The design field, much like all creative industries, is obsessed with youth. Now, more than ever, we look to see who the next supernova talent will be, burning brightly right out of school and into our consciousness. Long gone are the days of toiling under a master of the form, slowly working your way up, changing agencies just to get a chance to helm your own projects. The internet means that we see everything in real time, and not only what we do, but what all of our peers are designing as well. It can become overwhelming for anyone that might still be finding their feet under them, or hasn’t yet discovered their niche in this industry. That is why my very favorite creatives are not those that are celebrated as their first printed piece rolls off the presses, but rather it is those who grind along for a decade or longer, a potent mix of raw talent and determination, that once refined, brilliant and breath-taking, with the accolades that follow all the more deserved for the hard work and sacrifices it took in earning them.
Here, we celebrate those amazing designers. We celebrate the Late Bloomers.
We continue the series with a conversation with Riley Fouts, also known as Madame Scodioli, the model for the bearded lady adorning her line of products, and a woman with a mischievous streak and regal sophistication to balance her Midwestern charm and crafty nature.
What education in design do you have?
I have a bachelor’s in fine arts. I started working on my MFA and quickly decided it was pointless. The bulk of my education has been “real world” experience.
What were your early jobs right out of school?
Following school, I jumped right into an in-house design gig with a small group of companies. The core companies focused on luxury home furnishings, lighting and textiles. The group also had it’s hand in some local projects: a restaurant and brewery, a gift shop, various “revive downtown” promotional efforts. And I’ve always had a scattering of freelance on the side, both design work and photography.
What things do you feel were holding you back early in your career, both of your making and other obstacles out of your control?
My own lifestyle preference held me back. I am a country mouse. I don’t even like to visit cities unless I have someone to lead me around by the hand. I like a slow pace and a lot of space between me and my neighbors, so applying at a huge design firm was really out of the question.
And I learned quickly that the in-house job held little opportunity for me to grow creatively. The design work was all too corporate, no room for experimentation, which is perfectly understandable but to a young designer it was crippling. It felt horrible. Even the in-house side projects, which should have been my chance to let loose, were often tamed down for fear of offending someone. The mantra seemed to be: NO RISKS. Who can live like that? The structure was completely flat, as well. No hope for advancement.
Which times did you feel like you finally got a break, only to have it not work out?
In-house, this happened about once a month! I would sit through meeting after meeting, pitching ideas and thinking “I’m finally getting through!” only to watch my creative efforts die a slow death on the table in front of everyone.
What helped you keep plugging away and what adjustments did you make when an interview didn’t result in a job offer or an opportunity disappeared?
My insane midwestern work ethic kept me going. I don’t mind drudgery, but it certainly doesn’t make me happy. And I had no other opportunities (that I could seriously consider), so I made my own opportunities with freelance, always, and then of course by starting my own business.
Did you find that you were treated differently at your early jobs based on being a woman?
Yes yes yes yes yes. Yes. I think it was the double curse of being young and being a woman. There was nothing quite so infuriating as offering up a very worthy idea in a meeting full of men, only to have it ignored and then later regurgitated as someone else’s idea at the next meeting, where it was met with hearty support.
What did you enjoy about working in-house and what did you find restrictive or challenging?
Ha! I think I’ve already covered the “restrictive and challenging” part. But really, I learned a ton and I even enjoyed a good bit of it, too. There were times when I really could exercise some creativity and initiative. The textile companies needed a photographer to shoot all of their fabric collections, and I took it on myself to be that photographer. I knew I could do it, and thankfully I figured it out fairly quickly. It saved them from having to hire outside, and it gave me a much-needed break from my cubicle. Velvets are a real bitch, by the way.
How did that end and what led to you starting to work on your own?
I had been doing both for several YEARS — design day job, soapmaking and perfuming at night and on the weekends, running to the post office on my lunch breaks to ship orders. Finally it just got to be too much, and I needed more time to do my own thing.
What inspired you to start making soap?
I really love soap! It’s so useful, such a staple in our daily lives, and there are so many options for ingredients and fragrance and color… form and function, it’s the perfect product. Plus, the idea of making the product itself, and then packaging, marketing, photographing, shipping it, etc etc… being able to control every single aspect of operation, that really appealed to my anal retentive side. It’s all very rewarding.
Could you have imagined that it would someday become a full-time job running the Madame Scodioli line?
I suppose I always hoped it would happen, but doubted the possibility. The whole thing began as sort of an experiment anyway, to see if anyone would buy a bath and beauty product with a bearded lady on the package. It was a shock to me, the day I realized it wasn’t just a “fun little project” anymore but a real business. It happened so gradually.
What inspired your branding, both visually and ease of use?
I had been a bearded lady for Halloween, that first year that I began making soap. I love Halloween, and that year I challenged myself to make a bearded lady look elegant (in contrast to the typical Halloween bearded lady: a large man dressed up with fake knockers, beer belly and hairy legs in a trashy dress). So I had these photos of myself all dressed up, stroking my little goatee, eyebrow raised and just radiating with confidence. It all came together so easily: I needed a brand for my soap, and I had practically handed myself the concept – and a mascot! A strong, self-assured female figurehead. The thing exploded in my brain, and I quickly worked out this tale of a mysterious bearded woman and her traveling carnival, stories about the members of the troupe, etc. The look itself came easily at that point, vintage tonics and preparations paired with a bit of mysticism.
Did you feel like you need to create your own opportunity, or did it grow organically from something you were passionate about, or both?
Ooh, both. I definitely needed to create an opportunity for myself. I was wasting away, creatively. Once I had created the Madame and her story, the line grew without much help. The Madame is my muse. She’s basically everything I aspire to be, so I do feel very passionate about her. It’s a true labor of love, now that I think about it.
When did you start to feel like you were garnering some respect locally, and what changed with that attention?
Locally, I’m not really known! It’s important to note my location here: central Kansas, a fairly rural area. And when I started this, I was in western Kansas, which is even more rural. Madame is too bizarre for the local palate, I think. My sales are almost exclusively online, and most of my orders are from the coasts. I’m working in such a niche market, I would never expect it to catch on locally.
How did you advance and grow your business and your design skills?
Again, the work ethic. I just keep at it. I strive for constant growth and improvement always. I have a healthy fear of complacency which carries through almost every aspect of my life. And I keep a close eye on what’s happening around me: what my peers are doing in the design world, the bath/beauty world and the indie biz world. I watch the trends, and I stay the hell away from them. My goal from the beginning was to create a solid brand that doesn’t need to be overhauled every three to five years. (Rebranding is a popular activity among bath and beauty indies.) I intend to stand out on the shelves, and not get lost in the current sea of whatever-style-is-hot-right-now.
What was the first piece where you really saw national recognition?
I made it into the pages of Fast Company, very early on. 2010. The Madame was barely a year old.
How did it feel to reach that stage of acceptance and recognition?
Surreal! I don’t think it even registered, really. I was so new to what I was doing.
What changed after that as far as opportunities, both in business and in promoting your business, and yourself as a creative?
I guess I realized that I could get noticed by press, which probably hadn’t occurred to me before then. It hadn’t even occurred to me to seek it out. At that point, the whole thing was still more at the level of hobby for me. So it was a real eye-opener.
Do you feel like you upped your game to reach the national spotlight, or it was more of a case of finally being discovered for what you were doing?
I had done absolutely nothing except exist, so I was shocked to receive that email from the editor. I try to be cool, but I’m kind of shocked every time I get featured by a magazine or blog, because I never seek out editorial.
Did that spur you on to really push your work to even greater heights?
Oh definitely. But then again, I’m always pushing. I’m urged on by every press feature, every wholesale order, every little bit of positive feedback.
Do you think it was better to receive that kind of attention after you were more settled and mature, both professionally and personally?
I wish I had received it later, when I was more established! Well, no. It was a great jumpstart, a big thumbs-up to encourage me to keep going. I needed that, early on.
How is the brand expanding?
Next up, lotions. And I’d like to offer our perfumes in roll-on format. I try to give my customers what they want, and they’re not shy about telling me. Expansion is always such a large investment because packaging is half the fun for me. And to get the type of packaging I really want, in such short runs, I almost have to sell a kidney. (Nobody is going to want one of my kidneys.) We’re expanding in physical size as well. We are slowly restoring an old house, it was built around 1910, which will eventually be my new office/workshop/storage. So I’m currently learning how to tape and mud drywall.
What are some of the exciting things you have tackled recently and what is on the horizon?
I’ve started a new line, The Soiled Dove. It’s been on the back burner for years, and now that I have an assistant I have time to devote to it. As much as I love the Madame, I know that not everyone digs bearded women, so the new line is targeted to a larger audience. It’s feminine, colorful… I do get tired of designing in black and white. It’s lovely and sweet on the surface with a darker historical concept underneath. I’ve got a lot of exciting products planned for this line.
You can visit the good Madame at scodioli.com
John Foster is principal and superintendent of Bad People Good Things. He is the author of New Master of Poster Design, Volumes One and Two; Paper and Ink Workshop; 1000 Indie Posters; and several other books on design and creativity, and is a frequent speaker on design issues.