At Work: Yao Cheng Design’s Downtown Creative Studio

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You may have seen Yao Cheng, Founder, Artist, and Designer of Yao Cheng Design, set up at West Elm recently to sell her goods for the holidays; maybe you noticed her listed as a speaker for the upcoming Midwest Craft Con, or maybe you have been participating in the monthly creative meetup Rise and Design that she started this year with Danielle Evans of Marmalade Bleue. There is no denying that Cheng is a busy entrepreneur of a growing business! She moved her growing creative company into a studio space on Gay Street about a year ago and shared a look into her colorful and inspiring place to work.

Prior to moving into a studio space, Cheng worked out of her home for three years.

“I liked not having a commute,” she says, “but now I love that we’re so close to everything! It’s refreshing to come to work everyday in a downtown, energetic environment! I feel like it feeds into my creativity a lot.”

Yao Cheng in her design studio on Gay Street.
Yao Cheng in her design studio on Gay Street.

She was looking for a blank slate to make her creative studio’s home and she found it in a wide open space she is leasing on Gay Street.

“My business needed more room to continue to grow and I was really wanting more natural light in my day-to-day!” she says. The large windows that look onto Gay Street provide all the natural light she needs along with energizing views. At 1500 square feet, the amount of space is adequate for all the different tasks and projects happening at the studio.

Cheng has the wide open space set up into different areas. There is an area anchored by a neutral gray couch, coffee table and shelves lined with plants (orchids, succulents, dracaena, and other plants with organic shapes) housed in colorful pots “to help inspire ideas or to take a snooze break.” Workspaces mostly look onto the street. A community table provides space to meet with clients and take product photoshoots. A separate room is designated for packaging materials to fulfill online sales. A kitchen and laundry area complete the space.

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Cheng’s own prints and pillows add color to the neutral couch while plant of all shapes add interest along the window.

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“I can’t live without my painting desk I found at West Elm!” says Cheng. “This was one of my first purchases in the business, and all of the dents and painting marks remind me of all the amazing artworks that were created there.”

To inspire customers and clients when they visit the space, Cheng has her colorful art displayed throughout.

“I chose a variety of the work that we have to display, ranging from abstracts to landscapes and conversationals,” says Cheng. “Because my work is very colorful, it was really fun and easy to play with where we would display them. I think the only criteria I had was to have pieces that are warm in color to tie into the warm colors in the rugs.”

Colorful and pattern-filled rugs create interest in the all white floor. Painting the floor from steel gray to white was the only real change Cheng made to the space.

Sources for rugs and desks include West Elm, Urban Outfitters, and Target.
Sources for rugs and desks include West Elm, CB2, Urban Outfitters, and Target.
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“I love our custom conference table!” says Cheng. “It was hand-crafted by the talented and local A Carpenter’s Son. I wanted a large table that was custom-sized and custom-painted to fit into the aesthetics of our space, and it is perfect for photoshoots and client consultations.”

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“I wanted a neutral space where I could add in all the colors that get me excited and feeling creative,” she says. The all white flooring brings even more light into the space. “I have always envisioned my ideal creative space to be a white box, and this studio space comes pretty close to that!”

When Cheng launched her creative business in 2012, she had been saving money for nearly a year. She did not have the amount a loan could have gotten her, but it allowed her to grow in proportion to what her business needs and could sustain.

“What I’m most proud of to this day is that I never took out a loan to start this business,” says Cheng. “It was important for me to know I could build this completely on my own; that there are no outside financial influences involved in the direction that I want to take this company in.”

As the textile side of her business grew, Cheng hired seamstresses on contract. A little over a year ago, the business was able to sustain its first employee, Mariel Elizabeth Co. Co came on first as a part time studio assistant and now handles all of the customer and retail side of the business.

“When it was just me, I got to a point where I just couldn’t physically handle both the retail side and do all of the clientele work,” says Cheng on when she knew it was time to hire her first employee. “Working in that way is not healthy for anyone- I was constantly burnt out and worn down. That’s why I knew it was time to hire some help to take care of the more automated things, like order fulfillment and customer service.”

Cheng hopes to hire on another full-time employee to take over more of the business side of things in the next year and give her more time to focus on the artist side of the business.

“That’s what I really love to do,” she says. In five years, she hopes to have a handful of employees to work specific areas.

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Ocean Waves in Blue coming off the printer.
Ocean Waves in Blue coming off the printer.

Cheng credits a couple of key points that helped her get her business going: When two of her abstract art prints, one being Blue Waves, were selected for Design Love Fest (a popular lifestyle blog)’s desktop wallpaper post about three months in: “That helped initially increase sales and brought visibility to my work and online shop,” she says.

A photoshoot collaboration with Erin Souder of Earnest Home Co for Style Me Pretty helped start the wedding stationery side of her business.

Having a presences online at her website and on Etsy has helped to grow her business, but it has been collaboration among fellow creative entrepreneurs that has helped keep Cheng focused and allowed her work to reach a broader audience.

I’ve been fortunate in that a lot of the opportunities I have been a part of promote my work for me. Collaborations, such as my online watercolor courses with Creativebug and an upcoming one with Chronicle Books, reach students and art enthusiasts that I wouldn’t otherwise.

Advice on how to broaden your visibility? “I would say, it always start with good work. As long as you keep making great work, people will take notice. Usually one great project will lead to another, and slowly, marketing and promotions will come along. It also helps to diversify what you do with your business. We have an online retail shop as well as a design studio, and that brings variety to the kind of work we do and have exposure for.”

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New designs for the upcoming holiday season.
New designs for the upcoming holiday season.

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As a new mom, Cheng is currently figuring out how to balance running her business with caring for a newborn and enjoys talking about how entrepreneurial women fit their children into their business.

“I am in the midst of figuring it out, but I will say that it is comforting to know that my business is set up in a way that can run without me for a bit,” she says. “I feel really blessed to have a career that allows me to take more than what most people can take for maternity leave.”

Having her business located in Columbus has been a good experience, as many here are willing to collaborate and share advice.

“The creative community here is close- everyone knows or knows of each other,” she says. Early advice from fellow creative Jeremy Slagle -to keep overhead low and to start small and focused- has really stuck with her.

“Jeremy was a great mentor when I was first starting out,” says Cheng. “When people reach out to me for advice, I always try to take the time to answer their questions because I know how important it is to encourage them, especially in the beginning!”

It is this mindset that led her to accept an invitation to speak at the Midwest Craft Con, a creative conference for makers, returning to Columbus in February 2017.

I think it’s important to talk about what it’s like to run a creative business.

“While we all go about it in our own unique ways, I think crafters and creatives alike should know that making art and creating a business out of the art that you make are two different things. The business side is often very different from what people imagine, and it can be disheartening if you don’t know what you are getting into!”

She recommends the Columbus Society of Communicating Arts (CSCA) as a great place to meet others in the creative field. Recently, Cheng and Danielle Evans, designer and lettering artist of Marmalade Bleue, started Rise and Design, a creative meet-up for designers and creative entrepreneurs to talk all things design.

“I remember how important it was for me to hear from other creatives’ experiences when I was starting out,” says Cheng. “It was inspiring and comforting to know that everyone struggles through this, especially in the early days.”

To find out more about Rise and Design, and to see Yao Cheng’s paintings, stationary, textiles, and more, visit YaoChengDesign.com.

Photos by Lillian Dent.

Do you know of, have, or work in, a creative workspace or cool office space and would like to be featured in this series? If so, please contact Anne Evans.