Bryn Mawr designer wins national acclaim for garden tools

With a creative background such as Sotera Tschetter’s — designing music video sets and helping create the infamous symbol for The Artist Formerly Known as Prince — her success as a garden product designer and entrepreneur hasn’t surprised those who know her.

Tschetter’s business partner describes her as a "ball of energy" with ideas sprouting daily. Her garden products have appeared on the "Oprah" TV show and caught the eye of national and local retailers.

Her classic wrought-iron creations, whether a sculpted iron fence or an elegant iron garden planter pot-holder, look like something found in a manicured English country garden. Just a stroll through Tschetter’s retail store feels like an "Alice in Wonderland" experience, with beautiful flowers and surprising garden ornaments at every turn.

"Her design-sense — the whole English look — is fabulous. There’s not an ugly item. The stuff is not only really well made, but hard to find," said Peggy Poor, owner of Uncommon Gardens, 5750 Lyndale Ave.

Complex enterprises

Since leaving music videos, Tschetter has developed two successful garden-product design businesses in nine years.

She started Bloomsbury Market, a Bryn Mawr retail shop at 403 S. Cedar Lake Rd., in 1995. From there, she developed a sideline doing custom design and a line of garden products exclusively for national retailer Smith & Hawken, which has local stores in St. Paul and Edina.

Her second business, started last year, is a wholesale company called Head Gardener Collection, where she designs products for retail garden shops such as Uncommon Gardens and Tangletown Gardens, 5353 Nicollet Ave. S. Tschetter runs both businesses with co-owner Linda Beauvais.

Tschetter said her business success is great, but designing is a tough industry; she said keeping her designs protected from mass retailers who might copy them is time-consuming and hurts her bottom line.

Developing designs

To develop her designs, Tschetter said she combines research and travel.

An avid collector of antique trade catalogs dating back to the 1700s — some going for between $3,000 and $4,000 — Tschetter said she gets a lot of inspiration by perusing the catalogs.

"We try to reintroduce old ideas with new manufacturing techniques," she said. "The traditional style is very popular with gardeners."

Tschetter said she also travels, mostly to French and English gardens, to help spur new ideas. She said she blends old concepts with new forms for a more modern, but still traditional, look.

Uncommon Garden owner Poor said Tschetter’s classic designs are extremely popular, especially her iron window boxes that sell for approximately $163 to $224, including liners. Poor said the design is reminiscent of boxes on old houses.

She said some of Tschetter’s iron products are more expensive than others sold at the store, but she added the quality and workmanship justify the price.

Hey, I made that!

Tschetter, who rarely works in her retail store, said because so much work goes into her designs, it’s very frustrating when, she claims, a larger retail store knocks off her design and undercuts her price.

"Sometimes when I walk into a [competitor’s] store and see my [copied] product, it’s a disappointment in sales, but also the amount of effort I put into the legal work," she said.

Tschetter said she has two lawsuits pending with large national retail and catalog chains. One is with Gardener’s Eden (a Brookstone Company), initiated six months ago. She will soon file one against Restoration Hardware. In both cases, she claims the companies copied her garden trellis and arches designs.

Tschetter said she’s only seeking monetary damages for lost sales. She said no amount is specified in the suits; an audit is necessary to determine alleged damages.

Representatives from both Gardeners Eden and Restoration Hardware said they have no record of the lawsuits, however, Brookstone’s Director of Public Relations, Robert Padgett said they did receive a letter from Tschetter’s company and are investigating her claims.

She said she often receives suspicious calls from large competitors, asking for one of each of her products to put into their stores. Tschetter said if she accommodated those requests, she’d be setting herself up to be ripped off. "We’d be nailed," she said. "I make a lot less money if [designs] are picked off."

Tschetter said the revenue loss to other retailers is difficult to pin point, but she estimated it’s in the millions. She said that beyond lost revenue, it costs $20,000 to file a lawsuit to protect her designs.

Hollywood to Bryn Mawr

While she said the business gets complicated, her design spark started in a simpler place — a South Dakota dairy farm.

That’s where Tschetter grew up and had her first encounter with gardening, watching her grandmother, a master gardener.

She learned about forging iron into designs and products in the farm’s metal shop. She said she still makes some of her garden products on the farm, with her father who runs the shop. Tschetter said taxes and labor are cheaper for production that way, although she also has a metal shop in Northeast Minneapolis, and her mass-produced items are made in Poland.

After leaving the farm, she attended college at the University of Minnesota. From there, Tschetter said she moved to Hollywood to work on set design and direct music videos. But she returned to Minneapolis in the late 1980s to work with Prince.

She said video set design was a blast because she got to be creative and invent an environment, but the hours were too demanding.

Tschetter began to sell her product designs when she opened Bloomsbury Market eight years ago, beginning with 150 items. But she said as customer demand grew, so did her business, and she now has designed 400 products.

Beauvais, Tschetter’s business partner, focuses on costs and resources to fulfill Tschetter’s creativity. She began working on graphics for Tschetter’s first catalogue and was lured into a bigger role. "I run the business part of the business," Beauvais said.

Beauvais said Tschetter’s Bryn Mawr store has helped revitalize the area, especially since the former garage is a prominent shop space. "It’s not just an eyesore anymore, and that was Sotera’s idea," Beauvais said. " She envisioned it being a gem."

"She sees things all the time that most of us don’t see," Beauvais said. "It’s her genius that she’s creative."

To check out Tschetter’s Bloomsbury designs, go to www.bloomsburymkt.com.