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Studio Visit with Molly M

Studio Visit with Molly M

Molly M is the sole founder and creator of the San Francisco-based brand Molly M Designs. The company focuses on using strong graphics, conceptual integrity, and a variety of materials to create unique goods for you and your home.

I stopped by Molly studio in the heart of the Mission district of San Francisco. Molly and I talked about her journey as an artist and a small business owner, motherhood and her big dreams for the future.   

Giselle Gyalzen: Tell us about your brand

Molly McGrath: Everything that we do is laser cut. I went to school for architecture and learned to use the laser cutter there. In the beginning, I was using a laser cutter to make jewelry and I did a few craft fairs and people really responded well to it so I just started doing more. I had a part-time architecture job and then once I started making enough money I left architecture. After jewelry, I expanded to homewares and prints. So it was very organic the way it happened.


GG: How long did it take from when you started making things to quitting your job as an architect?

MM: About a year and a half. It was pretty fast that I got to go full-time. A rep found me at a tiny craft fair. They were also repping Polli, which is a jewelry line from Australia. I knew nothing about the wholesale world but I knew that if she can get Polli into all those stores like the SFMOMA, then it's worth a try.

GG: How did that work out?

MM: It went really well, she had a booth at New York Now (editor’s note: Biggest Gift Trade Show in the country) and showed my stuff there. Do you know the store, Cameron Marks? It's in Santa Cruz, the owner of Cameron Marks were my reps.

GG: You're not with a rep anymore?

MM: I'm not with them anymore but I was with them for maybe five years. They were good reps but at a certain point they decided to stop repping. They had all the supplies for the tradeshow and I ended up inheriting all their supplies and their booth, so that worked out for me because they were in the Handmade section at New York Now.

GG: That sounds great. I heard that showing New York Now is really expensive.

MM: It's a lot to figure out if you're doing it from the ground up so this was great.

GG: I remember years and years ago you would show at Renegade and I would walk by and I would want to introduce myself but you were always swamped. You've been popular from the beginning.

MM: Renegade has been an awesome show and I've done that ever since I started and I'm still doing it. I love that show, I love the founders, and I love that it's not pretentious.

GG: I know you are a trained architect. How did you evolve into being a maker/designer and then into having a prolific line?

MM: I started using the laser cutter in grad school. I'll show you my first design (she leaves and comes back and shows it to me).

Molly's first design

That is birch plywood, it's the material that’s used to make models at school, so I started using that same material. I love how the machine is so precise and it can get so much detail. I always made jewelry when I was young, the ones I made then were not precise at all.

This held my attention and I just wanted to use all the materials possible with the machine. Four years into the business, I started etching in addition to cutting. Putting a pattern on things has been really fun and people like it. I don't think I've exhausted all the potentials of a laser cutter.

Etched leather wallets

GG: It seems like you just have a natural curiosity which is probably how you’ve evolved from this first model to what you doing now. How do you come up with the things that you make?

MM: The products I make are based on things that I use at home and things that I want to have. Also, I have baby booties because I have kids now. The prints are actually my favorite thing to make.

GG: They are my favorite things to sell!


Some of Molly's prints

MM: It's just fun to think about scale. It's a surprise every time you design them and then it's trial and error when you're playing with the colors and the fabrics. It's not straightforward so that makes it fun for me.  

GG: You have a very specific aesthetic. When I see your work in the wild, sometimes out of context, I can tell that it’s a Molly M piece. How did your line evolve into that and how do you keep that up?

MM: It starts out with what I was interested in. In the beginning, it was more about botanical and geometric influence. Those were the two major formal aesthetic things that I was interested, and then it evolved to travel. Some collections are based on places that I've traveled to. I went to Japan several times and I've collected kimono fabrics. Spain was a heavy influence, Morocco was also a heavy influence. None of those are related necessarily, but the process of laser cutting unifies them. I always just look for patterns and colors when I travel, that was the unifying thing in the beginning. I was really clueless as to what was really market driven, Instagram wasn't so popular then. Back then, it was just coming straight from me and now my designs are much more influenced.


A small sample of Molly's fabric collection

Inspiration board in Molly's studio


GG: How do you feel about that?

MM: I have to focus on my business now so I don't feel bad about it at all. I feel like it's a necessary evil and it's interesting trying to find the meeting point between your personal aesthetic and the aesthetic that you see.

GG: I feel like you do that so well. I was reading online about you and there was an interview where you were talking about how Morocco influenced you, and that made sense to me. I see that you bring those influences here and make it your own.

MM: That's always the challenge. When I see something on Instagram that I love, I start thinking about how I can do something without copying it, but still be inspired by it, and make something different.


GG: Tell us more about your studio space here in the Mission District. What do you like most about it? How long have you been here?

MM: We've been here for five years. I was in ActivSpace before. I used to just be in a cubicle that was 10 x 18. It was a much smaller space, and then I found this spot in the Wells Fargo building. The landlord is an older Irish gentleman who owns a bunch of properties in San Francisco. He is a great landlord and is good to all the tenants. I am the only creative in the building but all the other people are really awesome.

I love the light in this space, it’s really bright. I love the neighborhood, I love being right in the heart of it. I love that it's so close BART and it's easy for my employees to get here. It's a little small, we are definitely growing out of it.


GG: I love talking about your art and your process as an artist but I am a business owner so I’m equally curious about the business side of things. How many employees do you have? What are their roles?

MM: I have three employees, plus me. Camille is leaving us soon, she's moving to Washington. They don't really have titles they kind of do a little bit of everything. If I have to give them titles, then, Camille is our shipping and wholesale manager - she packs all the orders and she also does some production. She makes sure that everything is clean and organized and looks pretty. When I was on maternity leave she did everything, she basically ran the show so she's the manager. I'm really sad to see her go.  Liza does all the sewing and a lot of the production. Carly is the laser guru so she's in charge of the laser room and makes sure that production is going well, and all the jobs are running. And then I do Accounts Receivable and running the business and design.

They prototype for me now, so we got to a point where I design two collections a year. The three of us go over what I have in mind, I give them guidance and then they make the prototypes. It's awesome because they have a really cool aesthetic and they bring that into the process. Their aesthetic is different than mine and I think it's added a lot.

GG: Are you hiring?

MM: We’re going to try to keep it to two people. I'm only working three days a week, so it will increase my workload, so we'll see how that goes. I may be hiring part-time soon.


GG: What’s the most challenging thing about running a business?

MM: I'd say it’s business development. It’s been enough with the way we've been doing things -- by having New York Now as our main wholesale show twice a year plus the sprinkling of retail shows we do. In the past, I've always had 1 to 2 to employees when I was working full-time. When I went on maternity leave, we had three employees so some things shifted.  So if Camille were not to leave, that's the point where I wanted us to be, where I have three employees and then we're getting new business.

The challenge is reaching out to try to figure out if we need to do trade shows. Or try to figure out if I need to condense my line. Like the placemats and the tabletop stuff, I feel like I could do so much more with that. I feel like I have too many things going on and I am not giving each one their proper attention. It's fun to figure out if you have the time, but if you're spread out that's hard. So right now I think I will try to keep it just to two employees and me and try to balance having kids and a business and try not to push too hard, and I want to see how it goes over time.

GG: Would you consider going to a rep again?

MM: I might. A group reached out so I’m looking into it.

GG: I asked you what the most challenging thing is, so now I will ask you what’s the most rewarding thing about running your business?

MM: In the beginning, it was the ability to be creative and make your business off of being creative. Now it's more about having a great team and that great feeling.

GG: You have 1-year-old twin girls (who are soooo cute!!), how has motherhood changed (or not changed) your creative process?

MM: You just have to become more efficient. I don't have as much time to wax and wane about all of our designs which is ultimately a good thing, I think. I was working a lot of hours and not necessarily the best hours to be working so I’m at a good balance.

GG: Are you able to set limits for yourself?

MM: Yeah I have to. It is harder to design for sure because I had so much more mental space to think about it before. On the other hand, I would never have done a kid's line, and that has been really successful. So that has worked out so far

Baby booties


GG: I always tell my husband if we did not have kids I would just be working all the time.

MM: Yeah because it's your own business and you give everything you have into it.

GG: And you like what you're doing so you're just going to do it.          

GG: I put out a call on Instagram to see if anyone wants to ask you their own question. One of the artists we work with, Addye Nieves,  wants to know what helps sustain your creativity/output?

MM: Traveling in new environments. New architecture, new pattern. Right now it's been Instagram and online. Probably the same as every artist. That's a hard question, sustaining. I’m feeling that at the moment, getting ready for the New York Now show. I don't have a ton of ideas for the short term, mostly just working on existing products.  So yeah, just being exposed to new environments.

GG: Can you tell us about any projects that you have planned for the future?

MM: I would love to do furniture and lighting

GG: Oh my gosh! That’s awesome! I can already see it.

MM: Yeah that's my dream. So much would have to happen first. I need to figure out who to collaborate with to get there, where to sell. It's a whole different market and I would just love to do that. At the most basic level, I’d love to make a mosaic tabletop with resin on top, or I’d love to take this etched leather to make seat covers on birch stools.

GG: That sounds exciting! Thank you so much for talking with me. We’re looking forward to having you at Rare Device!

Molly M's Holiday Pop-Up Shop will be open at Rare Device Divisadero starting Friday, November 10th and will run through Tuesday, January 16th.

Molly is installing a large-scale mural in our gallery that you should not miss. This is the perfect opportunity to get inspired and get your holiday shopping done, all in one place.

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