STUDIO - Samantha Cisneros of Shapes and Colors

I met Samantha at one of those creatives meet ups...the kind that usually take a little extra convincing myself to go to but always turn out great. I'm sure some other (somewhat introverted) creatives out there know what I mean. Samantha was really easy to talk to and I was rather impressed with how long she had been working for herself. I knew right away I wanted to introduce STUDIO readers to her. We had just as easy and lovely of a conversation when I met her again at her sun-filled studio space in the Mission.

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Ana: So, Samantha, we've only met briefly before so tell me a little bit about yourself.

Samantha: A little bit about me....there is not a little bit about me, there's only a lot of bit about me.

A: Haha. Touché.

S: Depends on what you want to know about - making things. I've been making stuff since I was 8. That's when I learned how to sew.

A: Who did you learn how to sew from?

S: My grandma. She didn't speak any English and I don't speak Spanish, but somehow she was able to communicate to me how when you put fabric together and you use thread you can either mend things or make different things. I became obsessed with fabric. And I didn't know that textile design was an actual way of - I didn't know it was an option until I went to school. I went to school for fashion design and was like, cool, I like fabric and I like making things. I'll be a designer. So I went to fashion school and I took a textile course and it was...

A: A lightbulb moment?

S: Totally. The first time I held a squeegee, it was done. I was like, this is what I wanna do. So I've been designing and making ever since.

A: Where did you go to school?

S: I went to the Academy of Art actually

A: Here in San Francisco?

S: Yeah, here in the city. I moved here when I was 17 so I've been in the city off and on for about 12 years. I also work downstairs and I've worked downstairs for about 12 years, also off and on.

A: Oh, the printshop? (Ape Do Good Printing)

S: Mhmm. I'm the production manager and the art department. I do all the art and film separations and it's now my day job - that's recent. I had been doing this full time for about six years, but I got divorced and things changed. Life changes and so I adapt with it. So I work downstairs and hang out with the cool people down there - I've known them all forever. And now I work [on Shapes and Colors] at night.

A: Oh my goodness, that's a lot. It's awesome that you're squeezing me in. So how did you end up starting Shapes and Colors?

S: I've always made stuff, but I never sold it. I would make stuff and give it to my friends and they've always encouraged me to sell it. I moved to Chicago right after I graduated college and I didn't like my job and I kept making. So when I got pregnant, I decided that I would make Shapes and Colors a second priority because I wanted to do something that made me feel really happy and also allowed me the flexibility to be a mom. I was 23, so I was like okay, new life plan - make it work out. I was super motivated and I have been doing it for like 6 years now.

A: Awesome! I didn't realize you lived in Chicago. I moved here from Chicago like a year and a half ago. Chicago was not a good fit for you?

S: It was not for me. My favorite seasons or months are like May and September, which is essentially San Francisco weather. I had also moved there sight unseen. I moved there with a one way ticket, to try something new. Because they say you can always come back. So I came back. And my, how the city changed in like 3 years. It was a really different place, but it feels good to be back in this space again.

A: Cool, so what's your making process like with Shapes and Colors pieces? From design to execution.

S: For the first five years I designed, printed, and sewed everything myself. I used to do every part of the process which was really wonderful but it wasn't sustainable. The business grows and you kind of have to grow with it, which is hard - making those choices, like cool, I guess I'm gonna do this thing that's really scary: put a bunch of money up front, have thousands of yards of printed yardage made for me. And then I sew everything and I don't have to worry about printing it.

A: Where are your fabrics printed now?

S: In the Dog Patch. It's a place called Zoo Ink. They hand print silkscreen yardage - they're one of the oldest shops in the city, if not the oldest. It's really great, it was really important to me that I didn't lose that handmade quality. It opened things up for me and gave me more flexibility in actually making new products.

A: What kind of opportunities did that open up for you?

S: To create different kinds of products. My focus in the beginning was primarily housewares - tea towels, pillows. Then I started to make bags... and I was like, I wish I had more time to make different kinds of bags.

A: So the time saved was a big factor.

S: Time is everything. There's never enough time. So this was creating time to see like, what are different shapes I can make bags out of? Time to experiment, time to draw, time to do stuff... it's really hard when you're making everything. It was time to be like, yo what's it like if you print on some 3mm wool felt? And I actually want to make this into coasters. I have one of my test prints that I use as a trivet in my kitchen. And you're like, I don't know how this will turn out. Maybe it will be cool, maybe it won't. But it doesn't matter as long as you can keep trying to make stuff. So it's all about the time to make new things. And it's not always gonna be wonderful, but when it is, it's like, yay! That worked out, awesome, let's do that again!

I just had this roll printed for an order. Apparently it was my most popular pattern last year. People are super into grayish blue triangles. This triangle pattern is actually black opaque card stock that I cut out and put them all together. So that's how it was made. I scanned it in and then did a repeat so it can be made into yardage. That's why I do like this one - each one of these triangles was cut out individually. It keeps your eye moving.

A: Wow, that's really cool. And that's the thing I love about handmade pieces - you might be making the "same" product multiple times, but with handmade, everything is a little different. You have those little touches on each one that make it unique.

S: Yeah, like all of these pieces [of jewelry I'm wearing] are handmade and they all have little tiny things that make them unique. They're not perfect and that's what makes it amazing. Pretty much all of this I got from trading with people. Then you end up with really cool things that have meaning, have a story behind them.

It’s kind of really great because it can be anything I want it to be because it’s up to me to make it happen.

A: So you mentioned you were doing this full time for a while, and that's something that I myself have not been able to do yet. It's something a lot of people who are in the handmade craft business are working towards. Do you have any advice for getting to that point? Or what are some of the things that you went through to get to working on it full time?

S: I just kept going. You just don't stop. If you really want it, you just keep doing it. And the only reason I stopped doing it full time is because I stopped making - it's pretty straight forward. If you work towards something and put a lot of time and energy and yourself into it, then you kind of see the other side of it which is making money off of it, meeting people and clients and stores, getting your stuff in there. It's this perpetual - kind of like a snowball effect.

A: Building up good momentum.

S: Yeah, a momentum, it keeps going. You stop - it doesn't stop right away...it took about 4 months and then it stopped. And I was like, ah, cause and effect. But yeah, so usually I work best on my own things anywhere between 8pm and 4 in the morning. That would be cool to work full time again because I would sleep in until like 11 and then kind of start the process over again. I was very off schedule but it worked for me. It worked for my kid too. But now I'm just tired all the time. So that's where I'm at.

A: Yeah, you're doing a lot right now, that sounds exhausting. Do you currently have certain goals that you're working towards with your company?

S: That is the question of questions. I'm actually working on an answer to that question. I had an answer a year and a half ago. Everything was much more clear back then. Now I'm just trying to figure it out again.

A: Totally, kind of taking it day by day.

S: Yeah, just working with it like, cool, how do I get back to that place where I really wanna be? What do I actually want? I want this for sure, but what's the future look like for Shapes and Colors? Unsure. It's kind of really great because it can be anything I want it to be because it's up to me to make it happen. So I need to figure out what I want. Really what I want. Goal-wise, long term thinking - what do you see as your ideal life? How does Shapes and Colors move forward so you feel self fulfilled as a person and you're paying the rent and have groceries? I don't know right now...figuring that out.

A: I can relate to that.

S: Right now I'm working on an order for the de Young museum for their Frank Stella exhibit. A large part of his collection has come into the de Young. So I'm working on a big order for their gift shop which I'm really stoked about - a bunch of towels and table runners and stuff like that.

A: Cool! Is this stuff that you already had in your production or is this custom for this order?

S: It's not custom. I don't do custom work anymore because it does not make you money. It's [too much] time. I can do custom pieces based on fabric I already have but I won't do custom colors anymore.

A: What do you draw inspiration from for your designs?

S: Generally, mid-century modern art. Most of my color story is based on sunsets, sunrises, nature. Fog gray, golden yellow, poppy red. Yeah, the various colors of the sunsets...and then the fog rolls in and it's still kind of golden and blush. My work is like life, it's me made into patterns and colors...except I really wear black and gray all the time. Hahaha. I wear black and various shades of black but I work in color. I think it's just because my mind works in color that I mute myself? I don't know how it works out. Haha.

A: That's funny. Is there anything else that is important to your philosophy with Shapes and Colors? You mentioned that it's important to you that your stuff is still printed by hand, is it important to you to keep it local too?

S: Yeah, that's the reason I started this - I love textiles, like Marimekko was a number one inspiration for me and they're from Finland. There was nothing else in the U.S. that was like cool, American designer and also American production. I mean, this was back in 2009 before the real maker movement happened. It didn't exist at all. That's why it's been such a journey. When I started all this, Renegade Craft Fair was in its second year. Everything was so new and I was new and I was like, I don't know how this works. But it's like well, that's okay, no one knows how it works.

A: We're just all figuring it out as we go. Are there ways that it's easier to be a maker nowadays?

S: Absolutely not. I think it's harder now...I don't even use Etsy anymore, to be honest. They changed completely. I did NY Now with Etsy last year and that really opened my eyes to how much they changed. They aren't all about the maker, what they are about is making money off the maker and that is not cool. Really, it's all about meeting people and making connections locally with anyone - people that make stuff, people that can curate stuff, stores. Instagram - huge. Through Instagram in like 3 months through just posting process stuff [I've gotten] 10 accounts. The world of handmade is definitely changing. I can't speak for everyone but I just know for me - Etsy doesn't work. My online store is fine, wholesale is my thing and actually meeting people and hanging out in people's stores and talking to them.

A: So since wholesale is your main focus with your business, do you have any other good tips that have worked for you as far as making those connections for new wholesale accounts?

S: Instagram. Everything has come down to Instagram for me. It's the process shots. I realize I had a hard time making the time to stop and take pictures of what I'm working on, but that is huge. Otherwise no one knows what I'm working on because I'm in here by myself. It's to make people aware - this is my process. Whenever I post that, I use the hashtag #scprocess. Like, here look at me sewing, or drawing a bunch of stuff. Things like that.

A: Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. This has been really great. I'm rather impressed with all that you're doing. 

S: The struggle is real. Hahaha.

A: I hear ya. Just finding balance is hard.

S: Yeah. You love what you do, right? But you do it and then it becomes a job and then it's something you have to do and then you don't wanna do it. Trying to find that balance, that point where you're like, wait, I'm doing this for a reason. I actually enjoy it. But how do I get back there?

A: Have you found an answer to that? Hahaha.

S: I think my answer is that I take small steps. If I really don't wanna do it and I know I should, I'm just gonna do this one thing. After I do the one thing, I'm like, cool I got that one thing done. Rad. Okay, how am I feeling now? I'm hungry and I'm thirsty - get a snack, make some tea, great. How do I feel now? I could probably do one more thing. And when you're really trying to get yourself out of that and get to loving what you do again, just take steps. Just take small steps and don't force it. You do a little bit and you get that sense of accomplishment again. That's rad because now you have three things done and it's three less things that you have to do tomorrow. Yay.

A: That's great advice.

S: It's just paring it down to the most basic fundamentals - am I happy with what I'm doing right now and what can I do to be happy?

Catch Samantha at the upcoming West Coast Craft fair November 12th&13th at Fort Mason and check out her online shop below!

Further Exploration:

Shapes and Colors website
Shapes and Colors on Instagram
Shapes and Colors on Pinterest
Zoo Ink Printing
Ape Do Good Printing