Recently I was invited to present at an event called LocalMade at the San Francisco headquarters of Gensler, the second largest architectural firm in the U.S. The goal was to introduce some of the principals' favorite Bay Area artisans to their staff and also to network Gensler’s internationally known architects and interior designers with other San Francisco designers. It was an especially rich networking event because quality and innovation were requirements for participation.

[caption id="attachment_64251" align="alignright" width="308"] Christina Amri with Charly Rinn at their recent installation of an Art Glass Donor Wall at Amberwing, a world-class mental health center for children and teens and their families, in Duluth, Minn.[/caption]

I was there to present my Amri Studio carved and etched crystal architectural art glass. Other artisans -- including reclaimed wood sawyer Evan Shively from Arborica in Petaluma, Gordon Bryan from Blue Slide Art Tile in Point Reyes Station, and Sohan Mutucumarana from Concreteworks in Oakland -- showed their tile, wood products, lighting, concrete, and metalwork. The event had a wonderful “guild” feel to it, which set me to thinking.

The original purpose of the medieval craft guilds was to ensure high standards of quality in their respective fields. Our modern-day business associations focus more on networking to find customers or suppliers, however. I’d like to see some of that earlier “guild” mentality brought to bear in our networking groups today. I think this is especially important for our area’s own “LocalMade” businesses -- the large number of extraordinary entrepreneurial and artisanal firms that call the North Bay home.

The kind of guild I am talking about would have a three-fold focus. First, it would challenge its members to maintain an extremely high level of quality in their products, no matter the economic challenges of doing so. To help them do so, it would encourage its members to share their intelligent business decisions and best practices. Finally, it would provide a much-needed source of inspiration and positivity.

Over the past four or five years, I frequently have seen clients grab companies’ low-ball bids and live to regret it. They end up with uninspiring, cheaply designed, less durable products -- both consumer and commercial-- that are built with lower quality goods and components. In order for the pendulum to swing the other way, however, we artisanal companies need to encourage strategies for making our products and their prices more attainable and model the entrepreneurial (creative ownership) spirit, even for folks who are employees or administrators. Imagine the boost in morale and quality if we all “signed” our work!

A modern-day guild mentality and many more networking opportunities could be key to accomplishing this. Every business, entrepreneurial or not, has to continually self-assess and reevaluate. I have learned that the best way to do this is not necessarily to hire a high-priced consultant, but to compare notes with like-minded business owners. In my case, that means connecting with entrepreneurs who are also creatives.

Artisanal businesses are founded on someone’s passion. But in order for that passion to take root and flourish, you have to make intelligent business decisions and find support. So for us, networking is not just about finding new clients, it’s about helping each other make decisions that will sustain our internal strength and keep our focus in tough times.

Every business owner has to make hard choices. There are times when we have to cut back, to prune. But we need to remember that the reason for pruning is to make the plant healthier. This kind of positive reframe is the third type of support a “guild” can offer.

Together, we can not only help each other stay focused on quality and grounded in intelligent decisions, we can battle the fear factor. In this economic climate of caution, when one person says, “Uh-oh,” other people do the same thing, almost automatically. Pessimism is contagious -- and it’s bad for everyone.

What if we reminded each other that we need not respond to bad economic news by constricting or contracting, but by using it to inspire our creative thinking? The best designers love the challenge of finding solutions within parameters or constraints --  including doing more with less! What can we change? How can we change it? Necessity truly can be the mother of invention -- if you have people supporting you and helping you hold a positive vision.

As futurist Willis Harman, longtime president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, has said, “Because of the interconnectedness of all minds, affirming a positive vision may be about the most sophisticated action any one of us can take."

What if we spread optimism, high-quality creative problem-solving, passionate engagement, and inspiration as readily as readily as we spread bad news? I was talking to a large local wholesale glass provider the other day who told me that his business is expanding. He’s getting more orders -- and for exciting projects, too. Architects have started hiring back folks they laid off. At Amri Studio, we’re working on a big multi-campus medical project in the D.C. area, we just completed two projects for groundbreaking new healing organizations in Duluth and Chicago, and we will be finalizing paperwork for new jobs this next quarter. We have also been in serious consultation with our own county’s great new community asset, Sutter Medical Center hospital in Santa Rosa, currently under construction.

Running a North Bay-based business for more than 30 years, I have developed my own “guild” -- long-time collaborators who advise me on business decisions and help me open to new possibilities. They also lend support during crises and help celebrate our accomplishments. For me, collaboration is hugely inspiring. For over 25 years my guild has included gifted artisans like custom millwork producer Charly Rinn of Exceptional Wood Products in Geyserville, Terry Holleman of Holleman and Company Cabinetry in Sonoma, the gifted lighting engineer Tim Feldman of Electric Algorithms in Davis, and Margot Silk Forrest, an extraordinary writer based in Morro Bay, as well as all our local support-service contractors who keep us going on a daily basis.

(I smile thinking about my training 35 years ago at a fourth-generation master glass studio in Paris, where I walked to work past the finest patisseries, charcuteries and chocolateries. Now my business uses another Parisian-trained local for catered business events -- Condra Easley, whose fabulous gateaux and chocolates are found at Sebastopol’s Patisserie Angelica, was studying there at the very same time, with equally illustrious masters, to become a pastry chef.)

When you develop and nurture long-term relationships with high-level people on similar planes, you keep your own standards high. You’re stimulated to try to “outdo” the other person with the beauty and care you put into your work. Even in scary times, you don’t undercut quality just to make a low-ball bid.

Now, with the economy revving and trying to gain traction, it’s a crucial time for us to come together, help each other out, keep each other inspired. I challenge you to develop a guild of your own. Your collaborators can help you hold the vision, hold the quality, and find solutions that allow you to go forward even in tough times....

Christina Amri is CEO and founder of Amri Studio in Santa Rosa, an art glass and donor recognition design and fabrication firm recognized as one of innovators in her field and the leading firm of its kind in the U.S.. In its 35 years, Amri Studio has won more than 20 national awards for its work with major universities, medical centers, corporations, museums, performing arts centers and private collectors.