Interview with Flannery Cronin, Friend of All

How an artist escaped her corporate job to follow her dreams

Two years ago, Flannery Cronin was working for a billionaire money manager. Today, she makes lamps full time and sells them through her store, Friend of All. It started as a beautiful solution to a dark and depressing apartment. One of her friends noticed her lamps on Instagram, and convinced Flannery to sell at a craft fair. There, she made a few sales--enough to think that her lamps might have a wider audience.

So how did she go from a stable and cushy job to spending more than 10 hours each day in a studio? We caught up with Flannery to find out about her path to starting Friend of All and how she stays true to her design vision.

Just Like Grape: What’s Friend of All?

Flannery Cronin: Friend of All makes one-of-a-kind, hand-made, stained-glass light fixtures. We have a tabletop collection and a hanging collection. The hanging lamps are designed to offer an overhead lighting option that does not require hardwiring. They have a 15-foot cord, plug directly into the outlet and hang swag style from a hook in the ceiling. The whole point of developing this line was to find a way to transform one's living space in an easy and affordable way. Put one of these little lights in a room and it completely changes the atmosphere.

JLG: How did you first decide to make stained glass lamps?

Flannery: I made my first lamp after losing my beautiful, sunlit apartment where I had been for about 5 years. It was rent stabilized and spanned the top 3 floors of a building that bordered the industrial part of Greenpoint. It was quiet and peaceful and very much my personal utopia. But the building sold and I had to move. I ended up in a small but charming first floor railroad apartment. I love it now, but in the beginning, I was really struggling here. There is no natural light and the existing fixtures gave off a harsh and uninviting light.

So, I made my first lamp and hung it in the bathroom beside the claw foot tub. It made a world of difference. Not only did it make that particular room feel more inviting, but I loved looking at it. Whether I was soaking in the tub or glancing at it from another room, it gave me such joy. And, when I inevitably move again I know there will be a place for it. So I felt like I was on to something. Not long after I had a chat with my mother, who is an interior designer. She suggested that I work with in a specific size restraint. Large enough to make a difference in a small space but small enough that you could put several in one home without overwhelming the space. So that gave me a starting point.

JLG: How did you decide to turn your lamp making into more than just a side project?

Flannery: I had a handful of lamps made when a friend suggested that I rent a booth at the Renegade Craft Fair. I definitely did not feel ready. I had no business name, no website, nothing official at all. But she convinced me that having a concrete deadline would be the best way to get the ball rolling. I managed to get about 10 lamps made for the show, came up with a name for the company, had a friend make the logo and got a simple website up. The fair landed on the last weekend before Christmas, which was lucky for me because people were really looking to buy. I ended up selling nearly everything I brought, and had so much positive feedback from everyone there. I think that gave me the courage to start planning for a full time commitment.

JLG: How did you end up working with stained glass?

Flannery: My background is in textile design, so I had notebooks full of sketches for repeat patterns. In recent years I started thinking I would like to apply these designs to a 3D medium.

For the past few years, however, I got away from working with my hands. I worked as the personal assistant to a billionaire money manager. And I knew I wanted to get back to doing something creative for a while. I initially took that job because I figured it would be a necessary stepping stone to find some stability to set myself up for working on something creative full time.

I messed around with several different things before settling with stained glass. I took an entry level class and learned the basic skills for working flat. It really resonated with me from the very start. I love that the craft only requires hand tools, and that you can do the entire process without using a computer.

I had a friend at work who knew I was working with stained glass and was a wiz at finding things online. That was her job, as a researcher. One day she emailed me a link to a craigslist ad for the entire contents of a stained glass studio for sale. My boyfriend and I went to take a look. It turned out the artist had recently passed away and the family members were trying to get rid of his stuff. He had worked in this studio for 18 years. It was full of glass, finished and unfinished projects. They gave me a really good deal in exchange for cleaning the space out once we had taken what we wanted. I found a studio to move it all into and that was that.

JLG: Amazing. You probably have to spend less time looking for materials since you have such a large stockpile of stuff yourself.

Flannery: It really helps with the design process because I don't have to choose colors and then find the glass. I can sit there and go through all the glass that I have and find the perfect color for what I'm looking for. There aren’t very many stained glass supply shops around. If you wanted to go and see the glass yourself and actually hold it, you would have to drive far or even take a plane somewhere. So I feel that it has had a huge influence on my design process to have all of this at my fingertips.

JLG: And what is your design process? How do you go about designing the lamps and then select the ones that you actually list on your website or bring to fairs?

Flannery: When designing a new lamp, I start with the size and shape I want and I fill a couple of pages in my notebook with thumbnail sketches. It’s a quick sketch, no judgement. I try and set it aside and come back with fresh eyes in a day or two. Once I settle on a design, I have to do the math of figuring it out in 3D how each pattern piece is going to work, which is a huge challenge to me because I'm horrible at math.

A lot of times the first attempt won't really work out quite right, but I have a rule that my first piece is a prototype and that takes the pressure off. Once it's made I can make the measurements because I have a physical prototype and I know the second one will be perfect. Once I have a design I am happy with, I sketch out the pattern on grid paper with a ruler and pencil. Cut the pieces out, and trace them onto the glass with a sharpie. To make my glass choice I sit on the floor of my studio for probably a day with all of these bins of different colored glass around me and try to find the right color combination to get the feel I'm going for.

My whole philosophy is to have a handmade product. I don't know why, but I feel proud that I don't use computers in any stage of my designing. I think that is rare these days to find anything that is totally analog. The digital influence seems to creep in everywhere!

JLG: What advice would you give to makers, designers or artists who are thinking about striking out on their own?

Flannery: Well, going to Renegade Craft Fair was the starting point. It forced me to get my business legit pretty quick. It was nice to have a deadline because I think I could have spent a long time on that otherwise. Just signing up for something makes you accountable.

Also, if you’re thinking about quitting your job, you do have to plan for it. You don't want to put yourself in a in a bad situation. Make sure that you have a financial cushion. Do the math for how many months of rent and how many months of eating beans and rice you can afford. Then multiply that by two because there are all kinds of unexpected expenses that come up.

So yes, the biggest piece of advice is plan for it.

JLG: How have you been able to stay true to your design vision?

Flannery: Having a comfortable job for the first two years really helped me to fine tune my own vision and style. I was spared the anxiety of relying solely on my sales to survive, so it was easier for me to stick to making only what I really believed in. I can definitely see the temptation to jump on board with whatever is trendy at the moment when your livelihood is tied up in your sales. But at the end of the day you have to love what you create. Otherwise you may not enjoy the process anymore and that is bound to show in your work.         

Check out Flannery's website to learn more about her work.