Handmade Goods From Afar: Courtney Poole, Co-Founder Of Rose & Fitzgerald

Written by Kassia Binkowski, Contributing Editor to The Good Trade

Meet Courtney Poole of Rose & Fitzgerald

Courtney’s story reads like a great adventure novel. Uprooted to rural Uganda with the the love of her life, she forges relationships, furnishes a stunning home, and launches a successful business - all against the backdrop of Sub-saharan Africa’s red dirt and vast plains. It was an honor to sit down with the Co-founder of Rose & Fitzgerald to learn a little bit more about her pursuit of adventure, and the gorgeous and ethical business that she built in the process.

You have built a beautiful line of home goods and accessories that not only inspire high fashion but also reflect admirable ethical standards and timeless cultural traditions.  Needless to say we are very impressed. Tell us, what was the inspiration behind Rose & Fitzgerald?

When I moved to Uganda in 2012 with my husband, I fell in love with the richness of the colors and textures of handmade goods found at markets, and was so impressed with the methodologies for crafting them.  Decorating a big empty house in a chaotic, developing country was no easy feat, so I began working with local artisans to handcraft my own designs—items mixing my coastal, modern design perspective with the timeless methods of these master craftsmen. I was so impressed with the goods that resulted in our collaborations, and knew it was the beginning of something much bigger. Starting a business that would employ artisans to practice a craft they were not only brilliant at, but also deeply loved, became a desire that I couldn’t ignore.

It has certainly paid off. The lines you have collaborated on are stunning and your value of travel and adventure is readily apparent in the products you produce. What was it about Uganda in particular that got under your skin? With the world at your finger tips and the next adventure always just around the corner, why did you choose to stop and build your business there?

Something about Uganda and Africa in general, created a true love story for my life. My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to far-off, exotic and awe-inspiring places. By returning to nature, living in a foreign land, being constantly challenged and stimulated by new experiences and places, a creative side of myself was unleashed that I never even knew I had. Knowing we’d be based in Uganda for several years, I felt like I had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly invest in local artisans and set up a sustainable, Uganda-based business, slowly and patiently, with tons of thought and consideration. It became my mission and purpose while living abroad to build a strong business foundation with a talented, dedicated team; and I knew that would require lots of time. Fortunately, I had three years to build the business and be truly present through each and every step—and I believe that’s the only reason it worked.

Your brand and your business exude beauty. From the logo design to the minimalist site to the products you sell, tell us about how you leverage high quality design for social and environmental impact? How have you been challenged to combine traditional processes with modern aesthetics?

My husband and I created the business and brand from scratch in a very “DIY” manner.

We designed our logo to reflect the merging of two places or cultures; we designed our website to showcase the products in an uncluttered, non-distracting way. We were so intimately involved in building each and every aspect of the brand, from taking many of our own photographs, to writing our own copy, to shooting and editing our own video; all while living in Africa and without much outside opinion. This was huge in allowing us to create an authentic brand genuinely reflecting who we are and what we value. The same goes for our product line. We design each product ourselves and on our own timeline, using sustainably sourced, luxurious materials—so naturally, they are all products we use and love and have a real need and desire for. We value high quality, modern design above all else; but also appreciate the raw, tribal influence that exists in East Africa. Merging these two design influences is a dream job.

Dream job or not, managing an international business from half a world away is no small feat. Tell us about some of the challenges you have faced in building Rose & Fitzgerald. Where did you get hung up and how did you push ahead?

Building Rose & Fitzgerald has been a marathon, certainly not a sprint. Challenges are persistent and could have stopped us countless times along the way, but I’m so glad we’ve chosen to push through time and time again. Being in Uganda full time and spending most of my energy on the manufacturing side meant there were serious constraints on the other end of the business, and what I could achieve in terms of sales and marketing. Now, being based in the US, I have so much more access to networking, sales opportunities, pop-ups and events, but this means entrusting others to manage our Uganda-based operations, production, sourcing, quality control, and product sampling. It has meant having less control over these aspects, and has of course made communication more difficult with our artisans. But the move back to the US has been incredible for our growth and sales potential, so pushing ahead feels natural and exciting.

Limiting your production to the use of local materials narrowed the scope of possibility but directly amplified your impact. What were some of the strategic decisions you made in order to honor this commitment and minimize your footprint?

We want each of our products to hold deeper meaning than what meets the eye. This means that every aspect of how the products are made, what materials are used and where the materials come from, is of great importance to us. I think limiting our collection to the use of local materials, like Teak and Muguvu hardwoods, indigenous Ankole horn, and pure brass, creates cohesion and natural beauty among our collection. It also means that each of the products is completely unique, simply due to the color and texture variation that exists within the materials. Investing in the local economy and minimizing our environmental impact are core values, and fortunately for us, we don’t feel like we’re sacrificing anything to stay true to those values.

What’s more is how well those values have served you in your effort to create a unique and cohesive collection. Rose & Fitzgerald is clearly born of a desire to marry beauty, design, impact, and adventure in a single brand. And you’ve succeeded! But if we know anything it’s that no social entrepreneur turns off at the end of the day. So tell us, how are the values that you’ve engrained in your business reflected in other aspects of your life?

The business is such a reflection of my life and my life is a reflection of my business, so in many ways they are merged together all the time! Of course, no business comes without a great deal of work, much of which can be painstaking and monotonous. As long as I feel the business is remaining authentic to it’s purpose and why we started it, it all feels worth it. In Africa, I was constantly inspired by my surroundings, which of course led to the design of our products. Now, living in a little beach town just north of San Diego, California, I find myself in a similar situation. I spend so much time outdoors, exploring new trails and hiking spots, in the ocean or at the beach, constantly refreshed and rejuvenated by a natural, minimal and healthy lifestyle. Although my surroundings are completely different now, the values I live for are the same: embracing the beauty all around us, being connected to nature, and living a life full of adventure and purpose. The products are born out of these same desires as well.

We have to assume your home is a stunning collection of pieces from your travels as well as your own designs. What’s your favorite piece? And what priorities have you had as you furnished your own sanctuary?

Our home went from being very large in Uganda to very small in California, a sacrifice we were happy to make in order to live walking distance to the beach! But it also meant downsizing on our possessions, and keeping the décor very minimal and uncluttered. There were several pieces from our time in Africa that we simply couldn’t part with though—my favorite being our very large Ankole Skull & Horns wall mount. Our lead cow horn artisan picked out a beautiful one for us, cleaned it to perfection, and then we had it mounted with Mugavu wood. It is currently the main decorative piece in our living room and is certainly a conversation piece. We love it so much that we’ve decided to offer them to our retail partners and online customer base very soon, so stay tuned!

Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One Thousand Design. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.