The Minis: Laura Cornman, Owner of SETTLEWELL - Long Beach
Hi Laura! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in the Midwest (Wheaton, Illinois) with my parents and older brother.
During my first several years of College I studied Communications. But I missed the art studies I had pursued in high school, so I enrolled in several figure studies and painting classes at the Art Institute to Chicago. The classes there reignited my passion for art, so I transferred to Biola University in Southern California, and I graduated with a BFA in 2010.
My time in Biola’s Art Department was incredibly life-giving. Suddenly surrounded by amazingly talented professors and classmates, my creative nature thrived and I wanted to try everything! I started in painting and drawing and was then drawn into the beauty and order of typography and graphic design as a communicative discipline. Finally, after spending time in the woodshop for a 3D Class, I took a part-time student job as a woodshop tech and fell deeply in love with woodworking.
To me, working with wood was a perfect intersection of all the disciplines I had already pursued – a sort of drawing or painting in three dimensions – with the same order, geometry, and importance of layout, proportion and communicative properties as typography and graphic design.
I found indescribable beauty and joy in learning a craft that held form, function, design and meaning in such delicate balance. While Biola had no real woodworking major and no specific woodworking classes, I was fortunate to have supportive professors who encouraged me, challenged me and provided me with the creative freedom to explore woodworking as design, sculpture, and my medium of choice in most of my classes, a truly interdisciplinary education in art.
What led you to begin SETTLEWELL?
After college, I worked on my own for a time as a fine woodworker doing custom and commissioned work. But realizing that I needed to pay off my student loans, I took a full-time job working for a large industrial supplier. I kept a woodshop with several friends where I spent most of my nights and weekends, dreaming of starting a business, but lacking the vision and discipline to make it a reality. Eventually the shop disbanded and I no longer had a place to work out my creative energy.
Without a shop, I spent my free time in a wide range of creative disciplines. I taught myself to weave a sisal rug, then crocheted hats, painted self-portraits, and finally sewed duffel bags. I was learning to be content and joyful in the conscious practice of discipline.
I was working out the idea that while I no longer had the space or tools to practice woodworking, what I was doing wasn’t settling and it wasn’t giving up on a dream. It was the choice to be content with the space, time, tools and creativity that were available to me, doing the most with what I already had. The phrase rolling through my head was, “The joy of discipline and the discipline of joy.” I decided to give myself the space to reimagine what kind creative discipline and ultimately, what kind of business I would funnel my creativity into.
I decided that whatever it was, I would call it SETTLEWELL - a sort of made-up action verb and directive by which I was choosing to live my life. As far back as I can remember I was always deeply inspired by the stories of settlers and pioneers, families that headed west and started from scratch. These were brave men and women who picked a space to settle and used whatever was available to make tools, build homes, and create the life they wanted rather than expecting it to be waiting for them when they got there. They knew it would be hard, but they also held the hope that it would be worth it.
SETTLEWELL is about choosing NOT to settle. Settling would be giving up on the dream and concluding that I can’t be creative without a shop, or assuming that since I don’t have time or money, I can’t start a business. To settle well is to be a settler in my home, in my work and in my life. I want to hold the dream more loosely and openly, and look with creativity at the present reality, taking what I do have and doing my absolute best with it.
Why do you choose to work with concrete to make your pieces?
During this period of honing my creative vision, my boyfriend (who does commercial and residential remodels and fine woodworking) was making concrete countertops, and pouring large-scale monolithic concrete projects for several clients. As a birthday surprise, he made me a coffee table with a beautiful polished concrete top that was only about 1.5” thick. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!
It had never occurred to me that this standard and incredibly common building material could be used to make something so refined, lovely and functional.
That moment was a lot like my sudden appreciation and affection for woodworking. It’s like when a translator takes a language you don’t understand and puts it in your own language.
To think that concrete – crushed lime and aggregate – could, with time and effort and creativity be used in a totally new and different way, started my creative wheels turning.
I immediately thought of Fiestaware - the multi-colored glazed dinnerware that was popular in the late 30’s and then again in the late 80’s. I wondered if I could use concrete to make dinnerware and tableware, classic and standard homeware items, in a range of grays, just as thin, contoured and delicate as any ceramic or glass tableware.
I mentioned this idea to my boyfriend while holding a dinner plate, but he replied that concrete couldn’t be poured that thin without cracking or crumbling. As a creative, all I need is for someone to tell me that what I’m imagining is impossible and I won’t stop until I’ve proven that I can do it!
I began researching the history and properties of concrete. I bought every pre-mix I could find at my local home store. I sacrificed my kitchen colander and tried sifting aggregate out of mixes. I bought Portland Cement and all kinds of sands and even blasting materials to make my own mixes. I spent almost a year taking notes on the mixes I tried, analyzing the temperature, the humidity, the amount of water, the cure time and the results.
I failed over and over and over. Then, after finally finding a polymer mold material and a strong architectural concrete mix, I demolded my very first successful dinner plate. And that was the turning point. I knew I was on to something and I kept at it. I love a challenge.
Could you walk us through your creation process?
My creation process has a lot to do with necessity and routine. Around the same time that I made my first successful molds, I bought a ton of plants for my house. Looking around, I realized that the standard terra cotta pots I had used made my spaces feel cluttered and mysteriously smaller. I set out on a serious search for white and gray pots, without glaze or pattern – just totally standard, regular pots. I couldn’t find what I was looking for anywhere. And then it dawned on me, I could make them!
So I started making my Classic Concrete Pots. Eventually I decided to put my woodworking background to use in the process, carving and hand shaping. I poured rough plaster shapes and started carving and shaping what are now my Concrete Bowls and my Straight Sided Concrete Pots. When designing three-dimensionally, I’ve never been one to draw or plan. Instead I prefer to hold a thing, turn it over, sit with it, and get an understanding for what it feels like in relationship to my other pieces, and in my spaces - to see what I like and don’t like.
When it comes to my daily creative process I am all about discipline and routine. I do the same basic things in the same ways at the same times in almost perfect repetition. For a long time, I thought that meant that I wasn’t an artist or that I wasn’t being creative and that craft must be separate from art. I always had this idea that real artists work organically, passionately and a little bit erratically.
I think Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit” helped inspire me to accept and give myself permission to embrace my natural leaning toward the order and routine of disciplined creative practice. Flowing out of that, I think that starting SETTLEWELL and leaning wholeheartedly into my practice of discipline and routine has helped me to embrace and accept my own natural aesthetic of visual order. I’ll never be able to create or produce free form and fully organic pieces like so many of the artists that I admire, but I think that’s okay.
Is SETTLEWELL your full time gig? If so, was there a transitional process to get there? If not, how do you balance your work?
It is now! And it was a massive transition for me. I spent six years working for a major industrial supplier. It wasn’t glamorous and had nothing to do with my college degree, I wore steel-toed boots, lifted tens of thousands of pounds a day, and my hands were almost constantly black with grease, but I really truly loved it. It was an amazing amount of physical labor, and demanded extreme attention to detail, but I left work every day with an extraordinary sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, knowing that I couldn’t possibly have worked any harder.
It was my first real full-time job and in a lot of ways I believe that job helped me grow up, and taught me discipline, duty and routine. For the first year of SETTLEWELL, I did both jobs. I would wake up at5:30am to pour concrete in the back of my kitchen, eat breakfast, pour again, shower and leave for work at 8:30am. I handled emails and invoicing on my breaks and spent my commute time strategizing and thinking through exactly what I needed to do when I got home that night and the next morning.
When I got home around 8pm I would shower, make dinner, do the dishes, and then pour or pack and ship orders. It was a lot of work, but it felt invigorating and exciting. It felt like I was firing on all cylinders, doing the absolute most and best that I could with everything I had; space, time, resources, mental capacity, energy, etc. I knew that it wasn’t indefinitely sustainable but I also knew that if SETTLEWELL was going to be successful, it was crucial for me to wait until I literally couldn’t do both anymore.
Starting a business is exciting and scary, and it would be easy to be overtaken by doubts. What if it’s not profitable? What if I don’t have a clear idea of my target market? What if I can’t run this business well AND pay my bills? If I quit my job and have more time... then will all the pieces fall into place?
Working at both my full-time job and SETTLEWELL for that first year gave me the freedom financially and emotionally to risk launching the business. I released my product ideas to the world to gauge response without the pressure or fear that if it didn’t work, or if people didn’t get it or like what I was doing, that I’d be sunk and probably broke.
That season of pushing hard in both directions – maintaining excellence and focus at work, and using all my available time and space outside of work to grow my business – was a real gift. I had to choose to learn discipline and how to be really clear on my priorities.
Almost exactly one year after launching SETTLEWELL, the time came for me to quit my day job. I had set a goal for how much I needed in savings and I had reached it. I had finally stretched as far as I possibly could and I could see the breaking point coming.
I carried my resignation letter back and forth with me to work in my lunch box for about three weeks. Finally, I summoned all my courage and scheduled a time to meet with my supervisor. I thought I would feel relieved, but I actually felt ill.
I kept wondering if I had made a huge mistake. When my last day came, I handed in my key card, said my goodbyes, drove home and stood in the center of my house in silence and cried. I think I said aloud, “Why did I do that? I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
That was eight months ago, and even though I still miss that job at times, I can now say with absolute certainty that it was the right decision and the right time. It took me about 4 months to find a new rhythm and to restructure my routines. I think a major turning point came when I maxed out the space I had to work in my home. I had filled every room, every shelf, every corner with inventory and packing supplies. I ran out of counter space in my kitchen for drying and sealing pieces and I was pouring so much concrete in my kitchen that it became impossible to make a meal.
Finally, about four months after quitting my job, I moved SETTLEWELL out of my home and into a shop and found the balance and routines that I’d been missing. I still wake up early between 5:30am and 6:00am every morning. My morning routine is sacred to me, a non-negotiable. I make tea and toast. I have a quiet time and read, and I spend time praying and then setting my intentions for the day. I make my bed, shower and leave for work. I don’t look at Instagram or my email until after I’ve completed the routine. That practice has deeply influenced the way I start work each day with a spirit of joy and gratitude rather than feeling constantly behind or overwhelmed.
What are some of your favorite places in Long Beach?
I’ve lived in my current house for the last seven years and have come to really love my neighborhood. I’m just about a block away from Retro Row on 4th Street and a couple blocks from Bluff Park which overlooks the ocean and has the best, most quintessentially-Californian sunset views in Long Beach. I love going on walks or bike rides down near the beach in the evening. My favorite Restaurants are Number Nine on Retro Row, Restauration on 4th Street, and Working Class Kitchen off Anaheim. Port LBC on Retro Row and Prism Boutique on East 4th Street are my favorite shops for inspiration.
Find Laura at: