It's a spectacular technicolor tableware tsunami.
Mateus ceramics are as colorful as the former model who created them, marrying traditional Portuguese craftsmanship (the country of her birth) with contemporary Swedish design (the country she's called home for decades).
Mateus' collections, for founder teresa Lundahl, are all about evoking emotion using her fashion-forward treasure trove as the catalyst.
By Amy Stavis
When Paul Baughman, President of BIA Cordon Bleu
, saw Teresa Lundahl's ceramics for the first time, he felt a connection he suspected could eventually be capitalized on. "The value of the line is the mix and match possibilities; the colors layer so well," says the seasoned tabletop vet. "there are many gift opportunities for this casual, everyday line." So the San Francisco -based producer and distributor of Philippe Deshoulières
, Royal Limoges
, and Capdeco
– looking to solidify a good, better, best strategy of brands – was delighted when Lundahl sauntered into his showroom in search of the right partner to launch her florid lines in the U.S. and when Baughman began speaking in fluent Swedish, the partnership was practically cemented right then and there. "His Swedish is perfect," Lundahl enthuses. "And he knew our brand well. His friends and Swedish family have Mateus in their homes. I
didn't have to explain anything."
Mateus' handmade and hand-painted tableware offers myriad magical possibilities for creative combinations.
Owner/designer teresa Lundahl, a former Paris model, enthuses, "think about your table like you think about fashion and getting dressed. Don't set your table. Dress your table!"
Fact is Baughman didn't need a hard sell. "I knew the brand," he says. "I'm an american with a foot in Sweden. I lived there and return every year to see friends. I speak the language. I understand the culture." Just as critical, Mateus was an ideal fit in the growing BIA portfolio. "Our flagship is BIA," says Baughman of the 62-year-old resource. "Our top end has Deshoulières, Royal Limoges, and Capdeco. Mateus gives us an important mid-range casual customer." For Lundahl, the winning chemistry she found with Baughman was a deal clincher. "He's such a good person," Lundahl gushes, "and I want to work with good people and have fun."
Having fun is a critical prerequisite for Lundahl. When Mateus celebrated its 20th anniversary over the summer, Lundahl threw a three-day party for more than 500 people, including prominent customers and Mateus' distributors the world over. The press-covered event had been a year in the planning. "I am very proud," Lundahl acknowledges. "I looked back and 20 years had passed so quickly, so we had to have a big party to celebrate!"
Ceramics entrepreneur/designer isn't Lundahl's first career calling. Born and raised in Lisbon (mom was a linguistics professor, dad an engineer), Lundahl admits she was not artistically inclined. She studied macroeconomics, is fluent in four languages, and modeled on the Paris runways where she met her husband, who whisked her off to stockholm almost 30 years ago.
Lundahl adapted well to her second home, raised two children, now grown – "it was a very good country, open and honest, to raise my children in," she says – but by the early '90s she was growing antsy. Ceramics was the first, and only, consideration to occupy her time. "When you're from Portugal, you know ceramics," she says, matter-of-factly. "Ceramics are always present in our lives." Capitalizing on her runway days, economics skill set, and language proficiency to start the business, Lundahl reasoned fashion-forward ceramics collections, buoyed by brilliant trend-right colors, could be a "fun" diversion and a thriving enterprise. Her venture capitalist husband backed the initial operation. "It was all about bringing emotion and feeling to ceramics," she says.
In 1993, Lundahl consulted with the Portuguese trade office in pursuit of factories who could "put some fun and fashion" onto plates. "I didn't have a yellow plate, so that's where I started," she discloses. "I thought it was a fun color. I had nothing to lose really because it was all for fun." Those first samples quickly sold which created even more merriment for the fledgling entrepreneur. "It just came at the right time," Lundahl delights. "People were tired of complete sets of plates that all looked alike. I was doing something different, something special." Lundahl dubbed the enterprise, Mateus, her maiden name, set up office space in the family's guest room, and stole every minute not spent raising her kids to learn the ins and outs of operating a company. One door naturally led to another, spurred by the resilient lundahl's adroitness and knack for asking the right questions. "I'm very organized and I'm not afraid to ask for help," she says. Those initial collections laid the groundwork for the line today, a mix of embossed and plain single color designs, with colors and patterns added yearly, yielding an inherent organic growth. "I've never had to create completely new collections," she says. "I just keep layering on to what I have."
Two decades later Mateus still works solely with Portuguese factories ("it's part of our brand – handmade and hand-painted in Portugal," she says), but long ago moved from guest room quarters to office space and a staff. "I've been very lucky," Lundahl acknowledges. "Our growth has been slow and steady, so there's been no real anxiety. Business is always going up and I'm always selling more. I don't own factories so I don't have that responsibility. I like to work with outsourcing which is like working with partners. More than 85 people are working every day for Mateus."
Twelve years ago, Lundahl sought to expand the brand beyond Scandinavian borders with her first distributorship, in Japan. "I understand about differences in cultures," says the self-professed global citizen. "Every country has its own culture and I respect that." A very good philosophy as she now looks to tackle the largest consumer market in the world. "Teresa's been open and honest about U.S. expectations, and that's refreshing," Baughman begins. "She has realistic sales goals. She knows the line has to build gradually. That's good because the factory isn't huge, so her expectations are reasonable. You can't just crank this stuff out. We're conscious of placing the brand in appropriate channels."
Penetrating the U.S. market was a well-thought-out plan of attack that took time. "America is so big, we had to get experience selling elsewhere before we moved here," Lundahl apprises. (In addition to Scandinavia, which generates 70% of all Mateus volume, Mateus is now sold in many parts of Europe as well as a number of mid-eastern countries.) Strengthened by global reaction received thus far, Lundahl is prepared for America. "I feel we're strong and well positioned to give our attention to this market," she says. "But, of course, every country is so different, and Mateus has absolutely no brand recognition here. I know we have a lot of work to build brand awareness. Competition here is so huge."
Which is why the partnership with Baughman is so opportune. Lundahl recognizes an ally who understands the market, who is well-regarded, who has a strong selling channel, and who is a fan of her brand. "The product is great," he says, "but we have to make the public know that. We stress Mateus' European heritage, both Swedish and Portuguese. It gives us something to talk about on the box." Lundahl continues: "This is the year we're working on developing the brand in.
Mateus was first launched on these shores in BIA's New York showroom in 2011. The beautifully set tables – replicated in the style in which Lundahl markets her wares successfully around the world, deeply layered to fully appreciate the play of color and texture – were enthusiastically received. "It was a success, and that was extremely rewarding," Lundahl effusively animates. "It's because Paul is so open to Mateus doing well that he showed it so generously." Baughman says that when retailers commit to at least four colors, mix and match possibilities are maximized, as are sales. So far 50 stores carry the brand with a goal of 300. It's a "great line with immense potential for independents," the exec adds, because of the mix and match potential. Bloomingdale's took on the line last year, a huge feather in the Mateus cap.
For Baughman and his team the greatest hurdle to getting Mateus on shelves is explaining the product, familiarizing merchants with the brand. "The general introduction of a new brand is always a difficult thing," says the snappy-speaking Baughman. "Making them aware of who and what we are is the challenge." But he's got an ace up his sleeve. "so much of Teresa's personality is embedded in the product," Baughman informs. "The more she comes over and talks about the product, the better for us. Which she understands well because she's such a great marketer."
"When I came to live in Sweden, I noticed how colors and patterns were growing in popularity in very traditional Swedish homes. So I combined an ancient Portuguese handicraft with my own experience from the world of fashion. I wanted to take ceramic art out of its traditional role and convert it into exciting art items that could change with the vagaries of fashion.
When I design items, I start by thinking about what my friends and I would like to see on a table. I find ideas everywhere - a Gucci ad provided the inspiration for a lilac colored range; a visit to the Grand Soho Hotel in New york led to a series of square plates adorned with Japanese characters; a cake doily resulted in a range of lace items with a modern Baroque feel.
Our story is all about feelings."
~ Teresa Lundahl
Take the inviting lifestyle images (shown throughout these pages) that Lundahl uses to create an aspirational envy easy to duplicate and afford. "If retailers took advantage of the beautiful photographs she offers, which independents can easily do," Baughman asserts, "there's great growth potential."
Lundahl appreciates the kudos. "I'm very proud of our marketing," she says. "I want people to understand the feeling I want to impart with my ceramics." She longs to be given carte blanche to display Mateus the way she envisions on merchants' shelves. "It's difficult getting retailers to accept our merchandising in their shops," she bemoans. "In Sweden, they're very open to these things and we can send people to merchandise the way we want, which is why we do so well there."
It helps that Lundahl is content to build the brand one store at a time, one sale at a time. "There's a lot of competition selling good ceramics," she allows. "We're lucky to be in stores like Bloomingdale's which increases our brand awareness, which is everything for us." And that's why the designer is anxious to get a stateside event schedule in the works; she's very popular at store events at home. "No one can sell my product better than I can," she accedes.
Many patterns in our signature colors, you can create a unique table to match the mood you're in. I say it's much easier to buy a plate to change your mood than buy a sofa," she laughs. "Whatever makes you happy you should do." There are 15 colors – seven are stocked here – including Lundahl's favorite, the latest hue, orange. ("it's so happy," she exclaims.)
Each new color complements existing shades which create a harmonious collection. "I was born in Portugal," Lundahl makes clear. "I'm not afraid of color." Best-sellers vary from country to country; the most popular are gray, sand, bean, ocean, and light blue. (Denim just debuted here to favorable feedback.) "Different countries should have different collections," Lundahl acknowledges. "I visit all of the countries our product is in to understand what works in each. My contact with the world is the fun part of the job. I like speaking with people from around the world. When you start in a market, you have to take care of them and help them and that means you have to understand them."
The Mateus oeuvre boasts more than 600 SKUs – 35% of which are available here – ranging from a $20 votive to a $350 soup tureen. dinnerware retails from $30 to $50. Pieces are seldom discontinued. "We're still selling items we produced 20 years ago," Lundahl notes. "It's very important for our customers to know the line will not disappear. This is a strength of our company. our customers like finding an old color they can mix with a new color. I care about what they want."
While Lundahl doesn't spend a lot of time on design, she spends a lot of time thinking about it and being inspired by it.
"I don't need to make a whole new collection every season," she reminds. "I just need to add pieces and colors to existing collections." When the muse strikes, she'll take pen to paper and forward sketches to the factory for samples. Those inventive sparks rely on the eye of a well-seasoned adventurer. "I love to be inspired by hotels and traveling." Lundahl takes frequent trips with family and friends to revive creative juices. a recent trek through the mountains of Peru ("Peaceful, beautiful, exhausting!") was the perfect elixir. "Wherever I go, I get lots of inspiration," she says. "Many times I don't know exactly what the inspiration is, but it eventually shows itself."
A recent revelation is spurring the launch of smaller gift-boxed items. "Since the recession, people are more cautious and may not want to spend $40 on a dinner plate, but they will on a gift," Lundahl says. Further down the road there's the consideration of glassware, decaled dinnerware, and textiles. Baughman is stoked. "Teresa has a lot of ideas and is thinking of new materials to help brand Mateus."
So far, Lundahl's 20-year Mateus odyssey has provided an exhilarating education. "The best thing I've learned is if you do things with passion you'll succeed," she says. "It's a great happiness that I could find something I have passion for. You should always try to find something you like because if you like it you will succeed."