What if you could customize a coffee brewer? What if you painted on it's surface? Could you turn a Chemex into a unique piece of art? If you are like me, and you are asking these questions to ME●KU Designs, the response will be a resounding "Yes! I would love to customize that object for you."
A self professed designer of whimsy and sophistication, Meena Kumar is the talent behind ME●KU Designs. In simplest terms, Meena transforms surfaces. Her work is thoughtful, delightful and smile inducing—which I can't help but think is a reflection of her personality.
When I first met Meena, I was introduced to her printed stackable mug series. I loved her minimalist approach to the designs, and the way she considered each mug as a piece in it's own right, as well as how it interacted with the others in the set. The majority of Meena's work, however, is hand painted in collaboration with her customers—like the Chemex with the big bold heart you see here. With ME●KU Designs the customization possibilities are near endless! Meena's one-of-a-kind process makes ordinary objects, gifts and special occasions much more meaningful.
It was a pleasure to learn more about Meena’s background and what inspires her work. I am delighted to share this interview with Meena Kumar the founder of ME●KU designs…
tLBCC: Can you share with us a little bit about your background and how ME●KU designs came about?
Meena: Art and creativity have been an apparent part of me since around the age of 3. That’s the age I discovered Crayola crayons and I could never get enough (my favorite colors were jungle green and purple mountain majesty but macaroni and cheese held its own too). I colored stacks of pictures on a daily basis and taped them around the perimeter of our living room because that’s clearly the type of decor my parents’ first home needed.
Around this time, I think clues began surfacing that I had a desire to problem solve and creatively approach products for improvement. Not only was I disassembling all my toys and trying to put them back together, I was also breaking each of my favorite crayons in half so that I would never have to wait for my friend to finish using the color I wanted.
Still, my parents were raised to be incredibly academic and had expectations for me to pursue medicine or law. It wasn’t until college when I fully admitted to myself that those careers just aren’t me. I chose business because I felt it would allow me to be creative in a sustainable way. Specifically, I pursued a degree in marketing and on the side and took courses to receive an entrepreneurial certificate. I loved studying those topics but the thing is, your best learning comes from the real world when you have to adapt with constantly changing landscapes within your niche.
The job market was really tough when I graduated from college and my mom had just passed away which was really tough on me. So... starting my own shop came about from these feelings of “I’ve got nothing to lose” and “Life is too short to not be doing something you love.”
tLBCC: Most of your work is custom painted in collaboration with clients. Can you tell us about a few of your favorite collaborations?
Meena: It’s really hard to choose a favorite because it always feels so rewarding when your personal style and aesthetic can be blended with a customer’s theme or color palette to create something unique you never would have thought of on your own.
I’ve never said “no” to a custom order unless I had legal concerns about creating it so I guess some of my favorites would be the requests I felt intimidated by but was too stubborn to turn away. For example, I was asked to paint champagne flutes featuring a couple’s two dogs. I hadn’t sketched portraits since high school and I had never used paint to create anything of the sort… but in the end I loved how these flutes turned out and thought it was such a sweet and unexpected keepsake for newlyweds to have. That order gave me the confidence to do more work like it.
tLBCC: You first launched ME●KU designs through Etsy, and have over three hundred rave reviews from satisfied customers. You now run your own website and online store, as well as your Etsy shop. What has your experience been starting up your business on Etsy and working with the Etsy community?
Meena: Etsy is such a wonderful resource for small business entrepreneurs. By observation alone, you can pick up on the things that makes a shop work or not work. When I first launched on Etsy, I was in the forums all the time, sometimes contributing to conversations but mostly listening to other sellers discuss everything from their approaches in production, pricing, photography, policy making, customer service, and distribution to the types of equipment and services they rely on.
Maybe the most valuable aspect of Etsy is the traffic it brings to your shop. Though it’s not just the quantity in traffic, it’s the quality. I’ve had nothing but the best experiences in talking with customers and brainstorming ideas together. I didn’t expect to connect with such grateful shoppers when I first opened my store but Etsy draws in people who have a real appreciation for artists.
Having quality conversations with customers is not only joyful, it’s also beneficial in helping you learn more about what’s attracting people to your business so you can evolve with people’s needs.
tLBCC: What inspires you?
Meena: In a nutshell, everything. I’m always interested in learning something new. I think when you’re a creative type, all your experiences and skills regardless of how irrelevant they might seem for a particular craft, will manifest themselves somehow in the things you create and thus add to their uniqueness.
I used to say that my art was mainly inspired by romance, nature, and nostalgia. I think that’s still true but I would also add in worldly cultures and food. In the projects I pursue outside of my shop, I also gather ideas from technology, science, fitness, other artists/designers, and film.
tLBCC: On top of ME●KU's hand painted designs, you have also launched a collection of stackable mugs printed with simple graphics that perfectly reflect your theme of 'whimsy and sophistication.' Can you tell us a little bit about the intention behind this collection?
Meena: Oh thank you for seeing that! I thought a lot about how dinnerware itself is a unique canvas to be painting upon or adding images to so I wanted to make sure that my art felt aware of its chosen surface.
My first signature look was my mosaic style of glass painting which creates images through individually hand painted tiles that are spaced apart, allowing beverages to peer through the art. My second look was the minimalistic designs where beverages in glassware create the backdrop for an image. For example, one of my wine glasses features a gumball machine. When you fill the glass halfway (as one typically does with wine), the beverage appears to be the table the gumball machine is resting on. I liked that the art seemed interactive and not just applied for aesthetic. When I was trying to be creative with coffee cups, I found stackable ones and it just made sense to view them as puzzle pieces that when stacked together, created the full picture.
tLBCC: Last year you were a vendor at Los Angeles' Wine Fest and participated in your first trade show—Artisanal LA. What was your experience working these types of events and where have you been focusing your energy in 2016? ?
Meena: For 2016, I have put my focus more on creating editorial photography with my wares and collaborating with wedding/event planners. What I learned from participating in trade shows is that it’s way more work than it’s worth when you have to manually create every individual item and have such an array of products that supplying the right amount of inventory for each design is impossible. Transporting glassware and displaying them in frenzied crowds is also not so great for anxiety, haha. Instead of trade shows, I want to put that same amount of energy into introducing my products digitally through social media and online publications.
tLBCC: Do you have a favorite coffee shop? And, How do you take your coffee?
Meena: I mean, I LIVE for coffee. There are a few coffee shops in town that are embarrassingly aware of how I take my coffee which is simply, two shots of espresso over ice. I usually add a bit of almond milk and whole milk (the consistency of those two together is amazing!).
I don’t know if I have a favorite coffee shop—half the enjoyment is interacting with the baristas who are usually just so friendly anywhere you go. I’ll go to Groundwork if I want to pair my coffee with delicious food, Philz if I want to treat myself to a zany concoction, and Starbucks if I am craving familiarity. I’m always up to venture somewhere new though!