Karen Guethlein started Brick Kiln Handmade Pottery in her living room, firing pieces in a 50-year-old kiln with no experience other than what she taught herself from YouTube videos.
"I had no idea what to order, what kind of clay to get, what kind of paint. I just started looking it up on the Internet, doing a lot of experimenting," says the mother of five from Trion, Ga.
What she did have was a solid background in sales and marketing and a head for business that had already helped her launch a successful catering business.
IF YOU GO
* What: Anthropologie store opening
* When: 10 a.m. today
* Store hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
* Where: Warehouse Row, 1110 Market St.
* About the store: Abby Powell, Anthropologie spokeswoman, says each store is designed to be different from other Anthropologies. The 6,700-square-foot Warehouse Row store has plaster display walls which artists handpainted with oversized flowers. The original brick interior has been fully restored and the flooring is wood reclaimed from an early 1900s factory. Hand-blown glass pendants have been custom-made to hang in each fitting room.
Marketing her pottery line through Etsy and her own Internet site, Guethlein's business has grown from cottage industry to its exciting debut today in Anthropologie, the international chain for women's clothing, accessories, home decor and gifts. Guethlein's 3-inch, monogrammed garland ring dish is among products in the new Anthropologie store opening today in Warehouse Row, as well as its 195 other stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Her dish also will be available on the store's website.
And, in a surprise that occurred last weekend, she learned that the same personalized ring dishes are featured by HGTV in its holiday catalog that just hit newsstands.
"It's God having a hand in every step. That's the whole reason it's worked," the artist says. "I pray over this business every day. He's given me the gift to create and I try to use it."
On its website, Anthropologie says: "When it comes to our products, it's the stories behind them that inspire us. When Georgia ceramicist Karen Guethlein isn't spending time with her family on their 10-acre farm, she's creating some of the most stunning pottery we've ever laid eyes on."
Guethlein (pronounced GATE-line), a graduate of Tyner High School and Chattanooga State Community College, worked in sales at Tel-A-Train, a former Chattanooga business that developed training videos. After seven years, she quit to stay home with her two older daughters until they started school. Then she went back into the business world at printing company General Reprographics. Her accounts included blueprints for what would become the Tennessee Aquarium.
Next up was an administrative assistant's position at Combustion Engineering that she kept until her father-in-law died in 1998 and her mother-in-law moved from Atlanta to Chattanooga. At that point, she stopped work and created a catering company, which she ran for five years until she adopted three children.
She says the motivation to get back into business was that 50-year-old kiln, uncovered while helping her mother-in-law clean out in preparation for the move to Chattanooga.
"I looked at it for 10 years and I thought I really would like to do something with ceramics," she says.
So in 2008, at age 48, she taught herself pottery. She mastered about a dozen items she could make from a 3-inch dish -- "Christmas ornaments, baby dishes, wedding dishes, 'cutesy things,'" she describes -- then opened an Etsy shop to sell her work online.
Her pieces drew the attention of Cool Mom Picks blog.
"They put Brick Kiln in their Christmas gift guide. I got 150 orders the first day on that blog," she recalls. "At first it was exciting, then we had to cut it off at 250 in order to get all the orders done and delivered by Christmas."
After three years in the pottery business, Guethlein retired to again focus on raising her adopted children, turning the business over to her daughter, Cassie Loizeaux, who operated it for one more year.
In 2011, Guethlein reopened Brick Kiln and its popularity "has just exploded," she says. "It was so successful, my husband quit work for a year to help me. I'm about to hit 8,000 sales."
By sales she doesn't mean individual dishes, that's 8,000 orders and each order averages "about five dishes," she says. "I work a lot of hours, typically 60-70 a week."
Order numbers do not include the nearly 10,000 ring dishes ordered by Anthropologie.
Brides-to-be are her best customers, Guethlein says, because her personalized ring dishes are popular choices for bridesmaids gifts.
"I have no downtime, even in January and February. Wedding season is March to Sept. 1. It's a big-dollar business. I work with brides 90 percent of the time."
"Do you wholesale?"
After reading and rereading that one-line email last spring, and noting it was an Anthropologie email address, Guethlein took a cellphone picture of it to email her family. She wondered if it was legit or a hoax, but soon learned it was a serious inquiry from an Anthropologie buyer.
"They wanted me to make almost 10,000 dishes. We started with a design, I sent them samples and they approved them."
Guethlein says her daughter put her art experience to use to develop the chosen design.
"I get my inspiration from nature," says Loizeaux. "Once I knew Mom wanted a floral pattern and scrollwork, I just started sketching. It took several months to get all the artwork nailed down."
The finished floral pattern is designed to be rotated as the dishes are stamped so, whatever angle the dish is turned, the pattern appears correctly. This, in combination with the personalizing initial, makes each dish unique because the placement of the stamp is never the same as the dish before.
Guethlein says her contract with Anthropologie allows her to sell the ring dish on her website; the difference is that those sold from her site will still be handmade, those purchased from Anthropologie are the same design, only produced by one of Anthropologie's manufacturers.
The artist is already making plans for the new year, having sent the company samples for a Mother's Day dish.
"We'll see how it goes. It was a huge seller this past spring on the website," she says.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.