Breaking All the Rules
Angela Adams didn't deliberately break the rules when she launched her design company eight years ago; she just didn't know what the rules were. To begin with, she and Sherwood Hamill, her husband and partner, opened their studio not in New York City, but in Portland in a scruffy retail neighborhood at the foot of working-class Munjoy Hill. Then, after a year of farming out Angela's designs to a rug mill, they opened their own rug-making operation in that unlikeliest of locations. But it's what they created there that really stretched convention."There we were, a bunch of people who didn't know how to make rugs," Adams says. "I'd ask the rug makers, 'Next time you do this one, could you hook it in this direction and use three yarns instead of two?' " The rug makers, who knew the rules, lamented the bumpy results. Adams, who didn't, loved them. "After a while we noticed that the press always remarked on the different pile heights and how sculptural the rugs were. Then it dawned on us: maybe no one else does that. We really didn't know."
Breaking the rules propelled Angela Adams to the top of the design industry almost overnight. Her hand-tufted rugs, with their bold patterns of loops, ripples, and geometric shapes, have been featured in hundreds of publications, from the New York Times to Surfing Girl. They have carpeted the set of The Apprentice, draped P. Diddy's apartment walls in MTV's Cribs, and softened the fall of a fainting bachelor on The Bachelorette. (Watch for two of them when Uma Thurman peers into Luke Wilson's apartment in Super Ex-Girlfriend, to be released by 20th Century Fox this summer). Adams' collections now include handbags, stationery, even martini glasses, not to mention Hamill's striking contemporary furniture.
And, in what may be her biggest accomplishment yet, Adams' designs are showing up on everything from wall tiles to hospital cubicle curtains, thanks to licensing agreements with major manufacturers like Kohler, London Fog, Architex, Ann Sacks, Chronicle Books, and, beginning in June, Shaw Industries. Such partnerships are so rarely forged in Maine that the local business community is only just awakening to what others have known for a while: there's more to Angela Adams Designs than that little showroom on a quirky stretch of Congress Street.
"A lot of people have no idea what a phenomenal enterprise is going on there and how far-reaching it is," says Chellie Pingree, Adams' friend and mentor. Pingree, a former Maine state senator and current CEO of Common Cause, has known Adams since the designer was a child growing up on North Haven, an island twelve and a half miles off the Rockland coast. "I think there's potential that the next Martha Stewart will come from Maine, and she's Angela Adams."
Focus. Painter Eric Hopkins wrote the word three times on the fogged windshield of his car: Focus. Focus. Focus. His passenger at the time was the manager of his North Haven gallery, Angela Adams, then in her mid-twenties and bubbling over with career dreams: she was going to do this, she told him, and this, and this, and this. "She was all over the place," Hopkins says, "and those were my words of advice."
A few months later, Adams opened a studio in Portland, where she was eking a living by painting designs on rooms and old furniture. "I painted it on the wall: 'focus,' " remembers Adams, now forty. Hopkins, she says, taught her not only about art, but also about being an entrepreneur. "I always think of Eric because we have been so focused in this business."
Focused, but not rigid, Hopkins observes. "She is fluid," he says. "She is dynamic and fluent in her language. She is creative. She has vision, and when you're creative, you do what you have to do to figure out how it's going to work. She's a live one, definitely."
Adams always has been. With her blonde curls and winning personality, the carpenter's daughter was a stand-out among North Haven's 380 year-round residents. "She was a very good competitive runner, and she approached running with the same kind of determination and enthusiasm that I've seen in her design work," says North Haven Community School principal Barney Hallowell, who was her coach. "She was eminently coachable. She would do everything you asked her to do and more, and she would do it with a sense of flair. She has great spirit. Angela is so outgoing and so effervescent. You feel her energy and excitement and interest. She fills a room."
As a teenager, Adams doodled prolifically and dressed eccentrically, in good-natured opposition to what everyone else was wearing. "She was always her own person," Hallowell says. She did not take formal art classes or otherwise have access to the cultural resources money can buy. Rather, her creative temperament was encouraged by a close-knit extended family that embraced individuality. Also playing a part was island life, which, Adams says, "teaches that you can't sit around and wait for things to happen. You have to make them happen. There is an independence that comes from a small, isolated place like that — not to mention a deep sense of community. One of my favorite things about North Haven, besides the natural beauty, is that there are no boundaries between the generations." Hallowell, for example, was not just her coach but her friend, with whom she would talk about almost anything on their daily runs. She even started college believing her future was in athletics, but she soon discovered art and design.
Her grandmother and mother were prolific knitters who worked for Chellie Pingree's sweater and knitting kit business. "Angela grew up watching my business grow," Pingree says. "She was talented, athletic, engaging, and stunningly beautiful, and she was a model for the catalogs." The catalogs would provide an example for Adams' own company literature, which uses photographs of North Haven people and places and tells her island story. Likewise, many of her designs — Waves, with its subtle ripples, for example, and Raindrop, with its enormous concentric rings — are jazzy takes on nature's patterns. "Angela and Sherwood have this incredible sense of a local identity, but what really impresses is that they are doing it in a very sophisticated world," Pingree says. "To be able to combine highly sophisticated design with something like rocks on the beach is phenomenal."
When she moved to Portland, Angela Adams knew she did not want to spend her life painting rooms and furniture. "I'm not an outstanding craftsperson," she explains. "I didn't want to be hands-on creating individual things because I didn't think that was my strength." Her eureka moment came in a client's office, where she spotted a rug sample. "I thought, 'There it is!' I figured if I could sell high-end one-of-kind paintings [for Eric Hopkins], I could sell high-end one-of-a-kind rugs."
She connected with a mill, tried out a few designs, and teamed up with Hamill to display her rugs with his furniture at design shows. "Right out of the gates we realized that what we had was a lifestyle," Adams says. "It was more than two designers and their products. Everything made so much sense together. And people were intrigued by our story, that we were way up here in Maine, which was like Mars to them."
From the beginning, their plan was to create multiple products and forge partnerships with manufacturers, but neither of them had a business education so they learned by doing. Adams adapted the lessons she learned from sports: conserve energy, pace yourself, and picture the ball going through the hoop before it leaves your hands. "We put a day and a half into every day," she says. "We were so hyperfocused. We practically lived it, and we still do. We never wanted it to be a job. We tried to make sure that we were doing what we loved and would want to be doing it all the time. And that's what has happened."
Adams and Hamill now employ twenty people. Last year they outgrew their ability to produce rugs in-house. An out-of-state mill handcrafts the Utopia and State of Mind collections, which are made to each customer's specifications at $100 a square foot. A newer Studio collection is geared to more modest budgets. Handmade in India in standardized sizes, the Studio styles are $20 a square foot. Hamill's furniture, with sleek lines inspired by boats and airplanes (he wind-surfs and is a pilot), is still crafted at the Munjoy Hill site in a workshop behind the store.
With more than 400 wholesale accounts in the United States and sales exceeding seven figures annually, Adams is beyond getting a charge out of seeing her name on products and posters. That Angela Adams is not her, she says, but a team — or a little community, not unlike North Haven. Many of her designs are named for employees and their children, as well as Adams' relatives and island friends.
Despite the necessity of frequent business trips to New York, the couple is committed to living and working in Maine. "It's a piece of cake," Adams points out. "It's seven minutes to the airport and a one-hour flight. Our commute to New York is probably less than many New Yorkers' commute to work." And their presence on Munjoy Hill is helping to transform that once-gritty little neighborhood into an arty, bohemian one.
Meanwhile Adams remains focused and hardworking. "There has never been a moment when I thought we made it," she says. "I think we're just getting started. We're only eight years old. I'm only forty. We have so far to go. There are so many things we want to do that we haven't even started working on yet."
Hints for Your Home
Angela Adams on bringing good design into your home:
"The thing that is most important above all, aside from quality and craftsmanship, is comfort. I would use that as a rule of thumb in all decorating. You want to create a comfortable, inspiring atmosphere."
"We've all been in rooms that were calm, relaxing, and Zenlike, and we know how good that makes us feel. We've also been in rooms that are orange and blue and bright yellow and they make you feel really happy."
"Timeless design blends the generations. It's that feeling of comfort we all had in our grandparents' kitchen. You want to choose products that become the favorite things your family will remember for generations."