Rosanna Bowles bought her first Limoges plate at the age of 5. Fifteen years later, while studying abroad, she fell in love with Perugia, Italy, and the area's handpainted ceramics. By the time she finished school, Rosanna had come up with a career that would incorporate her degrees in art and Italian literature: creating tableware inspired by European art and culture. She even knew something about the business, thanks to parents who ran a small giftware and tableware sales company in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. "I learned a lot by helping them," Rosanna says. "My dad is very shrewd. He's from the Lower East Side of New York and has that savvy—a little aggression, some street smarts, plus humor and high energy. It's a real 'can do' attitude."
Still, she was unprepared for the summer day in 1982 when a 20-foot shipping container filled with Italian ceramics pulled up to her Seattle home. The delivery was the first for Rosanna's new tableware company, Rosanna Inc., which she'd funded with a $15,000 loan that used her house as collateral. The driver refused to unload his truck. Not his job, he said. Rosanna cried. He caved. "Oh, all right, lady," the driver said, "but don't tell anybody." When he left, Rosanna discovered packing material stuck to every dish. Undaunted, she filled bucket after bucket of water and washed all 30,000 pieces by hand.
In the beginning, Rosanna Inc. operated as a home-based, one-woman enterprise: Rosanna set up at trade shows and oversaw production by herself. As head designer and CEO, she took no salary for the first three years and then paid herself only $300 a month. Her first big break came in 1988, when Pottery Barn placed a $300,000 order. Finally, Rosanna could draw a living wage.
Today, Rosanna Inc. is headquartered in Seattle's stadium district and has 19 employees. The company anticipates $10 million in sales this year and produces more than 40 collections. While the overall look is indisputably feminine, individual tabletop lines range from the Baroque black-and-white damask pattern of Parisian Wallpaper to the clean silhouettes of American Bungalow.
Despite the strength of Rosanna's vision, it hasn't always been smooth sailing. In 1995, the mammoth Federated Department Stores (now Macy's Inc.) told Rosanna they would be placing an order. In anticipation, she stocked up. "Federated did order," Rosanna recalls, "but nowhere near as much as they'd said. It left me seriously overinventoried." Her only recourse was knocking on doors of closeout retailers. She managed to recoup enough of her investment to avert financial collapse, and soon after, another significant Pottery Barn order came in, putting the company solidly back on track. But Rosanna still warns aspiring entrepreneurs to start small: "Getting an order from a big store can be a turning point," she says, "but it's a dance with the devil too; if they don't like the final product and return the whole thing, it can ruin you."
Mexican artisans make the Darjeeling line of recycled glass ($96 for six tumblers or six votives; hurricane shade, $80).
Throughout the business's ups and downs, two consistent payoffs have been the flexibility and family benefits that come from being self-employed. When her first child, Alesandra, now 20, was small, Rosanna could stay home with her when she was sick and take her on business trips to Italy. Rosanna even met her second husband, Mimmo Rosati, through work—he was an Italian supplier and is now the company's CFO. He's the best by-product of her business, she says.
Mimmo's two sons from an earlier marriage have both worked for Rosanna Inc., and 11-year-old Francesca, the daughter Rosanna and Mimmo had together, designed her own line, introduced as part of the company's spring collections. Called "Portrait of a Young Artist," it was inspired by the artwork of the European masters ($30 for four) and mugs ($40 for four).
A percentage of sales from Francesca's dishes will benefit art programs in Seattle public schools; a share of the proceeds from the new, globally inspired Mondo line goes to Doctors Without Borders; and all of Rosanna Inc.'s new glassware comes from 100 percent recycled materials—namely, old Coke bottles. The company donates its time too, helping to organize benefits for local charities such as Childhaven daycare. "You don't have to be wealthy to give back," Rosanna says, noting that one of her salespeople took two months off to ride cross-country in Bike 4 Sudan. "You can do it in small ways. Philanthropy is not just the province of the very rich."
Fifteen percent of profits from the Mondo collection go to Doctors Without Borders ($50 for six plates or six mugs).
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