From its early days in a back house to its upcoming new headquarters in a former bakery, Karen Adams Designs has grown into an international stationery phenomenon while maintaining its Memphis roots. Like the company, founder Karen Adams has found support and opportunity for growth in her hometown and is now able to give those same things back to the community. The lifestyle brand creator currently employs 10 full-time staff and additional seasonal support while designing, printing and hand-finishing all products locally. Meet this week’s FACE of Memphis, Karen Adams!
Where were you born, and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Memphis. I had a very wonderful childhood. We moved around a lot, and so I was fortunate because I got to see a lot of things, which opened my eyes to the great big world out there. We moved to Tokyo when I was 4, and then we moved back about three-and-a-half years later. In that time span, we took a trip around the world. We traveled to a lot of different places. I think it really influenced the person who I am now.
What brought you back to Memphis?
I came to a point where I had to decide if I really wanted to work in New York City, because that’s why we lived in the Northeast, and I loved it up there. But then, when I had young kids, I wanted to move closer to family. That’s what brought me home.
What are your first memories of engaging with art and design?
I was always involved [with art and design] since I was tiny — drawing and making things. It was always encouraged, always a part of what I did every day. When I was in high school, I either wanted to become a psychologist or an artist, and I decided, for me, the better route would be an artist or pursuing the arts in some form or fashion. That’s what I really got my joy from. And so I saw something about Rhode Island School of Design when I was waiting outside my guidance counselor’s office, and I became fascinated with the fact that there were schools that actually focused on that. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
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What are some of the challenges of converting creative pursuit and passion into a sustainable business?
You shouldn’t go into it just thinking you’re going to be lucky. Part of the challenge of being in the arts and running a business is being smart about it. The balance is being able to focus on putting new, fresh things out there, and then also being smart about the way you are marketing and running your business.
If you’re doing some sort of mass-market product, you need to think about something that is appealing to everybody and not necessarily just what you think is fabulous. Hopefully you can do something that’s a combination of both. I don’t put something out there that I don’t like, but definitely, you have to think about the customer and what’s marketable, so they will actually pick it up and buy it.
How do you feel that being in Memphis has helped you reach your goals?
It’s a great place to be an entrepreneur. It’s doable. If you need to travel, it’s easy to travel. The city is so supportive of the arts and women in business. I’ve really felt a lot of love and support from the city.
What place does paper hold in our digital world?
Our business fills a niche market that will always be there. Because of the digital world, when you get something like a card or a letter, it’s even more special. It’s like getting a gift as opposed to when it was just more of an everyday thing.
How would you describe your personal style, and how does that translate into your work?
I’m more girly than I think I am. I like to think of myself as being pretty classic, but with my own take on it. I love to add some element of fun or zing or something to make it not expected. I like to have a little bit of the element of surprise to it.
What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?
Moving into our new building [at 647 Madison]. We just went there yesterday, and they are working on it. Hopefully, April or May, we’ll be moving into our new headquarters, which I’m very excited about.
What will that new space allow you to do?
I think it really gives us roots and a foundation. It’s enough space, and it’s our own, so now I feel like I have the ability to blossom from there and do some new things. We have some new growth opportunities that we’re going to pursue. I think it’s great to have a base to build from.
I feel really lucky because I feel like we’re at a point where we have the luxury of being able to give back. To me, that’s a great goal as a business owner or anybody, that if you can achieve the point where you can check off all of the basics — a roof over your head, food on the table, that type of thing — and you’re able to give back. And, you know, I’m getting older, so it’s definitely something that I’m finding a lot of joy in.
What are your favorite places to get inspiration in Memphis?
I’m not a big bar scene person but seeing all the new restaurants and bars that are opening up … there are so many young creatives here, so I love seeing what they’re doing as far as the environments that they’re creating. I think that’s really exciting. Just seeing some of the art around the city is really exciting to me. I like just going out to Shelby Farms or on the Greenline. That’s a great place to be in your head.
Do you feel that Memphis provides an environment where gallery artists and commercial artists have a chance to engage with each other?
I think it’s progressing. There are things happening that are moving towards that goal. I definitely think that with all of the growth in the city, the people who are seeking out talent and the resources of Memphis are really taking advantage of that. If somebody’s building out a space, they’re going to be searching locally for who’s new and what they can provide. And there’s just so much local talent. So one creative from one end can use somebody else from the other end.
What is your best advice?
There’s so much, especially since I’m a mom, but I think my main one would be, “Don’t forget the little things.”
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three everyday things that you can’t live without?
Getting outside, laughter, and then it’s a toss-up between a good book and peanut butter. I guess it depends if I’m hungry or not!
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