Meet Cindy Hwang Bokser, The Woman Behind Niroma Studio

"...I think other people need to do the same thing: Trust their instincts and go where their spirit feels the best, the most nurtured, and the most energized."
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Image Credit: Cindy Hwang Bokser

Image Credit: Cindy Hwang Bokser

In recent years, you may have noticed decorative items from your childhood home becoming popular on design blogs, in decor shops and on your Instagram. What’s old is definitely new again and fiber art is one of those 1970s trends that has made a comeback in a very big way. There is a community of makers in the “Macrame Movement” pushing the form formerly identified with your hip aunt’s living room to new, creative levels. Cue Cindy Hwang Bokser aka Niroma Studio.

After spending 15 years working in public relations for the cultural sector, in 2015 Cindy found herself on a trip to Marfa, Texas in the midst of an artistic rebirth. Perhaps it was the magic of the place, but on that trip, Cindy decided to quit her job and give herself to what until then was a fulfilling and increasingly lucrative passion - macrame. What started as a hobby turned into something that required more time than she could give while working full time and sharing her after work hours with her husband and kids. In the years since her bold decision, Cindy has created a name for herself in the fiber art community, fostering the work of others in a supportive network, and continuing to nourish her desire to learn new skills, all the while raising two wonderful boys. Cindy’s confidence and candor are infectious. Her determination is evident in everything she does, however she does not shy away from sharing the challenges that working for yourself brings. Yes, she actually might be the embodiment of the “Cool Mom.” If you were ever on the fence about taking a leap of faith in your professional life, hearing from her might give you that push you needed.

What is Niroma Studio? Can you tell us where the name comes from?

Niroma Studio is my fiber art business and brand. It began as an outlet to sell my handwoven tapestries and macrame art, and has since evolved to include my own line of fibers, original looms, fiber art accessories and tools. It also serves as a brand supporting and helping to grow other businesses in the fiber art and macrame community.

The name Niroma is a combination of my two sons’ names, Nikolai and Roman. I chose it to serve as a reminder of why I decided to start my own business.

What was the journey that brought you to NS?

I started Niroma Studio in 2015, after almost 15 years working for other people. I worked in corporate advertising for several years, and more than a decade in cultural/museum public relations, during which time I was fully convinced that my greatest strengths and attributes were in support of other people achieving their goals. Even as my job titles and responsibilities grew and evolved to include managing others, or taking on my own projects and clients, I always felt most comfortable allowing my superiors to lead me. I placed feature articles in top tier publications and, to this day, I still believe those were lucky breaks. My luckiest break, however, came in the form of a work trip to Marfa, Texas, the contemporary art mecca made popular, in large part, by Donald Judd.

It’s important to note that at the time I took this trip, my sons were young, 2 and 3 years old, and this was my first time in years being alone. I was filled with anxiety at work, just coming out of the baby haze, and suddenly I had this literal time and space to just *be* with my own thoughts. No husband, no kids, no friends, no distractions. Getting to Marfa from New York City requires two plane rides and a 3-hour long drive through the desert under the expansive West Texas sky. I’m not sure it’s like this for everyone, but the first time seeing this part of the country did something to me - it awoke something indescribable within me. I spent the entire weekend exploring Marfa, photographing the town and the permanent art installations at the Chinati Foundation, and when I left after three days, I could not shake the feeling that I wanted - I needed - to be making things. It was like the spirit of Donald Judd telling me to start making shit with my hands. On the plane ride home I decided I was going to start weaving.

It was a random revelation at the time, pulled seemingly out of thin air, but I can see now how it came to me. In the ‘70s my mom weaved and practiced macrame before she had me. By the time I was born, she had set these hobbies aside, so I never actually saw her do them, but there were remnants of her creations around the house: a half finished tapestry weaving on a small loom that sat in the corner for years before she finally discarded it; macrame plant hangers by the patio doors that I recognize now in old photos; a small pink beaded macrame purse I carried around and played dress up with as a small child….somewhere stored in the recesses of my long term memory, I knew that this art form existed. And, during the many hours my PR job allowed (required) me to consume online media, I came across a decor blog showing that weaving was back. So shortly after I got home from Marfa, I looked up online how to make a loom and DIYed my first weaving. 

From that point on, I was hooked. This was a game changer for me. This feeling I hadn’t known for so many years trying to retrofit myself in a role that never felt comfortable, I now felt the complete opposite. It was a combination of pride and accomplishment, and an infusion of confidence that I had truly never felt in the same way before. The creative process surged adrenaline through my body, and I would lie awake at night thinking about color palettes and designs. I started seeing my environment in a whole new way as I walked around the city -- architecture, nature, shadows and light -- everything around me was inspiration for weaving. And finally, being able to touch and feel this tangible item I had made with my own hands at the end of this process was exhilarating.

Withing a few months, I realized I needed to offset my costly yarn habit, so I opened an Etsy shop and started selling my work. I became curious to try macrame a couple months after I started weaving, and as soon as I made my first macrame piece, it really took over. Within six months, I had a constant stream of made-to-order macrame commissions in my queue, and I was barely sleeping, still working my full time job throughout all of this, trying to be a good parent, employee, wife, friend... and something had to give. I decided to pursue Niroma Studio full time, 9 months after opening my Etsy shop and haven’t looked back. 

Image Credit: Cindy Hwang Bokser

Image Credit: Cindy Hwang Bokser

Do you find your experience in PR has helped your business?

Yes, and no. In the beginning when I was promoting my art, I did reach out to a few publications and pitched my work, in the traditional sense of media outreach. And I did land maybe one or two small placements, but I think what really helped propel my business and work was my inherent interest in social media. It’s a very different landscape now, but at the time, we - as a society - were just sort of figuring out social media as a branding tool, particularly on Instagram. Instagram hadn’t been bought by Facebook yet, and the fiber art community was still just budding. But I loved sharing my work and using Instagram both for inspiration, community, and for organic social marketing. It opened up conversations and collaborations IRL and online that were important for me back then, and had a big impact in allowing me to establish myself as one of the earlier fiber art influencers on the platform.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame when making the leap from representing artists and museums to pursuing your own talents as an artist?

I am one of the lucky ones because I can honestly say that making the leap was a no-brainer for me. It boiled down very simply, almost primitively, to this: Do I want to feel good or do I want to feel bad? Making fiber art made me feel capable, proud and energized. Working as a publicist in a field that still, to this day, feels foreign to me, made me feel nervous, inarticulate, and inept. All I had to do was listen and pay attention to what my own spirit was trying to tell me, and it took that trip to Marfa to be able to do that and see that I had my own path. So, I suppose, the biggest obstacle was a financial one, and it resolved itself in a relatively short time. I had decided that I wouldn’t leave my job until I was able to replace my salary, and I achieved that about a year after I made my first weaving.

What has been the biggest obstacle in working for yourself?

Stepping away. At this point, I run this business almost completely alone. I do all product development, marketing and social media, advertising, order fulfillment, website management, photography, sourcing, inventory management, etc. My husband makes the looms, and engineers and edits my podcast (The Fiber Artist Podcast), but every decision I make for my company and everything it takes to run it day-to-day lies on me, which means, we haven’t taken a real vacation in three years. If I leave, there’s no one to pack and ship orders. And I spend way too much time looking at my phone, whether it’s to update inventory, edit photos, respond to customer service inquiries, talk to vendors, or maintain social. And nowadays, customers don’t just reach out over email. If I don’t respond to an email within the first hour, they hit up my DMs on Facebook and/or Instagram. I am pulled in so many different directions throughout any given day, and I still have not found a good way to balance it. It is my greatest challenge that I am still trying to navigate. My next step is to hire help and trust my employees enough to be able to step away from the day-to-day tasks and focus on growing the business.

When did you decide to move beyond making fiber art to actually producing macrame materials themselves?

Just a few months into making macrame, I realized that I wanted to work with a certain kind of fiber to achieve a specific look, and I was having a really hard time finding exactly what I wanted in the U.S. So, I set about searching for manufacturers who would produce the kind of materials that I wanted to work with, and once I did, I began using them to create my work. I was getting several inquiries a day asking where I get my materials, but I felt very protective and would ignore them because I didn’t want everyone else’s work to look like mine. It felt horrible and wrong to my core to just ignore these requests, and one night, I just could not sleep. In my somnolent fog, it occurred to me exactly what I needed to do, that this was how I could scale my business, and as a test, I posted on Instagram the next day that I was listing 6 rolls of my fiber on Etsy. They were gone in 15 minutes and it was a revelation.

Macrame has been around for centuries and more recently, was a staple of the 1970s. As a co-creator of the #macramemovement, what has been the most exciting element of seeing the resurgence of the art form and the community grow?

I think the most exciting part is watching and being a part of helping other artists grow and get noticed for their work by having my own prominent platform on Instagram. (I just realized while I type this that apparently, whatever existed in me before that made me want to support other people achieving their best, is still very much alive in me.) For example, one of my customers used string scraps to create macrame feathers. I reposted her work, and that post went viral on Instagram gaining over 5k likes and hundreds of comments in just a few hours. She was able to benefit financially by releasing a very affordable tutorial on how to make them, and today, half a year later, I can’t scroll Instagram without seeing feathers all over the discovery page in hundreds of pieces that get posted daily. 

I’m not saying she’s the first person to ever make macrame feathers (I don’t think anyone can claim ownership over that), but I do believe together, she and I made it become a popular element in today’s macrame work. The same thing happened with another customer who created a set of angel wings, and another customer who created a monstera leaf. When my reposts go viral, it makes me giddy knowing the artist who created that piece will get some well deserved recognition, and hopefully add growth to their bottom line.

How do you see #macramemovement evolving over the next few years?

I’d like to be able to consult more on how to build a successful fiber art business. And, this seems like a far-out dream goal, but I’d also like to be able to organize in-person meet ups or retreats where knotters gather and create giant art installations.

How do you choose what images to feature on your feed?

For my Niroma Studio feed, I choose images based on a combination of elements, but my first method of filtering is that I generally post work made using my fibers, looms or other products I offer in my shop. So first I search #niromastudio to see what images and work people have tagged me in. I’ve gone back and forth on this internally a bit, wondering if that’s fair or I’m being too selfish, but what I realized is that you don’t go to West Elm’s Instagram feed to go see images of Anthropologie furniture and decor, for example. They promote their own products and that is what makes sense for their business. I finally understand and have (mostly) accepted that I don’t have to apologize for that. 

Next, I look for images and high quality or eye-catching works that are clean and naturally lit. I prefer the details of the work to show clearly, and I like images that are crisp, unfiltered, and often taken against a light colored, solid background. I’ll often ask a person to send me unfiltered images if I really like the piece and they’ve applied a filter, or I’ll ask them if it’s possible for them to reshoot the work against a solid background under natural light. I also try to make sure that it looks like it fits in my feed at that particular moment from a bird’s eye view.

As a macrame ambassador, I also manage the Macrame Movement Instagram feed, and that is a free-for-all. These pieces don’t require my fibers to be used, and for that feed I just look for superb knot work and innovation. But always, they must be well lit, clear images, with attractive composition.

With such a large Instagram following, do you feel the need to mediate comments or do you find it to be a positive space?

I rarely have to mediate comments at all. It’s an incredibly supportive and enthusiastic community. And the fiber art community is still niche, so many people are familiar with each other’s work and most people step up to be supportive and offer praise, or they don’t say anything at all. I can probably count on one hand the number of comments I’ve ever had to delete.

Image Credit: Sandra de Groot

Image Credit: Sandra de Groot

What is the most creative work of fiber art you have seen lately?

This is so tough! There are so many highly skilled, visionary artists out there. I think I am most moved by conceptual pieces, or pieces that take on sculptural form. I really love the work of Sandra de Groot (@atelierchaos). Her work is so imaginative and other worldly. She creates alien-esque headpieces and elaborate, sculptural lanterns that hang from the ceiling with tentacle-like forms protruding from them. She layers on texture and isn’t afraid to be bold and completely weird. Her work really transports you to another time and place - it’s wonderful.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about going all in and turning their passion into their profession?

My advice would be to listen to your gut. This sounds so cliche, but it’s what I know from my own experience. My entire being was telling me what I was doing before this was not right for me -- through nervousness, anxiety and trepidation at my PR job -- and when I found my fiber art practice, my entire being told me it’s what I had to do. I did not have a choice. If I were someone who meditates, I imagine I would have come to this conclusion sooner, but it took spending time alone for a couple days, and giving myself space to listen to my body and soul, to have this realization. And I think other people need to do the same thing: Trust their instincts and go where their spirit feels the best, the most nurtured, and the most energized.

Also, it’s important to recognize that not every part of following your passion involves the act of doing that passion. You either have to be ok with that, or be able to create a system of support around you that will allow you to nurture the parts of your passion that you really love. For example, today, making macrame is now maybe 5% of my business. I take 2-3 commissions a year, and I teach about one workshop per quarter. The rest of my business is centered around building the retail and brand elements. I made that conscious, deliberate decision the day I decided to list those first 6 rolls of string. If I wanted my fiber art practice to be the focus of my business, I probably wouldn’t have shared my fibers, or I would have had to hire several employees and a business manager to support me in making that happen. But what I’ve found is that I love the entrepreneurial parts of running Niroma Studio -- it fuels me in a way I didn’t even know before. I’ve never felt more capable in my entire life. Making a mistake used to eat at me for days, sometimes weeks, filling me with a deep dread that I let my boss or the client down. Now, any mistakes are my own and I have so much more perspective realizing I’m probably the only one that even realizes it happened, and I move on.

How do you keep your focus with two adorable boys running around?

Focus? What is that? When they’re home, it’s extremely hard to do one full task - ever. Focusing on the business is not a goal I have when they’re around. I can maybe respond to a few short emails, but that’s about it. Luckily they are now school aged and I have from 9 am to 3 pm to get whatever I can get done as efficiently as possible. In the morning before school, and from 3 pm to 8 pm I try to make my kids my sole focus. It doesn’t always work, but I do my best. I’ve made it a priority to be with them especially during those hours because those are the hours I used to spend in a stressed out, mad rush, commuting to work and then hurrying to get them from daycare on time, and one of the greatest benefits that I really want to take advantage of being able to work for myself out of my house, is being able to set my own hours to be with my boys more. It’s not a perfect system, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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