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Justin Krielow and Nicholas Williams started WatermarkFixtures in Crowley, Louisiana in 2013 because they saw a void in the fixtures market which included tubs, sinks and faucets. There were not many companies that were making old fashioned cast iron fixtures or unlacquered faucets and Justin and Nicholas were deteremined to bring back these products and create fixtures that reflected history in their design as well as in their manufacturing methods as well. Sterling Vernon of Artisans List had a moment to sit down and talk to Justin about how he and Nicholas turned their idea into a viable and thriving business.
Sterling Vernon: Could you tell us a bit about where you’re from?
Justin Krielow: I am actually from around here, which is Crowley, Louisiana, I'm from Roanoke. It's even smaller than Crowley. Nick Williams, my husband and business partner, is from New Orleans. After college, I moved to Atlanta and did marketing there and then on to New Orleans for the same. And that's when Nick and I met, which was–it’s so hard to believe–but we're going into our 11th year. And we've always run the business together. It works because we have such specifically different skillsets that without my eye and without my design knowledge the sinks couldn't, he wouldn't know what to make and I wouldn't know how to keep the business running. So it really is like the perfect synchronicity. Luckily I had incredible mentors that really helped shape my eye from a super young age. So that was a big and that continued through college. So even though I'm local, I feel like my eye is a little broader.
SV: Who were your mentors
JK: My grandmother was really instrumental in shaping my taste. I have like a million cousins and she, and I had a very, very special bond. She was a porcelain artist and watercolorist which I'm a watercolorist as well. And then beyond that, it was the art department at McNeese State. They were absolutely incredible. They still are. And so I always like to give them a shout out anytime I'm in some sort of media, because traditional design school goes about it in a different way than art school does. And I feel very happy that I ended up going about it through an artist way rather than a designer way. It changes the way that you look at everything. Design can be rigid, whereas art usually isn't. And I think that's why I find a lot of what I see out there a little bit boring. It's time for us to stop designing just for Instagram. (laughs) Can we, as a culture, decide we've moved on and please, can we go on to something else? (more laughs)
SV: How long has WatermarkFixtures been operating?
JK: That's kind of an interesting answer. So Nicholas and I started by flipping houses around 2010. Part of flipping was that he would refinish sinks and tubs. During that process, he started doing it with some antique pieces. I really pressured him. I said, “we have these four models that we cannot keep in stock.” I said, “what if we were to have them made?” That was around 2013, I think. That's when we made the switch from from selling recycled and refinished antiques to having the products made ourselves.
SV: That's interesting. So you saw the demand and you knew that there would be enough customers to justify making more of the products? JK: Absolutely. And I always like to point out that we have been successful, but it's been because of a very specific triad of luck, hard work, and timing People always want to leave out the luck part. We were in the right place at the right time - the farmhouse boom had started. Joanna Gaines was still in Texas hating whatever town she lives in. (laughs) You know, she wasn't even on television yet so we were in the right place at the right time. And I always like to bring that up because without that timing, he'd still be refinishing sinks.
SV: Could you tell us a little more about your product line in terms of what you specialize in and where your focal point is?
JK: When we started this, nobody was really painting the exterior of clawfoot tubs as a trend. I think what forms the core of our product is the personalization aspect. You can get super custom down to the color of your tub feet versus with the actual tub itself. We offer the exposed basins and great colors. We actually just launched something yesterday, which are color blocked sinks that I am obsessed with. Our product line is antique-inspired but brought up to modern plumbing standard. And it's all about customization. We follow what our customers want. For instance, we offer an ever-growing range of un-lacquered brass faucets. Because you can't find those anymore. You may be able to special order them, but it's going to be like a nine-month wait. We stock them and can have them shipped out within a business day.
SV: : Un-lacquered brass? Is it just straight metal brass and then it acquires the patina over time?
JK: Absolutely. We also offer “pre-patina’d” where I actually go through–I call it “doing science”…and the first time I almost burned my face off–but basically I actually can age them so that they look like they've come from a vessel from the bottom of the sea. Those are extremely popular.
SV: That makes sense because there's a high copper content in brass, right? It's that kind of greenish patina?
JK: Exactly! It’s called “verdigris.” [Ed: Verdigris is the common name for a green pigment obtained through the application of acetic acid to copper or the natural patina formed when copper, brass or bronze is weathered and exposed to air or seawater over time. It is usually a basic copper carbonate, but near the sea will be a basic copper chloride.] So that’s a little bit about our line.
SV: Was the choice of Louisiana because of your base and your family and because you're both from here?
JK: Yes. We were living in New Orleans the first year we were together and the longer we lived there the more we started looking around and were shocked by how affordable real estate was in this area. It's close to home and, for a business just getting off the ground, we found these great houses that we were able to flip. That's what brought us here. We have a wonderful support base here. So I feel very blessed.
SV: Were you into the reclaimed furniture and the antique furniture as well?
JK: Yes, that was me 100% when it started. Now I have this incredible carpenter that I work with here, Erin. She is brilliant with wood. I'll pull these resource books from the 1800’s and get with her. When we work on something together, it's fascinating to see how it turns out. But the reclaimed wood was just something that happened very organically. I think we just had somebody on staff that could do it and asked “What do you think about this?” For the day to day, Erin and I are largely the ones that do the reclaimed.
SV: How many people work in the business right now?
JK: We’re up to eight people. And we're 100% minority, which is kind of rad, I think. We are a minority-owned company.
SV: What types of background prepared you for this? You mentioned that you come from an art and design background. What was Nick’s background?
JK: Before Nick and I got together, he was in consulting for document management and software and he went all over the world. He's always had a very entrepreneurial spirit. And he had started and sold several businesses by the time he and I had gotten together. It's what he loves to do.
SV: In terms of designers that inspire you and things that you look at, what are your sources of inspiration?
JK: What I follow most is fashion. My first love is fashion. Of course there are great artists, visual artists that inspire me a lot. You can tell by my artisan finishes–they’re all from one specific painting, the color ways of it–but for the most part I follow fashion and I think I have a good eye for what's next. And then I do a little self-analysis to ask, “does this feel authentic and organic to us and our brand?” A good example is recently in a lot of the matte porcelain sinks, the colors are kind of starting to pop up on Instagram. I was this close to ordering some when I stopped and asked, “does this feel like us?” And it didn’t. We have a very specific voice. When it comes to who I look up to…Phoebe Philo when she was with Celine. Like everyone else, Allesandro Michelle for Gucci is a huge inspiration. In fact, the Lilly pull-down sink that we have, that was when I was having like an Alessandro Michelle for Gucci moment because it felt so elaborate and maximalist, which is frankly just what my vibe is, always. Luckily it’s just back in style. That's where my inspiration comes from. As much as I love Architectural Digest, I feel like if I look at something enough, then my brain will start to say, “this is good” because I keep seeing it and then I start to design the product backwards rather than the way that feels most authentic.
SV: Tell us a little bit about the manufacturing process - how these products really come to be. Are you manufacturing them in-house? Do you work with a foundry? These are big products, it's a lot of metal, yes?
JK: Yeah. The answer is “all of the above.” We have manufacturers around the world. Our reclaimed wood is built here in the U.S. One project I'm super-excited about that we have coming up is an all-in-one tucked-away vanity. It basically looks like an armoire. But when you open it, there is a mirror, light and a sink in it. It could be a great wet bar. It’s all made here in-house Erin and I work on it together and figure it out and we have a great team that builds it.
SV: A hard question: which is your favorite product so far?
JK: Oh, that's hard. I want to say the Lilly because of the fact that making it took so many prototypes with foundries, that I absolutely love it. That's likely because it’s the product I have the most personally invested in. It was my baby and I willed it to be made. I worked with three factories before I found one that could do it. After that, my favorite is the artisan finishes. So like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations–I’m just obsessed with her–I really, really, really love working on those. And that's, that's probably my favorite thing. When I get to the warehouse and I see that one of those tubs or sinks is sold, I'm super-stoked because that's what I'm going to be spending that day doing. I might be singing Taylor Swift very loudly and I’m not a great singer, so it's probably not the best for everyone else in the warehouse that day, but it's a great day for me.
SV: What product are you hoping to be able to bring to market that you haven't been able to do yet? What product is aspirational for you?
JK: Oh, that's what I was describing earlier - the enclosed vanity. We have a prototype of it and that is super cool because the panels inside the doors can be changed out, the sink can be changed, the lighting, the mirror. It has something like 13 points of customization. That is what I am most excited about for this year. I really liked the idea of being able to hide away a little sink and this achieves that in a very elegant manner.
SV: You mentioned customization a few times, and customization didn't jump out at me as sort of one of the main advantages of your brand and your business so far. Are you changing entire finishes? Are you changing materials? What points of customization are you referring to?
JK: We are in the process of rebranding for a year now. On some products you can change the exterior basin color and the faucet because that was always the trouble that we ran into. Buyers always ask about changing things. You can change the exterior color of the sink basin, the exterior paint of the tubs, gold and silver leafing, and the artisan series finish. For that finish, I literally age it by hand as if it was going to happen organically. I use dirt whenever I'm doing that. I use grout Just things that are everywhere. Sometimes just pouring straight thinner. It almost feels like I'm doing like a Jackson Pollock thing, just better looking. Those are a few of the ways of customization.
SV: Are there any historical sources you pull from? You're dealing with an almost antique furniture style, in a way, but bringing it up to date. You mentioned using 18th century source books as a reference. Is that one of your design inputs?
JK: Absolutely. I'm constantly antiquing and grabbing books left and right. Whether or not it feels relevant at the time. One of the most recent finds was a book called Victoriana from the seventies. It inspired a piece I'm not ready to talk about yet. I love antique advertisements. That's kind of a big one as well. I think our consumption of objects is so fascinating from a social study perspective. It's like we have these totems that also act as signifiers without saying something and there is something very interesting in that. I do like looking at how those items are changed throughout history. What's funny is that these publications would always be called “the modern bathroom.” And then you look at the year - it's 1829 - but it was always “the modern bathroom.” I absolutely love that because they're also advertising new, amazing lead paint! I feel like are so difficult to birth either through sourcing issues or whatever, that we'll always have a special place in my heart. Sometimes the consumers love it, sometimes they don’t. And that's okay.
SV: How does it feel when you see your pieces in people's houses and in different locations?
JK: It makes me so excited. I love it. I absolutely love it. That is my favorite Instagram ping to get is when I've been tagged in a photo. That is my favorite. What's interesting is that people will come up with uses for our items that I would have never thought of. Five years ago I had a designer in Canada that bought a 42 inch single basin, single drain board and used it as a bath sink. I thought it was brilliant. Since then, that's something I've kind of incorporated. So I love actually seeing the items in homes. It's very, very exciting. Definitely. And it does feel like it changes the context completely.
SV: Thinking about maintaining your products and the porcelain enamel - any thoughts on that front?
JK: Yes. Very strong thoughts. And I never would have thought that I had so many strong opinions on plumbing! So number one: stop using bleach. Do something with it that's not porcelain related. In porcelain, you have pores like in your skin, Bleach opens the pores of the porcelain. It looks fabulous the first day. But after two years, there's a brown spot because the pores of the porcelain have been open so many times that it becomes essentially a sponge. Use a cleaner that's a super soft. It doesn't have to be high-end. Simple Green is a great one When it comes to copper and brass, just give it a light wipe down so that patina continues to develop.
SV: That's interesting. Porcelain is supposed to be a very hard material, isn’t it?
JK: It absolutely is. But bleach is a chemical exposure. Every time that you use it, you are wearing down a very tiny layer of the surface. It’s like polishing silver or brass - every time you do that, you're taking your way at just a little bit of the top layer. That's the same thing with porcelain. You're using a corrosive.
SV: Are there any design tips or general guiding principles that you would want to share with folks when they're looking for the right sink for them?
JK: Powder rooms and smaller bathrooms have always been a thing, especially when I was living in Atlanta and New Orleans. You don't have a ton of space. The number one thing for me is to show as much of that floor as possible. That's number one. Number two is scale. So many bathrooms are ruined because it's a giant American bath room and a tiny sink or vice versa. My third would be ignore Marie Kondo - we can always have more. Ha ha. What sparks joy with me is shopping. Ignore Marie Kondo! Number four is - let me sell you an amazing sink!