Rosanna Bowles: Designing Woman

She has been setting an artfully profitable table for more than 30 years.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Rosanna Bowles learned at an early age to appreciate beautifully crafted objects and a well-set table. By the time she was 5, she had started collecting antique Limoges china, adding a piece each year on summer trips to the Oregon Coast with her family.

A half-century later, Bowles is still collecting. But she’s far better known for inducing other people to embrace the intuitive appeal of fine dinner plates and other pieces of skillfully curated tableware. Her Seattle-based Rosanna Inc., which she founded in her home in 1982, is an icon of the tableware industry. Bowles designs festive porcelain dishes, plates, trays, ornaments and other “giftables” for major Seattle players like Starbucks, Nordstrom and Sur La Table while also selling her vast array of kitchen, tabletop and home décor items through rosannainc.com. Her designs have repeatedly received the editorial imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine and O at Home, along with countless other publications from The New York Times and Vogue to Sunset and Southern Living.

With annual sales “in the high eight digits” and having risen 50 percent in recent years, Rosanna Inc. continues to experiment with new collections, new inspirations. “Getting through the recession was something that tested how nimble the company was,” Bowles says today. “We wanted to create designs that resonated with people on an emotional level.”

Toward that end, Bowles and her small staff — Rosanna Inc. employs 16 in Seattle — designed a nostalgic line that taps into “cherished traditions” such as lively family dinners, festive holiday celebrations and the simple act of gift giving.

Marin Layer. A collection in Rosanna’s spring/summer line for 2015 line is inspired by the natural beautyof Sausalito, California.

Bowles is president of Rosanna Inc. but she is also the art director, channeling her passion for great literature, fine art and high style into lines of “fashion tableware” that resonate with millions of consumers.

A Portland native, Bowles got into the tableware business after receiving a master’s degree in Italian language and literature from the University of Oregon in 1979. Her undergrad degree, from Portland State University, is in liberal arts with a concentration in art history, romance languages and European literature. In 1982, she morphed these interests into a business plan, took out a $15,000 loan using her Seattle bungalow as collateral, and started importing Italian ceramics.

She likes to tell the story of her first order of hand-painted Italian tableware arriving in a 20-foot container at her doorstep and being told she had to unload it herself. She persuaded the driver to help, but she had an even bigger surprise when she began unpacking the boxes: Damp wood shavings were stuck to every plate. Bowles describes the subsequent washing of thousands of plates as “an I Love Lucy episode.”

Going from sitcom to sitting pretty didn’t happen overnight, but Bowles capitalized on her connections — her parents were sales reps in the gift and tabletop business — and a fortuitous meeting with Howard Schultz, a merchandise manager for a fledgling coffee company named Starbucks. Schultz exhausted Bowles’ inventory with one order, and Starbucks remains one of Rosanna Inc.’s best customers and Schultz a treasured role model for Bowles. 

Her “big break” came in 1988, when Pottery Barn placed a major order. Since then, Rosanna products have appeared in stores and gift shops around the world, including Harrods and Selfridge’s in London and Le Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Harking back to those days of a 5-year-old girl hunting for antique china pieces, Bowles says Rosanna Inc. simply wants to help its customers create “a soulful life” and celebrate the special cachet of a timeless aesthetic. “Rosanna’s products remind us to infuse our lives with ritual and community,” Bowles says, “and to keep home and family at the heart.” 

Additional reporting by John Levesque.

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