Suji Meswani and Geoff Weiser started scheming when they hit their early 30s. What would be their ticket out of the corporate grind? Meswani was a home buyer and product developer for Anthropologie. Geoff was an art director at a series of advertising agencies. "The further along we got in that world, the more it became about management and administration, and less about actual design work," says Meswani. On top of that were the long hours. The couple, who met as undergrads at Drexel University, brainstormed ideas for businesses to start together.
In 2001, she left Anthropologie to launch Lazy Susan, a company specializing in glassware with "girlie retro" illustrations. As a buyer, Meswani had trouble finding "novelty glassware," or decorative and decorated glassware, in the United States. Lazy Susan filled that void. When a client requested candles inside of glassware, Meswani liked the idea and saw an opportunity to collaborate with Weiser. The two devised and developed Skeem Design, a line of candles inside vessels that double as drinking glasses after the flame goes out. The line's exotic, flea-markety aesthetic was in line with the couple's personal taste.
The huge response to Skeem's launch at the 2004 New York Gift Fair made it clear this was going to be more than a side thing. Meswani folded Lazy Susan into Skeem and continued as creative director and conductor of everyday business, while Weiser left freelancing to take over the design of the company's products and branding.
Skeem's core philosophy is that all the vessels can be used again.
"With a lot of candles," says Weiser, "the box is designed, and the candle is plain. Then you open it and throw out the cool box." Skeem's come in tall, silk-screened glasses and glass jars (Half Pints), or, in the case of their Pure Pillars, designs are silk-screened directly onto the wax. Ephemera plays a big role in Weiser's designs. In his and Meswani's loftlike office atop their Fairmount rowhouse, deep shelves hold binders of ephemera — old tickets, sheet music, handwriting — collected at local flea markets and during their travels. For a few years every February, they'd decamp to the town of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. Weiser designed the entire Pure Pillars line there. More recently, they have explored Thailand and Cambodia.
The result: vintage fabrics and wallpaper patterns inspired the Half Pints' printed metal lids. The Stencil Collection interprets photos of graffiti juxtaposed with traditional architecture. The Masala glasses are a collection of swirling henna designs, block prints, and street signs in spicy colors. Weiser scans ephemera and uploads images, then plays with and layers them. "Someone bothered to design these things," says Weiser. "I like the idea of giving them new life, of taking them out of context and placing them in another."
Spots that flopped
Making everything in the United States means Skeem can be nimble and can quickly refresh designs that aren't selling. "We don't have to buy a container at a time from China," says Meswani. Weiser recently swapped out a leopard-print Half Pint lid for a flea-market find — an elegant owl painted onto a piece of sheet music.
"Design is what we provide," says Meswani. "It just so happens that candles are what we apply our designs to." They talk about expanding into bedding, housewares, and other categories. "But it would have to make sense. We couldn't just all of a sudden add a pillow line."
If the shoe fits
The scents in their candles and Pure Perfumes come from a perfume company that sends up to 40 options to sniff. The scent is set after about three back-and-forths. "We let them do their job," says Meswani. "Theirs is the perfume, and they're good at it."
The plain-pillar business was huge while Meswani was at Anthropologie, but during the next 10 years, it had trended out. "I felt like nothing had happened in that space, so there was an opportunity," she says. Her instinct was right — the Pure Pillars have been a success.
Small and steady
Meswani and Weiser ignore the pull of "bigger, better, more." They'd rather work with independent U.S. suppliers than deal with the headaches of manufacturing overseas. "We started this company for our quality of life," says Meswani. "All of our decisions come back to that original decision."
Caroline Tiger is a design writer in Philadelphia. Visit her blog at design-phan.com.