, an enviable list of clients began to call upon Feldman and her team of artisans to craft bespoke pieces, among them Rolls Royce, Sol Lewitt, Manolo Blahnik, and Armani, and Artel pieces were selected for exhibition and acquisition by significant design and glass museums, including the Cooper-Hewitt in New York and the Corning Museum of Glass. Riding this wave of success, Feldman opened the first of three retail shops in Prague and began selling her collection in exclusive department stores and boutiques in New York and Tokyo, as well as cities in nearly 30 countries.
Now, more than 20 years later, Feldman steps back to take stock of the business she started out of her apartment all those years ago with just US$ 2,500 in savings. “I didn’t even have a telephone at the time!” she says. Feldman has seen significant evolution in the luxury crystal industry, noting that when she founded Artel it was in the context of whatshe describes as “a very boring, conservative industry where little risk and creativity were taken.” She attributes her success to a curious factor: her lack of knowledge. My ignorance about the industry has always treated me very well, as I was not concerned about limitations and perceived ideas about product ranges. Then and now, I simply designed what I like,” she says. “I don’t worry about people assuring me there is no way people will buy a motif I have designed for the price attached. Time and again, I have been surprised at what people are willing to buy and what they are willing to pay,” she says.
If the industry has evolved, so too has the customer. In fact, Feldman says it is the customers who have forced other luxury crystal producers to up their game and become more creative. “The customer wants to stand out,” Feldman says, “and in recent years, most of the major players have become far more creative, which is reflective of customers’ demands.” Feldman also says she has noticed changes in consumers’ buying habits. “People wish to buy the best they can,” she says, “even if it means they own less.” And while her goods are priced for a clientele she refers to as “the one-percent of the one-percent,” she also notices that locals and tourists shopping in her boutiques will stretch their budget to indulge in a unique, quality-made product because they want “the best and most interesting object they have seen during their visit to Prague.” Artel pieces are all handmade from start to finish and no two pieces are alike. “Everyone can own a piece of Baccarat or Lalique,” Feldman points out. “To own Artel is to be an original and I think people really appreciate that.”
In her almost two decades in business, Feldman has achieved what many entrepreneurs take an entire career to accomplish. She has her own stores and key partnerships with luxury retailers in addition to prestigious private commissions. Sales are robust. She could choose to rest on her laurels or enter cruise control mode, but passive success is hardly Feldman’s style. She does not have any immediate plans to open stores outside the Czech Republic, where, she says, “there is a very captive audience for crystal and glassware,” nor does she intend to parlay her success in fine crystal to another medium. “While I love the idea of being a great generalist, in the end I know I am best at being a specialist, so crystal is what I will continue to focus my attention on.”
Nonetheless, she has no plans to slow the company’s growth with respect to design and innovation. “There is always something in the works,” Feldman says, revealing that upcoming collections she is designing are inspired by the Arctic, the Chinese zodiac, flora and fauna, and sea motifs. “The possibilities really seem endless and I love that,” she says. After soaring to success in a field she never expected to enter, Feldman is most proud that Artel is still in business and that she continues to have these new ideas that clients appreciate. “We have gone beyond my wildest imagination,” she says, “and we continue to be a very small, personal company where a client can have us create bespoke pieces to treasure for a lifetime.”
For more information: www.artelglass.com
Article by Julie Schwietert Collazo