Opening up with Gabe Cohen of Fredericks & Mae.
Keep reading to not only learn more about Fredericks & Mae’s story, but how the consideration of what makes a good gift has played a key role in the brand’s evolution.
&Open: Let’s start with a fun question. What did you wanna be when you grew up?
Gabe: I wanted to be an architect because that seemed like the most creative option.
&Open: It’s interesting to hear that dream and then see what you do now, which is running a business that creates really beautiful objects (AKA Fredericks & Mae).
Gabe: Thank you for saying they’re beautiful. Honestly, I feel totally surprised to be running the business that we're running. We've been doing it for 13 years. And it has looked really different really often.
When we first started, Giovi (my partner) and I made everything by hand. We both learned the art of silk screening. I did a lot of printing, they did a lot of woodworking, and it was really fun to make things in such a hands-on way. But, as enjoyable as it was, it turned out to be a not-so-great business model.
And so very slowly over the years, we've mushed into a design company that works with manufacturers that know what they're doing, ultimately expanding the scope of what we can do. We used to make dominoes and pipes and arrows and tassels because we knew we could figure out how to make those with our hands. But what’s been really exciting is to be able to also create lovely matches and cutting boards and watercolors — and not have to be masters in all of those things, too.
&Open: So, speaking of when you first started off, you guys used to do art exhibitions, no?
Gabe: Yep. We started doing art exhibitions about five years ago. We had a friend who offered us a space that happened to come with a storefront in Crown Heights. It was a really exciting opportunity to get to show our work alongside artists we admire and are friends with. There's always been a question of whether we’re making art objects or gifts or functional objects or things approaching functionality... And the store-quasi-gallery provided the perfect space to play with that.
The big thing here is that we love special objects, and one really big, easy category of special objects is handmade, unique, artist-produced pieces. So we loved building a community around that, having openings and watching people experience those objects in person, where they can smile and be surprised. Due to circumstances out of our control, we no longer have the space, so we've been online only for the past two years. But Giovi and I miss it dearly, and it's definitely a goal in the next year or so to get back to having a physical space that allows a little more creative freedom.
&Open: You were talking about loving things that possess both function and beauty. And in an NYTimes article a few years back you said you’re drawn to objects in history that fly. Are there any other things or characteristics you pull inspiration from when you're dreaming up a new F&M product?
Gabe: For most of the history of Fredericks & Mae, we were really drawn to objects that had ambiguous origins. The first things that we made consistently were arrows. And we loved that they showed up in Native American communities and in medieval Europe and China and Africa… Really all over the world, arrows popped up independently and looked slightly different depending on where they were geographically. There was this interesting global commonality.
And so we chased objects that showed up in similar ways, like masks, kites and games. And then we’d learn about the history, and understanding those origins was the engine that fueled what we were doing.
To a certain degree, that's less true these days. Like, the history of cutting boards is a little less compelling than the history of kites. But the through-line is that the idea of something popping up over and over again because it's useful or beautiful (or both) still feels like a driving force in our design process. And so with cutting boards, we aimed to make them either useful, beautiful or both.
&Open: Okay, the Fredericks & Mae confetti cutting boards (and knives!) have become these cult-ish, foody favorites. You see them everywhere. Were you surprised that people were so drawn to them? Or did you sense they were going to be a big hit?
Gabe: We didn't see it coming at all. I mean, every time we make something that we like, we’re always super excited to share it with the world. But cutting boards really took off in a way that nothing else we've made ever has. And it's been cool to see something resonate so hard. The cutting boards consist of the same material used in restaurant kitchens. So it's a hyper-functional thing that also happens to use color in a surprising way. And the goal is that every time you look at that cutting board, or really anything we make, you smile. If it makes your day even a little bit better, we’ve done our job correctly.
&Open: It’s obvious that color combinations and palettes are a big part of your design. Does any of that play a part in attracting the ideal customer?
Gabe: To be honest, I wish we were thinking about the customer more in our design process. That marketing tactic, having an imagined consumer that we're targeting, is smart and sophisticated but just not something that we're in the practice of. We don't design in any kind of traditionally “strategic” way. It has so much more to do with me and Giovi’s personal preferences. I'm a one-trick pony. And my design gimmick is to make it rainbow!
Gabe Cohen of Fredericks and Mae
But a rainbow is classically cheesy or whatever. And while we love figuring out how to infuse something with color in a compelling, shocking way, we figured out we have to create that product in a colorway that feels a little more subtle. So one version is technicolor, and then the other is just the color of the material. Like wood, cork, iron or brass — that feels like our version of neutral. At the end of the day, not everyone is a rainbow person, and that’s okay.
As we get older and more experienced, we're trying to expand our audience or imagined audience from just the two of us to a real group of people who are buying our things.
&Open: Your website says that “a chosen gift can be a bolt of connection and a beacon that reminds us of our relationships.” Do you feel like Fredericks & Mae was born out of this desire to create and give really beautiful gifts to others?
Gabe: I think that both my partner and I love giving gifts that make people feel seen. And it’s such a high compliment when someone gives me something I didn't even know I wanted.
I get the functional utility of a gift card or cash, but that feels like a totally different thing than finding something and knowing that this other person will appreciate it. And so we've made a lot of things throughout the history of Fredericks & Mae that are super specific.
Gabe Cohen of Fredericks and Mae
I'm thinking of, like, a pumice stone with a shaving brush sticking out of it. Or a giant, totally-not-functional ceremonial kite. Obviously I have a pretty small audience, but the people who get it are amped to have it. And that feels like a useful line to chase.
&Open: Right, something doesn't have to be functional to feel special. It’s more about the thought that counts.
Gabe: Totally. I have a collection of rocks that are half gray and half white and someone once gave me one to add to my collection. It was so intimate and sweet and obviously free. I felt really special and seen in that moment.
&Open: So rocks aside, your philosophy seems to be to collect fewer things, but better things (which is similar to &Open’s approach to gifting). Say a disaster happened in your home and you could only save three things. What would they be?
Gabe: My first thought is my cat, but she's not a thing. Honestly, I would just leave. Everything is just stuff and it can burn. Chuckles.
&Open: Ha, okay. Would you say that assumption is accurate though in terms of collecting nicer, more meaningful things at a smaller volume versus more, potentially less meaningful things at a higher volume?
Gabe: I think it totally depends. It goes back to the question of what makes a good gift, and it has everything to do with the recipient.
Say you're a hoarder and you have a collection of iridescent paper and someone gives you a giant bag of it. You'd be pumped! And that's cool. I personally like to live more minimally. And I think a lot of our customers like to do the same. So having nicer, fewer things might be better for them, but something important to distinguish here is that “nicer” doesn't necessarily equate to being “more expensive”. For example, I have a plastic basket in my bathroom that I love. It didn’t cost me much at all, but I love it all the same.
&Open: Have you had a “wow, we made it” moment yet with the brand? If so, what did that look like?
Gabe: So many. But I think the biggest one came about three or four years into doing it. We started when we were 22, and we both had other jobs. I was an art handler and Giovi worked in an after-school program. We worked on F&M nights and weekends. Then we finally had enough orders that we tried going full-time for a summer. We quickly realized we were making enough money to keep this going. So we dropped our other jobs in the fall, just to see how it’d go. And it worked.
That was purely exhilarating.
&Open: That's incredible, not to mention really rewarding.
Gabe: It's been funny to come of age in this era of direct-to-consumer brands and investment and tech and whatever. We started so slowly and have never had any kind of investment come our way. The goal has always been to keep keeping on and grow as we go. It's been a longer road than anticipated, and looking back I'm not sure that it's the better road by any means. But, it provided a lot of moments of little victories along the way.
&Open: If you could describe Fredericks & Mae's mission statement in a sentence or two, what would it be?
Gabe: Fredericks & Mae is here to help you give better gifts. We're a casual gifting fantasy emporium.
&Open: What in particular makes Fredericks and Mae a really great gift?
Gabe: We try to make things that are specific and rare and unusual. I like to think we're a gifting destination for people who are impossible to give things to.
&Open: Okay well speaking of, who is Fredericks & Mae for? The person who’s impossible to buy gifts for, but anyone else?
Gabe: It's good for them. It's also good for someone who likes to pause and take pleasure in little moments, like chopping vegetables or playing backgammon with a friend or painting a watercolor. Fredericks & Mae is also for people who take pleasure in having a beautiful home.
Taryn: What's your favorite reason to give a gift?
Gabe: My real answer is Christmas. I love Christmas so much. But my other answer (and this isn't a real occasion), but every once in a while, you're walking around in the world and you see something and you're like, “That is perfect for Susan.” So you buy it for Susan just because. I love a non-occasion. Just giving somebody something because it’s absolutely perfect for them.
FYI I have a cupboard full of Christmas presents that I'm just sitting on. I see things in, like, April, so I buy them and just hold onto them until December comes around.
&Open: So you're telling me you're very organized?
Gabe: I wouldn’t say I’m organized, but I am gifting-focused. It's stressful to buy presents for everybody in one month!
&Open: It is stressful! What’s the best gift you’ve ever given someone else?
Gabe: This is a weird one, but my boyfriend is from Iowa. And he always talks about this story from when he was growing up about a woman who had a deer randomly leap through her front window. The local paper ran a picture of her looking kind of sad sitting in front of her ravaged home, broken window and all. So for Christmas, I called his hometown paper and got that picture framed. It was a whole hard thing to get it in the first place, but I loved picking up on that detail and making it come to life in a way he’d never expect. It felt like a scavenger hunt! It's in our living room and it's cute.