Riverside Seaglass: The Principals Interview

Riverside Design Group is a Pittsburgh-based tabletop design company managed by principals Mary Irwin-Scott and Cassandra Ott, a mother-daughter team. They have built their successful business on a foundation of innovative product development, environmental stewardship, and support for their community. Terrestra has worked in close partnership with Riverside since 2004, and has sold their wonderful dinnerware to hundreds of happy customers. Terrestra owner Amy Satran had the following conversation with Cassi and Mary in early 2010.

Amy: Your company was among the very first to provide full lines of recycled tableware for everyday dining, so right out of the gate you were doing something very unusual. What are your goals, and how do you decide what to produce?

Cassi: Riverside's goals have evolved since the business started in 1996. Our original goal was to help revitalize the economy in Western Pennsylvania, and our original market was museums and gift shops. But over the years, as we've participated in trade shows and gotten customer feedback, we've moved more in the direction of serving the home tabletop and hospitality markets.

Mary: We've learned that we can't be all things to all people. Riverside appeals to a specific type of customer with a particular design sensibility. We've found that people see and use our products in many different ways. So we don't try to be too prescriptive. We'll call something a "5-inch plate" because some people will use it for sushi, and some will put soap or candles on it.

Cassi: And some will put it under a potted plant. Our goal is to make versatile pieces that accommodate modern desires for form and functionality. We want them to look appealing to people with modern tastes, but we don't want them to look trendy or likely to become dated. We're influenced by trends, but only up to a point.

Mary: Another consideration is that we're always building on the current collections, too, and trying to be responsive to what customers say they want. Customer requests were behind the new cocoa color in our Seaglass line, for example, as well as several of our Plates With Purpose designs. We're fortunate to have such a diverse customer base. Any coherent message that emerges from this group as a whole -- we like this shape, we don't like that color -- is very helpful to us in setting design directions.

Cassi: We benefit from the diversity in our own backgrounds, too. My experience is more in fine art and design, Mary's is more in the areas of fashion and people-skills, so we feel that our strengths play off each other.

Mary: One of us might have what we think is the best idea in the world -- but if nobody would ever buy it, we have to be big enough to move on. Cassi has the final say in design decisions; experience has taught us that design by committee isn't very effective. But we do like to bounce ideas off each other, and there's a lot of input informing the decisions she makes.

Amy: Share some of your thoughts about home and dining decor. Why are we all so interested in it? What purpose does it fill in our lives?

Cassi: Very few external things represent our essential selves. Most of us don't get to design our own homes from the ground up. Our clothing, our hairstyles, and our home interiors telegraph a lot about who we are and want to be. Aside from wanting where we live to be a comfortable place that makes us feel good, most of us want our homes to reflect our personalities and tastes.

Mary: Quite a few people have jobs that dictate dress of a certain type, so their outlets for self-expression are even more limited. If you have to wear scrubs and a hairnet at work, or a company uniform, your appearance isn't exactly expressing your personality. But in the privacy of your home, no one can tell you how to furnish your living room or set your table. Even if you live in a tract house or an apartment building, you can go home to a space that you control. The kitchen is one area in which everyone can express some creativity.

Cassi: We enjoy helping people to personalize their living spaces. That's one of the reasons we have so much variety in our product lines. The more ways you can create different color schemes, moods, and levels of casualness or formality, the more you can customize a look that feels tailored for you.

Mary: You would think that our dinnerware works best in contemporary settings. We've been surprised to see how well it works even in some very unexpected and traditional environments, mixed with colonial furniture, people's inherited porcelain, and so forth. The plates are very adaptable and we're always happy to see that. Seeing our work in places we never imagined it is fantastically inspirational, by the way. People's homes, our retailers' stores, and now the internet are great windows onto how the dinnerware is used.

Cassi: That's true. Our primary view of the plates is in our stockroom. Our customers find ways to use them that we couldn't possibly anticipate.

Amy: Your designs really aren't like anything else, recycled or otherwise. What are your other sources of inspiration?

Cassi: So many things: museums, fine art, galleries, abstract paintings, photography, historical decorative arts. I have to say that my family is also inspiring, and not just artistically. Mary and her passion to start the Plates With Purpose line, as a way to give something back to the community, has been very inspirational.

Mary: The culinary world has also been a tremendous influence. There's something magical about people taking simple ingredients and turning them into amazing combinations. Cassi and I are married to an art curator and an architect, respectively, and both of them work with us as consultants. So those influences are factors too.

Cassi: Seaglass is pretty far outside the box as far as standard dinnerware goes. I have to admit that other dinnerware doesn't inspire us much -- you've probably noticed that we don't make round white dinner plates. I've always been attracted to color, pattern, and shape, and many paintings, not just abstract works, mix those elements in ways that generate interesting ideas.

Mary: This is simplistic, but ... some people design an entire room around a piece of art, while others decorate the room and add a piece of art as an afterthought. It's safe to say that most Riverside people are the kind who build decor around specific pieces. The art is a focal point, not just a finishing touch.

I inherited a lot of furniture and china from my parents, and many of our early colors were based on things I wanted to use but hadn't selected myself. It was important to me to incorporate those items, but still have my own look -- I wanted it to look like my house, not my grandmother's house. That's another thing we consider essential, the ability to mix old and new.

Amy: It's fun to visualize a truck pulling up at your factory and dropping off the neighborhood recycling, but that's probably not how it works. What does your raw material look like, and how do you make the final product so consistent?

Cassi: The original glass comes from a variety of sources. Seaglass glass arrives at our factory in big clear sheets with a slight green tint. We cut out and color the shapes. It's a bit like making clothes from a bolt of fabric. The glass we use for the Elements collection is recycled building window glass, so the window colors -- green, blue, black, clear -- become the product colors.

Mary: If you imagine a lot of people opening a cookbook and getting to work on the same recipe, that's not too far off the mark. You might stir the batter a little longer than Cassi, but the final product is going to be very similar. At Riverside we have skilled craftsmen who work off of recipes and patterns. Many different hands touch the product. In the end there will be slight variations, but molds and formulas keep the results fairly consistent.

Keep in mind also that a store like Terrestra has customers comparing plates to each other and purchasing pieces to complete sets, so we're very careful how we fill those orders. If we're providing vanity trays for a hotel, it's not too likely that the person in room 1012 is going to wander down to room 734 and notice that there's any difference, or be too concerned even if there is a difference. Some of our customers need perfect consistency and some don't.

Cassi: We try to avoid having too many unexpected events produce inconsistent results. Once a year we have a warehouse sale for factory seconds. People can buy a dish that looks fine if you turn one side toward the back, that sort of thing. Then half the proceeds go to a local counseling center we support.

Amy: What do you like best about what you do every day?

Mary: Well, it's taken us awhile to grow into it, but we love the mother-daughter work relationship. It's been a wonderful way for me to interact with Cassi as an adult.

Cassi: I have to agree -- it's probably not for everyone, but it has given me a chance to see my parents as people, beyond their roles as Mom and Dad. I've gotten to know them in a very different way than I would have if I hadn't worked with them.

Mary: I've also loved the travel. Our customers are a really diverse and interesting group.

Cassi: I've especially enjoyed interacting with lots of chefs, because I love food so much. We have a terrific time seeing people who get so excited about our dishes. Of course they're meant to be a backdrop for food, but somehow we never thought about the plates themselves being a source of inspiration for food.

Mary: We've had people say to us, "Wait until you see THIS on THIS plate." It has been astonishing to me that a chef can design something just to go on a particular plate. These behind-the-scenes moments have really helped us become more sophisticated as a design company.

Amy: What accomplishments are you proudest of?

Mary: Being able to pay our employees and provide health care for them. And Cassi, of course, is one of my greatest accomplishments. We've been in business together for 13 years and we're still talking to each other.

Cassi: Mary does not spend a lot of time tooting her own horn. She's too modest to mention this, but Maria Schriver received one of our Plates with Purpose recently from someone who had sent it to acknowledge her mother's struggle with Alzheimer's Disease. (Proceeds from the sale of this plate benefit the Alzheimer's Association.) She called to tell us how much she appreciated the plate and the work our company is doing.

Mary: It's true, I'm very proud of the Plates With Purpose program. It has generated both publicity and money for a dozen worthy non-profit organizations, at first just in Western Pennsylvania but now across the United States. It was very meaningful to me when the Pittsburgh Business Times singled us out for recognition and used Riverside as an example of how even a small company can make a difference.

Cassi: We're also very proud that some of our designs are in museum collections -- at the Brooklyn Museum, for instance, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. To me that means our historical mission still has some value, even though so much about our business has changed in the past 15 years.

Mary: Last but not least, we're proud to have such excellent hotels and restaurants around the world as our customers, not to mention smaller businesses who believe in us and our work.

Amy: At Terrestra we know all about working with family members (not everyone knows that Ray and I are a husband-and-wife team). But most people can't imagine how this is possible, much less why we'd want to do it. Talk a little more about what your experience has been like.

Mary: It's interesting how common these arrangements are among small business owners. My husband and I have been business partners at Riverside since 1996. But that doesn't mean it's easy, of course. It took us awhile to figure out how to separate family from work. Cassi is in Chicago and I'm in Pittsburgh, but we sometimes talk on the phone six or seven times a day. We've had to work hard on learning to be very clear who we're talking to -- daughter or business partner.

Cassi: Clear, and also consistent. It's important but surprisingly hard to keep the business relationship professional. Lapses can create a lot of issues even if there's no audience to overhear them.

Mary: We finally got the idea of having weekly business meetings that we call CAMS meetings: Cassi, Aaron (Cassi's husband), Mary, Scotty (Mary's husband). These give us a chance to get business topics covered and out of the way with everyone in business mode. Otherwise life is just too much like a radio station that's playing all Riverside, all the time.

Cassi: That work-life boundary needs constant monitoring. We need breaks that give us time to interact like family members instead of colleagues, but we also need time to take vacations from work altogether.

Mary: It's something we expect we'll have to continue perfecting!

Amy: The past few years have been a wild ride. How do you think the business climate is evolving for small companies like yours and ours?

Mary: As communities and families change and move apart physically, we're all looking for new ways to stay connected. Technology has become a big contributor here. We use e-mail, video, and the internet to stay in touch and manage more aspects of our business. Our ability to see potential customers online is very helpful. I can often learn much more from a few minutes on someone's web site, or Facebook page, than I can from a 5-minute conversation in a trade show booth on a busy day. These technologies extend our reach and our ability to collect important information.

But some things never change. We still need to be really honest with each other, and find new ways to partner and help each other.

Cassi: Personal relationships with our suppliers and our customers have always mattered, and it's no surprise that they still do. Being completely above-board and service-oriented remains crucial. As Mary suggested, finding creative ways to work together is more important all the time. We're all going to fewer trade shows and spending less time face to face. We need to come up with other ways to exchange ideas and collaborate.

Amy: If you could travel 100 years into the future and sit down at an American family dinner table in Pittsburgh or Chicago, what do you think you would you see?

Mary: Well, if you're in Chicago, I'm going to be stuffed and sitting in the corner of Cassi's dining room. Just kidding. Many of us have special family traditions, especially for holidays like Thanksgiving. Those family traditions and recipes are so important to keeping us connected through the years, aren't they? I hope they will live on -- and what we'll see around the table won't look all that different in 100 years.

Cassi: With any luck, we'll still be eating more food than chemicals. It's been an interesting bell curve -- thank goodness we've finally moved away from Tang and Twinkies and all that prepackaged stuff, and people are growing their own food again. We want to know what we're eating, and we want it to be real food. I hope that will still be the case in 2110.

Mary: I do hope we won't be getting our food as a pill or through a tube. It would be great if the trend toward producing and consuming food locally continues, and supporting the health of everyone in our communities continues. We hope that local companies like ours, and yours, will still be here too!

Amy: Is there anything else you would like customers to know?

Cassi: Yes. We're really very fun people.

Mary: And we want people to bring us into their homes, let us know how they use our products, and tell us what we can improve.

Thank you for reading! Comments for Cassi, Mary, or Amy? Please send us an email.


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