We had a chat with Altenew's co-founder Jennifer Rzasa about the phenomenal success in the world of cardmaking of this popular brand.
Established in April 2014, Altenew has quickly become a leader in the inspiration industry and continues to innovate and influence the world of papercrafts. Our editor Sally spent time chatting with co-founder Jennifer Rzasa about the phenomenal success of this popular brand.
Tell us how your interest in craft started?
I’ve had an interest in craft from a young age. It started with drawing and painting, then evolved into so much more! I first discovered papercrafting while preparing for my wedding. I knew I didn’t want to DIY the entire wedding, but there were certain aspects that I thought I could create myself for a handmade touch. I sewed my own veil and beaded my headpiece with Swarovski crystals. Then, I had this idea of making my own place cards/table cards! I went to the local craft store to see what I needed and saw some cool stuff called embossing powder. It looked elegant and the silver colour fit with my colour scheme so it was calling out to me! I saw embossing ink in the same aisle, so I grabbed some of that. I was ready to go... except I had no stamps! I purchased some pink rubber stamp material and used a craft knife to carve out a monogram with our wedding date. I was pleasantly surprised at how good it came out! Then came the time to stamp and emboss. But what was I missing?! A heat tool! I really wasn’t prepared, was I? Instead of buying one, I proceeded to stamp each card, apply the powder and melt it over a light bulb. And I did this 140 times! I was seeing stars and my fingers were burned but it was worth it! I then used a metallic pen to do hand-calligraphy for each guest’s name. That was the easy part!
Do you still dabble in any crafts other than papercraft?
My first love is paper, I love how it allows you to create a little piece of art that can brighten someones day. I have a box of unmailed cards, I create them faster than I can send them! I also sew clothes for myself - mostly 1940s and 1950s-inspired styles, as well as a few costumes. I also love making jewellery and accessories, and I adore painting with watercolor!
Is there something you’ve made you are most proud of?
This is such a difficult question! Every time I look at a finished project I can instantly remember the process I went through to create it. I know it sounds corny, but that makes each one special! Even the duds! If you want a more specific answer then any card I have had published over the years has made me extra proud. It made me realise there are people out there who want to see my skill and talent. I’m also going to add a non-paper crafted project - I am extremely proud of a particular costume I designed, drafted and sewed from scratch. It took many hours to create, but all the attention I paid to the small details really stood out and made the costume extra fun to wear at one of my favourite conventions!
With all this experience can you offer your top crafty tip?
Don’t throw anything out! When you make a mistake it can be tempting to throw it away and start over. However, you learn so much more when you problem solve! Think outside of the box. Stamped a sentiment crooked? Stamp it again on a separate piece of cardstock and adhere it on top with foam tape. Drop your ink pad onto your project? If you are lucky enough and it falls in the background, why not ink up the whole background for a more colourful look? If it’s a real disaster, see if you can salvage some of what you already stamped by cutting out certain elements to use on another project. You can also always roll with it - handmade goods are never (and should never) be “perfect.”
Is there another crafter whose work you most admire?
Yes, and lucky for us she is on our design team! Agnieszka Malyszek wows me with each and every one of her projects. She has an innate ability to create striking and interesting Clean and Simple cards, typically using only minimal supplies! If you are a crafter on a budget, you should defnitely check out her work. She exemplifies the phrase “less is more” and does it an artistically beautiful and thoughtful way.
What did you envisage when you started out? Did you ever dream that Altenew would be this successful?
Tasnim and I were both paper crafters for quite a few years before we started Altenew. The company really came about after a discussion we had: we were both considering designing our own stamps because there were specific images we were looking for but just couldn’t find. We figured if there was a void in the market that we could fill, maybe others would appreciate it too. And by “others” we thought maybe a few people would jump on board and buy our products. We assumed that some of the friends we met through paper crafting would be interested, but that’s about it. Boy, were we wrong! On our first release day in April 2014, we launched a collection of 14 stamp sets - most of them were sold out within an hour or two! The rest sold out later that day, and that’s when we realised we were onto something.
Tell us more about your design team
Having members from around the world is very important to us. Many companies have teams based in the same country as the company. Although that sure does make it easier when it comes to mailing products to designers, I think they miss out on the worldly inspiration that we get with our team. We serve customers all over the world, so shouldn’t our team reflect that too? Currently, our team members live in the US, Canada, UK, Ukraine, Pakistan, Australia, Belgium, Slovenia, Germany, Japan, Greece and the Philippines!
Tell us a little more about the product design process! For example, what inspires you?
When we started Altenew, Tasnim and I did all of the designing. It was like that for years before we started having some of our team members jump in to the design process. For each of us, the process is a bit different, but we all are on the same page when it comes to what products we want to produce: elegant, unique and inspirational. When I design, I try to take inspiration from nature, architecture and other cultures. I am also very inspired by fashion! I used to run a challenge blog called the Runway Inspired Challenge, where participants would find inspiration to create a paper crafted project from a look straight off the runways of New York, Paris, Milan and London!
Have you noticed any trends in cardmaking over the years or have you any predictions for the hobby in the future?
Although Altenew is fairly young, we have certainly seen trends come and go - do you remember when chevrons were all the rage, and no project was complete without three buttons or eyelets in the corner? Instead of focusing on fleeting trends, Altenew takes a more timeless approach. Our specialty is our floral collections, we aim to create products that people can use along with the latest trends, but ones they can also continue to love once a trend has passed.
We know that supporting charity is a big part of Altenew’s ethos...
Every spring, we host a ‘Celebrating Parents’ event and card drive. The purpose is to bring love and happiness to seniors in nursing homes or shelters, who may be having a difficult time especially around Mother’s and Father’s Day. In addition to this we deliver cards to hundreds of seniors and donate a portion of the profits of some of our Mother’s and Father’s Day themed stamp sets. This past spring we donated thousands of dollars to the Food Bank of Central New York, and prior to that we donated money to the Zakat Foundation. In addition to this successful event, sometimes a donation is included with the purchase of other specific supplies. For example, our ASL Love Stamp Set honors American Sign Language, and a portion of the profits from the sale of this set is donated to charities that support the deaf community.
What is your biggest ambition?
We hope to branch out to reach crafters in other areas of the industry. Papercrafting is HUGE, and we aim to find a place among the mixed-media artists, journal/memory book makers and of course scrapbookers. We have an amazingly talented scrapbook design team and have more scrapbook collections in the works. Keep an eye out for them - they are awesome!
What Instagram or Facebook account would you follow first after a digital detox?
I hope it doesn’t sound bad to say this... but I would follow Altenew’s Instagram account! I have still not gotten over the thrill of seeing a product I designed getting used on a project. It goes from idea, to sketch, to refined drawing, to manufacturer, to sample, to production, to our designers, to a project, then onto social media! To see everything follow around that path is so humbling. Every single release I notice a designer or customer using a product in a way I never imagined. I think “how did they do THAT with my stamp set?!?” It’s unreal, and very inspiring. If I can add one more, I think I’d also follow NASA, since their photos are awe-inspiring!
And lastly, something a little bit different - What is the soundtrack of your life?
The soundtrack of my life would be an eclectic mix of classical music (I’m a classically trained violist and music teacher), heavy metal (I acquired my love for metal and classic rock from my dad), showtunes (gotta sing in the shower!), and 90s alternative and hip hop (you can never give up on the music of your childhood!).
For more exciting interviews and insights across the craft world, grab an issue of Making Cards and Papercraft magazine now!