Amanda Shine traded being in front of the camera for working behind the scenes with top fashion brands in the hustling PR world before taking her own project centre stage. With her business partner Billur Kazaz she’s now customizing ceramics to create moving and impactful conversations through their company The Setting. Be it zodiac tumblers to help a brand interact with its clients or personal dated love notes transcribed on bud vases for a wedding tablescape, the duo strives to inject pure joy into every experience their business helps create. Inspired by nature and the historically rich culture of ceramics, the pair travels to learn how others set their tables, noting worldly styles and taking design influences home to their studio in Brooklyn, New York. They specialize in developing one-of-a-kind experiences for clients with a special focus on curated partnerships; their aesthetic and creative direction has most recently landed them in the smart home space, their first foray into working with newer technology. Although entrepreneurship wasn’t a totally new concept for Amanda, she attributes much of her success to intelligent business-minded women who mentored and steered her along the way. For The Setting, it’s all about the finer details and communicating artistic perspective through ceramics to activate blissful moments through interactive, functional art. Taking an ancient art form into the modern world went from a niche side-gig to a thriving company that continues to take shape and expand into branding and other design forms as the world drinks it up daily.
I was a late bloomer to self confidence and embracing the person I am
Working with my team and observing the progress of each step of a project
Slack App has improved how we run our business
The commitment and compatibility of my business partner, Billur Kazaz
Dedication, long hours and pressing deadlines can quickly turn from stress to burnout
Clarifying what I heard and asking questions to further my insight
Launching our business as a ceramic start-up has catapulted to unique and vastly opportunities
There is no time for ego when running a company
A significant decision I made that changed the course of my career was finding a business partner
As a business owner I am humbled when I am able to offer career advice or help with sponsoring an employee
Living in New York I am surrounded by resilience and spirit that is ingrained in me
We design custom pieces that has allowed us to work with a wide variety of clients
Challenging myself to be more open to new ideas and people
What is The Setting?
The Setting is the company I started with my business partner, Billur Kazaz; we basically took a very small, sweet customized ceramic concept and grew it into a creative agency that pairs products with programming. That put us into some really exciting opportunities with friends, clients, hotel groups and the hospitality industry – it’s been a really fun adventure.
That's incredible! I love that you started with such a small focus and have expanded into so much more. Could you elaborate on how you pair product with programming?
Our sweet spot is in high-touch activation, so whether it’s a seated dinner for 20 people or a really beautiful brunch, we produce custom ceramics for the tablescape or as gifts for guests to take with them in lieu of a traditional name card. We love to incorporate texture and interesting visual elements to the decor and the ambiance, and our main channel for doing so is through our ceramics. We’re also currently working on a project in the smart home space, which is completely new for us; it’s a product design opportunity that actually came through the customized ceramics portion of the business. I think we’re at a very nice place where both aspects of what we do are growing and there’s some really nice symmetry between them.
How did you elevate ceramics to that high-touch activation you described?
I think it was something that the market communicated to us; I think we had some really amazing press and response early on, too. It was a super nice and really special side project in the beginning though; over time we were fortunate enough to have some really smart women in business who acted as mentors and guides to us. Those women said, ‘Hey, I have a client that I think this could be really cool for,’ or ‘Why don’t we do something really special for this wedding?’ From there it really just took on a life of its own and they helped show us how to grow our business.
Could you explain a little more about how you got started?
My background is in events and my business partner was an illustrator, and we met in a ceramics class. I’d already started the business prior to meeting her but at the time it was super niche and I was making everything by hand out of a studio in Midtown. After we met at the studio we found an incredible production partner in Williamsburg and started taking on clients; we started doing tablescapes and events, really pouring the product into those opportunities, and that’s where we started to see a lot of potential – and we ran with it.
What made you want to get a partner involved?
I’m a team-oriented person; I worked for Gucci and Everlane and Free People and Theory and I traveled a lot producing events in Shanghai and Europe. I had a lot of experience working in teams on events. Billur really attracted me because she’s such a confident creative but she has a business mind; she really layered in nicely with the production aspect and clear aesthetic and vision I had, especially from an illustrative, design and business-savvy perspective. We started working on photoshoots together and doing smaller projects in around April of 2015; then, when a former boss of mine asked me to do her wedding that summer, I asked Billur to do it with me and it was such a success. Everyone was so complementary and we got opportunities from there, so we decided to formally team up.
And then how’d you take The Setting from a side project to full-time?
I think we were really lucky with one woman in particular, Leland Drummond; she owns a PR firm in New York and Los Angeles called AZIONE. She saw some of the work we were doing, and she gave us little referrals and little projects here and there. We worked so hard on them, and she noticed, and said, ‘Listen, we have this huge office. Why don’t we kind of incubate you guys?’ That’s when we were like: ‘This is it!’ It gave us a workspace – desks and an office – and I think that was really the turning point where we went from being per project and on the side to a real business. She was the first person at that level that kind of looked at us without just a ‘good for you;’ she was more, ‘We’re going to do something much bigger!’
What makes your ceramics different?
We work directly with the consumer to take the notion of customization and make it something that’s interactive and conversational. For example, we’re doing a whole line of customized mugs to celebrate Earth Day for Free People; we did some zodiac tumblers for them before and they were really well received. Besides brands we also do work for individuals; for example a girl who wants a vase as a bridal present for her friend or a mug for her mother-in-law. We really try to make everything super custom: the type of clay, the glaze, the customization on the piece itself. We work with the consumer in what I think is a really unique way by providing a lot of visibility and design opportunity for them to create something that’s handmade and one-of-a-kind, and then we gift wrap it and send it out.
Are all your designs custom or do you also have your own line?
We do have our own silhouettes and pieces – our website is e-commerce, so we sell our own products through that. We have keepsake bowls, and a piece called the Pick Me Up Bud Vase, which is our top seller; it’s a small little bud vase that can be customized with initials or a special date as part of our own line.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
My business partner and I both really love nature and the beach. Earthy tonal palettes really inspire us, so everything is kind of minimal and clean – a lot of white and tan colours and then pops of blue, and we do a lot of gold lustres – 24-karat gold – to add a little bit of flare and some fun. But in general, I think our pallet is largely inspired by nature.
What are you trying to say with your line?
We like the idea of communication through a product and giving something that feels a little more meaningful. We both really love the idea that ceramics are evergreen and they last for a lifetime. Some of the oldest artifacts in the world are ceramic, so it’s kind of a cool way to provide something unique for the home that’s also super functional. It can go in the microwave, it can go in the dishwasher, so it’s not precious, but it’s still special; I think that’s something we’ve really felt inspired by.
Is there a piece you've made that's stuck with you?
I have such an attachment to a lot of the pieces, but in general I think that what we’ve done with vases has been really exciting, mostly because I love fresh flowers. We’ve created these cool and affordable tumbler vases that can be filled with flowers and put on a table to dress up a room to look really bright and fresh; they can hold pencils or toothbrushes or things other than flowers too. I also really love our mugs because I drink a lot of coffee and a lot of tea.
What's your favorite mug?
I love the Liquid Blue Mug – it’s brown clay with very pale blue glaze. I also love our Seafoam Mugs; they’re really beautiful.
So you create ceramics and incorporate them into tablescapes to inspire conversation and interaction, right? That’s the main focus?
Yes, I think tablescapes or really beautiful floral installations or interesting customization elements can all create sort of a moment in time that allows for the customer to appreciate the brand outside of the normal retail circumstance. I think we’ve found a lot of creative license, and people have been really open to doing interesting things, so the focus is definitely through tablescapes and decor but also through the experience as a whole.
I appreciate that; I really like being able to tell there’s been some thought and personal touches put into the look and experience of an event - it makes it more enjoyable and memorable!
I love to hear that because I think we both feel the same way! You know when you go somewhere or support something it’s just that much more meaningful when you can tell that the hosts also put some thought into the fact that you showed up. We really want everyone who comes to an event for a client of ours to know for sure that everything’s been really specially planned for them.
Tell me about the types of clients you work with.
We work with a pretty broad range of clients, mostly in New York, Los Angeles, and London. We work within the beauty space, we do quite a bit in fashion, and we work with some hotel groups producing private label ceramics and some programming. We certainly have an array of clients at the moment – it’s a really fun time for us. We’re working really hard, and we’re really tired, but we’re really grateful. The energy behind the brand is really exciting and some of the new opportunities that are on the horizon – like the one in the smart home space that pairs technology and design – are getting us especially hyped.
Can you talk a little bit about this new opportunity in the smart home space?
Unfortunately I can’t get into specifics at this time, but it’s related to smartphones; we’ve designed a ceramic product that will create ease around the use of the cell phone at home.
Mysterious! OK, we’ll move on for now; you mentioned nature inspiring The Setting; is there anything else that inspires your work?
Like I said, we both really love the outdoors and the beach is a big source of inspiration, including being on the water. For instance we went to Bodrum last summer in Turkey, and we went sailing with Billur’s family. We also went to Beijing together last spring, and we just got back from London and Paris; we’ve been able to do some really exciting travel for work and I think that we get inspired by seeing how other cultures live and how other people set their tables in their home settings. Depending on where you are in the world that can really take on a life of its own, whether it’s breakfast or tea time or preparing for drinks or dinner. We’re definitely inspired by learning about other cultures.
Do you have an example of a setting different from what you might find in New York?
When we went to Beijing, we bought so many beautiful ceramics and teapots; they did really special firing in wood ovens, all stuff that’s really unique and technical and almost ancient in practice. I think appreciating that process, plus being somewhere where the home is so central to the formation of the culture, helps naturally incline us to pay attention to how other people put their spaces together and entertain their friends.
Absolutely - pairing technique and culture makes sense! How do you make your ceramics?
It’s all wheel-thrown brown or white clay, and some hand-built pieces as well. The smart home project that I mentioned has actually been interesting because we’ve been making the prototypes with a 3D printer. It’s been a cool journey that has sort of opened a window into what’s to come. It’s helped show us how a business like ours could work in the future, and we feel really fortunate to have a little visibility into that.
How did you first find ceramics?
I started when I was in intermediate school, just hand-building clay in art classes; I stuck with it informally and then when I picked it back up – Billur and I took an intensive week-long class together – it came back very quickly.
Did you know at that point that you wanted to partner with Billur to do something professionally?
Yes; I already had certain ideas but when I saw how Billur was interpreting the ceramics and painting in her own way – I was mostly using words, while she used more drawings – it felt like there was something extra there. It’s one of those things that you can’t really put your finger on, but you just feel it. It felt different, like there was something to do; since I did events that kind of formed what it could look like.
Tell me about your work in events.
I started for Theory as a VIP PR assistant, which was basically the most exciting thing I’d ever done; it wasn’t actually that exciting, but to me, it really was! I was in charge of label-making for all the VIP cards, which was a really junior responsibility, but I think it was being part of a bigger organization that I really admired; I really respect Andrew Rosen and everything that he’s built in fashion. After that I worked for Gucci doing special events, and then I went to Everlane, and next to Free People. I had so many amazing mentors and bosses and women that I worked for and alongside; I was lucky to see and experience their work ethic firsthand.
Did you study public relations in school?
I didn’t. I studied communications at Syracuse for a year, and then I deferred, and I signed with Ford for three years, so I modelled instead of graduating from college.
So prior to working in event planning, you were a model; tell me about that experience.
I signed with Ford when I was 18 and had a really fun time. I was able to work for Tiffany’s and Calvin Klein and Pantene Pro-V and do a lot of interesting shoots – and it was all pre-social media. I ended up taking an internship at Alloy Media that led to them hiring me, and it was from there I went to Theory. At that point I was just really excited to be on the back-end of business. I wanted to learn from the smart, creative women around me; it was something that fed my soul more than anything else I’d done, and I think that’s what inclined me to go in a more entrepreneurial business direction.
Do you think your previous careers in modelling and event planning helped you in your business today?
Yes. I think it gave me insight into how to treat clients and how to manage relationships. I think everybody appreciates how hard everyone else is working, but I think having worked with agents and managers and clients, where there’s big budgets and a lot of responsibility, what you don’t see is the tremendous amount of care people behind the scenes put into a production. I think that’s really the core of our business: to come from a place of ‘we’re a team, we’re transparent, and we want to do beautiful work.’ I think having that at the base of what we do is certainly inspired by my time around some really impressive people who were managing a lot of responsibility.
Were the transitions between modelling to event planning to running your own business pretty seamless, or did you have moments where you were questioning whether you were doing the right thing?
I think that more than questioning if I was doing the right thing, I was just trying to find time to enjoy work – especially when I was younger. I think I always knew I was on the right path but when I was working in events I put so much pressure on myself; I think what’s been really nice about having a partner and growing my own team is that you learn really quickly that there’s a greater joint energy around a career and a business and work – you can’t do it alone – and I think recognizing that has been really beneficial for me.
Your team has grown from two to four now, right? And it’s an all-female team - was that intentional?
Yes there are four of us now. I think being all-female has been a natural fit for the type of work we do, but we also work with men in production and on the client side. I just feel really proud that the core of our company is made up of such interesting, creative young women. We have a full-time employee, Namrata Kalani, who’s from India, so we’re always like ‘We’re going to India, and you’re going to take us!’ Billur is from Turkey originally, so she took me this past summer – her mom’s an incredible businesswoman there – so I think just more than the team being only women, it’s about making sure that we’re connecting with things that inspire us. So far that’s been very female-orientated internally with a sort of global aspect as well.
You talked about having support from other female entrepreneurs during your transition into making The Setting a full-time gig; what challenged you during that time?
We have a really great support system; my brother owns a pretty successful business, my dad’s an entrepreneur, and Billur’s mom is an entrepreneur. Starting my own thing wasn’t something that took a lot of calibration for me. However, when we got things going it was tough making our first hire. It took us quite a while to find Namrata, but when we did we were like, ‘Okay, this is amazing!’ She’s a great fit, and now she really manages the office and the team and our weekly touch base.
What have been some of your career highlights so far?
I would definitely say some of the travel we’ve been able to do! We went to Beijing for production and took a day trip to the Great Wall of China together; we have this really funny photo going up the tram and it’s those rare moments that are special. We also did all the branding and launch for a hotel in Montauk last summer and we got press from Vogue, Forbes, and Architectural Digest, so that was a feather in our cap as far as experience. It also gave us the ability to really look at what we had in front of us and be a little bit more creative around execution. I think those are the two highlights to date.
Do you think that small batch or custom work is making a comeback in the marketplace?
Yeah, I think if you take a look at the bigger macro trends around peer-to-peer conversations like Etsy or Stitch Fix – or any of the brands that are really tailored to the consumer in a hyper-focused custom way – people are responding. I think if you sort of drill down into handmade artisan contributions to retail you see that people love to know where things are made and love to support small businesses. Some of the bigger retailers are even adding a marketplace component and I think that’s a really fun trend and a good way to support creative minds. As a team-oriented person I always think you can do more together than you can on your own – especially when there’s so much out there – so I love when big brands like Free People come to us and say they like what we’re doing. I feel like this trend allows for a certain sweet spot where creatives can express themselves and get their work out there by collaborating with big brands.
Do you have any advice for someone who's looking to make their side project full-time?
I always say this, but I think that having a partner – if you can find someone – is key. It’s really helpful to have a partner, or a mentor, or really anyone that you can meet with twice a week to work together – even if they’re not in the same line of work. I think there’s something to be said for the accountability that provides. That gives you a soundboard and support, and you’d really be surprised by what that gives you as far as potential and opportunity.
What's next for you?
The smart home project is very much what’s next for us on a large scale. We have some events and we’re working on some summer projects that we’re really excited about, too.
For those who interact with your products, what do you hope their takeaway is?
Joy. I think when we make a product that’s the takeaway. If we could hope for one thing, it’s to make something that makes someone smile or makes their home feel nice – that’s our goal.