Maker: Creek and Johnny of Compass Rose Design
Creek’s upbringing sounds like the perfect mix of outdoor and art, and I’m the first to admit that I’m a little jealous. The business that she and her husband Johnny have established is built on her past experiences growing up. Meet Creek and Johnny of Compass Rose Design and go check out their amazing handmade skills!
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Creek Van Houten. I grew up on the Peninsula south of San Francisco. My dad built our house and I did a lot of exploring in the woods. I run Compass Rose Design with my husband, Johnny, who grew up in Morgan Hill. We are in our 6th year of business. Our materials are the artifacts of daily life – collected during our travels and collected in Europe and throughout the United States.
What do you make or do?
I make jewelry out of antique artifacts – bits of daily life left over, nearly forgotten. Since I was really young, like 6, I used to LOVE going to the rummage sale at the church across the street from my elementary school. Each room had a theme, and I would wander through the rooms, sifting through stuffed animals, costume jewelry, scarves and old dresses, seeking treasures in search of a home. This is still the feeling and sixth sense I use to find antique treasures for our company today. One of our favorite annual trips is to the National Button Society conference. It’s a group of several hundred button collectors, who are really historians, all over the age of 60, plus my husband Johnny and me. Once someone actually exclaimed “Oh, look! Young people!.”
Where can we find your creations?
You can find our things on our website, facebook or etsy shop. Follow us on instagram or read about our daily life on the blog.
How long have you been creating and is it your full-time job?
I went to graduate school in Amsterdam in 2006. I was basically fleeing burn-out in the environmental nonprofit sector and found a one year business school program. My mom was born in the Netherlands and emigrated in 1953, so I still have family in Holland. When I returned in 2008, the economy was in a crunch and I felt lost. I started making button jewelry as a creative outlet, started an etsy shop, and quit my day job. Well, it took a lot of planning, some fear and about 2 years to make the transition. In the third year of the company, Johnny quit his day job too and we’ve been full time makers ever since.
When you’re not making things, what do you do?
This was a big year for us outside the jewelry project. We had a baby girl last June and Phoebe has kept us very busy. Though we love the idea of being a family company, we’re ready to support whatever inclinations we have. Our 8 year old nephew has already mastered working with pliers and is working on learning wire work and beading. He and his little brother love to “help” sort buttons and trinkets. Last week, we talked about what a big role planning has in the creative process. He was only slightly annoyed at taking the time to think about his design, and then was thrilled with the outcome.
We also have a big garden with blueberry bushes, pineapple guava, lots of citrus and a fig tree. We hope to have time to can salsa again this summer – but that might be wishful thinking.
Is creativity a luxury or a necessity for you?
It’s both. As our livelihood, we have to take the business seriously. It’s easy to say – “wow, you get to do what you love!” Yes, we love what we do, we love working in an independent company. I think it’s about 15% making, 50% administration, 20% events, 10% social media and 5% panic. You have to like all the pieces. I don’t love accounting, but I have the skill, the necessity and find it satisfying. Events are TIRING. They can be wonderful but are always exhausting. You have to love connecting with people.
What obstacles have you had to overcome to lead a creative life?
The changing landscape online has been a challenge. There was a moment where Etsy was a respected handmade marketplace. As the number of sellers has exploded and the integrity of the site has degraded, small handmade business’s have to compete with everyone else through social media and driving people to our own websites. Successful makers have to become skilled in many things like SEO, or figure out when to delegate in ways that make sense for your bottom line.
Seasonal variation in retail can also be a significant obstacle and there are certainly lifestyle trade offs. We won’t be vacationing at any fancy resorts in any tropical locations any time soon, but we love road trips. So, driving to Portland or Austin for an event, and visiting antique shops, museums and national parks along the way, well, that’s our cup of tea.
Did someone in your family, a friend or teacher introduce you to your creative side or have they helped you along the way?
Another big influence in my creativity was my parents. My dad was a dentist, as was his father, and they both made jewelry in their spare time with gold from the fillings from pulled teeth. Both my parents encouraged curiosity in how things work. This usually meant they let me take something apart. I took apart several stereos, watches, clocks, broken electric typewriters and made treasures of the bits they held within.
My mom and her dad were gifted sales people and simply loved talking and connecting. My Opa sold Dutch cocoa – he did a lot of trading with cocoa to get extra food on the side to survive WWII, and he was beloved by his clients. I think I inherited this love of connecting with people that has been really helpful. We do quite a bit of custom work for people with their heirloom pieces, and while sometimes it’s stressful to work with heirlooms, it’s the most rewarding feeling. We just did a piece for someone who had her mother’s watch in a drawer for the last 30 years. Now it’s a necklace she wears every day.