It is a story of what can happen if one is open, curious, has a drive towards excellence, and is more than just a bit playful. Tina’s journey started in Hong Kong. As a youngster, she became an immigrant to Canada. Then she had an early career in retail and finance, before changing directions and starting a business around her lifelong passion of design.
Tina Frey is the founder, CEO, and designer at Tina Frey Designs. Today, the company’s pieces are sold in select stores and unique design shops worldwide and are found in hotels including the Four Seasons, Raffles, and Edition Hotels.
What was the biggest struggle you had starting your business and how did you overcome it?
The biggest struggle was not doubting or second-guessing yourself. It is hard not to look at what other people are doing and wonder if you are doing the right thing. I am happy that I stuck to my gut and followed my own path. Everyone’s path is different and there is no formula or easy answer to how to run each person’s business since they are all different. The other struggle is to remember to keep a good balance between work and personal time. In the beginning, I was working so much that I was not taking as good care of myself as I should. Now I try to set a routine and ensure I exercise regularly and meditate also. I also love spending time with my husband and the two dogs.
Traveling and Self-Care
As a married woman in her 50s, you go on a lot of retreats. Why is that? What do you get from them?
Yes, I have been taking a few retreats the last few years. I realized that I had not been taking enough time to continue developing myself and I decided to try to do this more regularly. I also experienced a major burnout and it sort of prompted it, too. This took the form of a silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, a creative retreat in Morocco, and another self-discovery retreat in Chile. I also really enjoy traveling a lot and I often take side trips where I’m traveling to discover the area, local culture, meet interesting people, and explore. I think that continuing learning about yourself and the world is super important. I don’t think I will ever stop doing that self-development.
Please give us some details of your daily workout routine.
After I get up and read the news, particularly the design industry news, I check social media and do some posts and look for inspiration. I do at least 10 pushups and other exercises, some yoga, some with weights. I drink a full glass of water with vitamins (vitamin E, calcium / magnesium). I sometimes have decaf coffee with cream. I sit down at my computer and check emails. We have a daily call with my team at 9am. I get on with my day. End of work day, I go running every second day. Otherwise, it’s a nice walk with the dogs. Evening: reading, knitting, playing the piano, or other random hobbies.
I love staying active and this is a super important part of my life. I regularly run, do yoga, surf, walk the hills around our house, and even skateboard. I am not averse to trying new things or learning new skills since I think this helps keep us nimble and physically and mentally young.
Balancing Creativity and Admin at Work
How do you organize your days? You seem to toggle from creative to administrative; do you do time blocking?
I have to admit I am not the best at organizing my days. I have to remember not to get sucked into the daily administration and tasks. Otherwise, I don’t get to doing the creative stuff. This can happen often since there are urgent things that need my attention and it is easy to get wrapped up in it and then the whole day is gone and I’m too exhausted to start something creative late in the day. I’m still learning how to allocate time to doing creative stuff first and ensuring I turn off email or social media so I can focus. The work is always there when I’m done with the fun stuff.
“I am also noticing how little we actually need to be happy”
You have had a number of changes in your life. How is Covid causing you to re-think your situation and your future?
Yes, I think Covid is making lots of people rethink how we live and the future. First of all, it made me realize the importance of home since we have all had to spend so much time in our own spaces. I am also noticing how little we actually need to be happy. When we are not having to rush around all the time in the outside world, daily life can be so simple and easy. We realize we can dress comfortably and cook perfectly delicious food at home with wonderful local ingredients and it makes us think about how to live a simpler life. This has been very refreshing! I feel quite relieved not to be in the usual hectic schedule of preparing to physically attend multiple exhibitions internationally that are upcoming in the fall season. It is all very liberating to think about how to do everything differently. I am quite excited about breaking the rules and doing things our own way.
“I am learning to travel more locally”
So much of your life has been around travel; what are you learning from not traveling?
Not traveling has been very strange for me since my schedule is usually quite full with different countries every month. I really miss it along with the associated experience of seeing new sights, art, architecture, meeting people, getting absorbed in different cultures, tasting and smelling amazing food, and absorbing the visual stimulation of life. Nothing quite compares to being able to travel. However, for the first time in my life, I have been quite fine with not doing this for the moment since it does not feel like the right time. I am learning that there is still lots to experience around where I live and to enjoy at home. It forces me to get creative from within. We sometimes take for granted how lovely our own homes are and how much beauty there is right here along the California coastline. I am so fortunate to live here. I am learning to travel more locally. We finally visited Sea Ranch for the first time a couple of weekends ago and I was in such awe of the place that we went back again this last weekend. I am considering what it means to really feel settled here and making our primary home more permanent and our impending renovations. I am learning that I can take the memories of my experiences from traveling and bring them home with me in exotic recipes and cooking. We can still enrich ourselves with these experiences at home.
Moving from Hong Kong to Canada
Tell us about your move from HK to Canada.
When we moved from Hong Kong, I was about 6 years old and we moved initially to Toronto and it was winter and very cold. We relocated to Calgary shortly thereafter, which is where I essentially grew up. I remember it was a dramatic change from our past life in Hong Kong. My parents were quite brave to completely uproot themselves and leave their comfortable life behind to start again in a new country. I remember it was an adjustment with having to learn a new language and a whole new way of life at a young age and feeling that something had really changed in how we were living. However, many people in Hong Kong wanted a backup plan in anticipation of the impending handover of the British colony to China in 1997 and pretty much all my relatives moved abroad also. I really appreciate the mindset of people: universal healthcare, subsidized education, great natural rugged outdoors, and overall warmth of the friendly people.
Transitioning From Finance to Design
Your early career was in finance, much of it with LVMH. What was that like and what did you learn?
The knowledge gained from working in this area has been super helpful in my current work since it applies to what I do in my business. Working for LVMH was a very memorable experience since I started out in Internal Audit and I used to travel to all sorts of places for work from Guam, Sydney, Tokyo, Geneva, Hong Kong, etc… I was traveling more than I was at home during that time and, being the gypsy that I am, this job was truly ideal for me. I think much of what drove my decisions was the mobility and ability to travel or live in a different place and this was exciting to me.
You made a big pivot at age 40 to start your design business. How did you do that? Was there a ramp from the one career to the other?
Eventually, after all the traveling, moving, and living abroad, I ended up settling in San Francisco again. I ended up staying put and working in finance at some amazing iconically San Francisco-based companies like Levi’s, the Gap, and slowly for progressively smaller companies where it was just more fulfilling since you felt like you could have a real impact than in a big corporate job. This was where I started to appreciate small business and the potential possibilities. Ultimately, there was a calling inside of me for doing something creative and I had an opportunity to explore this after an exit from a small startup I was at. I took a short break to explore what I was going to make and ultimately decided to focus on making designs in resin. I exhibited a small collection at a gift fair and people wanted to place orders and I also got requests for other things and the collection slowly grew. When I started my company, I was consulting for Timbuk2 in finance, and was doing that 4 days a week initially and this continued for more than 2 years to fewer and fewer days while I was transitioning full time to my own company. I was fortunate that I was able to fund my own company from consulting in finance to get it off the ground.
“Think about what calls to you from deep within your heart”
What advice would you give others who are considering a career transition?
Think about what you are really good at and what calls to you from deep within your heart or your gut since you are bound to succeed if you follow your passion. You will find an energy there that drives you forward and, if you follow it, you will know what to do. Be prepared to work hard and you will have to persevere through some hard times. But if you believe in what you are doing and keep going, you will be successful.
What does your company make now?
We specialize in homewares, furniture, and jewelry in resin. I enjoy specializing in using the resin material since it is rather unique in the qualities. It can look like glass, porcelain, or stone and is more durable than glass or ceramic, which makes it ideal for many different applications. I love being able to dream up designs that would not be possible in other materials.
“For any of the designs with the organic shapes, I sculpt them in clay in my studio”
Do you shape the pieces yourself? What is your process?
Yes, I do shape the pieces myself. For any of the designs with the organic shapes, I sculpt them in clay in my studio. Then a mold is made of the designs and they are hand cast and hand sanded so that each piece is completely handmade. For any of the designs with clean lines and modern look, they are designed using a 3D computer program and 3D printed before being molded and hand sanded through the same production process. This results in the handmade feel, even when the designs have a clean, modern aesthetic. My process for creating new designs is quite varied since inspiration really comes from everything. I love being out in nature and near the ocean. The natural forms of stones or wood that has been softened by nature is a huge inspiration.
On Wearing Two Watches
One of the first things I noticed about you was that you wore 2 watches: a Rolex on one wrist and a white iWatch on the other. Maybe tell us a bit about that — that was the first time we had ever seen that.
I have always worn a Rolex watch and I totally appreciate the old school “technology” in a classic timepiece that is also a functional object. There is a beauty to this timeless design and I feel very grounded with this traditional timepiece and I just love it. Also, in order to keep it ticking, the Rolex requires me to keep the perpetual motion so I try to keep it on. I started wearing the iWatch when it first came out since I also love Apple products. It is also beautifully designed and the impressive functionality is hard to ignore since it still amazes me that this little rectangle on my wrist can do so much. It is incredibly useful for reminders, paying for things when I don’t carry my wallet, and with monitoring my exercise and physical activity.
“I like taking my skateboard to get a coffee”
What is the most playful thing you do in a week? We know you have some fun-looking canines, but what other fun stuff are you enjoying?
When I am in the studio, I like taking the skateboard to get coffee and skateboarding while carrying my cup back to the studio. So far, I have not spilled or wiped out yet while doing this. I also have an electric skateboard and I like taking it to the park and bringing the two dogs along. There is a huge meadow with grass and I can ride around like crazy and they love to chase me and they get all excited. They are quite hilarious!
“I was scheduled to climb Mount Kilimanjaro this July”
What are you working on/learning that you want to master in the next year?
I was actually registered for a MIG welding class this year and was scheduled to climb Mount Kilimanjaro this July. I was also going to try hang gliding this spring. However, they have all been postponed so they are definitely already on the calendar for 2021.
What music is on your playlist when you are working?
I am currently really enjoying listening to Nils Frahm. I also use Spotify and I was listening to Instrumental Indian music yesterday since I love the exotic sounds of tabla drums and sitars. This makes me daydream of my travels to India and other exotic places.