Living The Dream: Talking With Cathy Steinberg
By Karen and Erica
Cathy is one of the few people we know who founded a global business empire.
It all started in the 1980s, when she went on a trip around the world, and fell in love with Bali. There she discovered padan, a natural fibre that could be woven into beautiful objects. She began working with local artisans, producing richly colored boxes. The business grew. As her product list diversified, Cathy founded a factory in Java that still employs over three hundred skilled crafts people and support personnel. Her company, Via Motif, now creates hundreds of elegant objects, including furniture, lighting, bar and dining accessories, baskets and other items, using loomed textiles, wood, hand cast resin and lacquer. Its principal customers are the world's best hotels.
In addition to being a pathbreaking businesswoman, Cathy is one of the most elegant people we know. She always looks glamorous, and comfortable. She wears fabulous jewelry. And fabulous shoes. And a ready smile. Her apartments are amazing jewelboxes, full of color and art.
Cathy just sold her business. We are curious about how she did all of this, and about what's next. We asked her a few questions:
How did you come to found your business?
I trained as an architect. Then, in my mid-twenties I took a year off of work to travel around Asia. I ended up in Indonesia. I realized I did not want to return to an office job as a junior architect in California. I loved Bali, so I began working with groups of artisans there, designing hand-crafted products. I decided to make the venture into a business. For a couple of years, I traveled between Bali and Tokyo, working with Japanese retailers and distributors. Eventually, I founded a factory in Java and a sales office in California. My company, Via Motif, found a niche in designing and manufacturing interior design accessories for luxury hotels.
While I worked I traveled constantly, as the corporate side of the company was based in Paris and San Francisco, later Miami, while operations were in Java. My business was complicated, pressured and successful. I loved all of it: the creative aspects, the business aspects and the independence. I never worked for anyone else.
How did you build a global customer base?
We started by exhibiting in international trade shows, in Paris, London, Germany and Dubai. For a few years we had a showroom and retail store in Paris. That presence helped us to develop an internationally recognized brand. From that point we began to work with hospitality designers and hotel brands around the world.
Why did you decide to sell the business?
After almost thirty years, I felt ready to move on to a new chapter. But it was not easy, either to part with the business or to find someone who could run it.
What do you want to do now?
I am still consulting with the new owner for two more months. Once I have fulfilled this obligation, I would like to take a step back and consider my next move. My husband and I may start a business combining real estate investment with interior design. I will surely engage in some kind of work, and it will surely involve design. I like traveling and relaxing, but I need to do more than that.
When you look back, what makes you laugh?
Some of the naive and crazy experiences that I had early on--trying to work with companies in Tokyo in the eighties even though I had no knowledge of the Japanese language or culture. Running a factory in a very remote town in Indonesia where there were only a few foreigners out of a population of 2 million. It was pretty crazy.
How important is financial independence to you?
Critical. I cannot imagine being dependent on anyone else. As an adult I have never taken orders from anyone else and I never plan to.
What was your favorite work outfit? Do you dress differently now?
For a long time I have worn Issey Miyake jumpsuits. I dress the same now. The jumpsuits are beautifully crafted and colored, and go everywhere. And they pack easily, which is important since I still travel constantly.
Do you consider yourself old?
No! Not even when I am asked for my birthdate. I just realize I am no longer in my mid-twenties.