A Life by Design

PROFILE-May 2009

by Stephen Abbott
Photography Irvin Serrano

For those who follow lifestyle design, the Angela Adams story is now well known:

Spunky, towheaded girl prone to doodling is raised by lobstering family on the remote Maine island of North Haven. Driven by lofty but unfocused artistic ambitions, enrolls at the Art Institute of Philadelphia to study interior design. Wanders back home after college and works for prominent Maine painter Eric Hopkins; learns the business of selling art. Launches entrepreneurial career by cobbling together a succession of odd jobs painting stylized, organic patterns on objects, furniture, and homes. Meets fledgling furniture designer Sherwood Hamill; falls in love. Inspired by rug samples in the office of a local interior designer, realizes that area rugs could be the ideal vehicle for her patterns. With Hamill, cofounds Angela Adams, LLC, in 1997. First rug and furniture collection is introduced at Chicago Design Show; international press follows, catapulting the designer to near-instant stardom. Company grows and diversifies rapidly, licensing deals are struck, and a working studio and retail store are opened in the old Tommy’s Hardware building on Congress Street in Portland. Following a spate of awards and product placements, Angela Adams becomes one of the most recognizable brands in lifestyle accessories and home furnishings.

This is the Angela Adams story. But it’s only half the story.

Behind the vibrant patterns, the thriving business, and the worldwide acclaim is a couple who set out to build their lives together. They named their products after family, friends, and pets. When they needed catalog models, they used relatives, employees, and their children. They featured their designs alongside the real-life images that inspired them: the textures of the ocean floor, churning sea foam, the swirling strata of coastal rock. They sought to connect their lives to the designs they created, and they designed a company that afforded them a life of their own creation.

When asked what drives the business she founded with husband Sherwood Hamill, Angela Adams responds without hesitation: “Our company is about designing a creative lifestyle. It’s about being very conscious about how we want to live and where we want to live and how we want to spend our time. I think it’s really unique that we’ve found each other and we have such a shared vision. We certainly appreciate things in the same ways.”

“A continual driver of our relationship and our business is being able to share the things we love,” adds Hamill. “If I see something beautiful, I always want to show it to Angela.”

“And I often see things and think, ‘Oh, Sherwood would really love that.’ I never would have dreamt that I could work this closely with someone and live with him and share so many passions.”

Like Adams, Hamill was born and raised in Maine. He moved west after high school and lived an outdoorsman’s life in Wyoming for several years before enrolling at Red Rocks Community College in Colorado to study solar design and engineering. When he returned home in 1982, he set out to apply his education but found that the demand for alternative energy was at a low ebb. As a consummate jack-of-all-trades, however, he adapted easily and made his way into energy-efficient construction before eventually finding his calling as a furniture designer. By the late 1980s, Hamill was making a name for himself and earning a living as a furniture maker. Things were going pretty well. Then he met his match.

In 1992, after being introduced through a mutual friend, Adams and Hamill met at a restaurant in Portland’s Old Port to exchange portfolios. It was a casual business meeting whose life-changing repercussions neither one of them could have anticipated. “I was looking for someone to build furniture I could paint, and I had heard that Sherwood was a furniture designer. I was really interested in what he was doing, and I think he was interested in what I was doing,” Adams says with a laugh.
“I loved her sketches. I looked at her portfolio and I was just Wow. I thought she was very talented,” says Hamill.

“And I thought he was, too,” Adams responds. “From that moment on, we pretty much didn’t look back. That was it—we started to put it all together from there. We both realized that this is what we wanted to do with our lives. And even though we didn’t have any idea how we were going to do it, we knew that we didn’t want to work for other people.”

“Nobody had the jobs we wanted,” says Hamill, “so we set out to create our own jobs.”

As it turned out, the timing was fortuitous. Adams and Hamill began showing their work side-by-side at trade shows. Angela brought salesmanship and conceptual vision, Hamill practicality and keen sense for business. And it worked. By the time they launched Angela Adams, the Internet was revolutionizing the way modern business was done. Suddenly, it was no longer necessary to live in New York City to be a successful designer; it was possible to build a global enterprise from the rural outpost of Maine.

Like music, design is a lingua franca, a common tongue that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. We understand it intuitively, viscerally, immediately. After a decade in business, it’s apparent that Angela Adams designs not only resonate with people, but they speak to a new generation of consumers who have grown weary of mass-produced, throwaway goods, and who are looking to outfit their lives with products of quality, beauty, and lasting durability. “We want people to love our designs and hand them down and live with them for generations, to appreciate the craftsmanship and inspiration, and to see them as meaningful and soulful, not disposable,” says Adams. But without the right business model, the world may never have seen their soulful designs, and without their partnership, the business might not have come together.

“Designing and building furniture came pretty easy for me,” says Hamill. “But selling was a whole different thing. Angela was amazing at helping me sell my furniture.”

“We worked on parallel paths for a while and then merged them as one,” says Adams. “There were times when it was Angela Adams and furniture by Sherwood Hamill, but it just got clunky. We decided to keep it focused and organize ourselves under one umbrella. We could have gone with Sherwood Hamill or with Angela Adams.”

Here Hamill interjects: “Angela Adams is nicer.”

“I don’t think so!” responds Adams. “We went with Angela Adams to keep it simple, and it’s working out. But one of the things that’s always been frustrating for me is that Sherwood hasn’t had the recognition for his role in the business or what he’s done as a designer because it’s fallen under Angela Adams. Because my name is on the awning over the store, I get more credit than I deserve.”

“That’s okay with me,” Sherwood says with a wide smile.

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