Quit the day job. Travel the world. Give back to communities far and wide. And through it all, pursue passions. Harper Poe’s life – textiled with artisan collaborations across countries and developing design – summates the waking dream of many, reality of few.
interview / ciara bird — photographs / olivia rae james + lean timms
Can you tell us in short: who you are, where you’re from and what you do? I am owner and creative director of Proud Mary, a global textiles and lifestyle brand. We work with artisans in developing countries to create our line of ‘ethnic-modern’ home and personal accessories. I am currently based in Charleston, but I grew up in Charlotte.
Where did you live before coming here? After college, I lived in Costa Rica for nine months renting surfboards on the beach. Then I moved to France and worked as a nanny and snowboarded. When I came back to the States, I ended up moving to Vail, Colorado. From there, I moved to L.A. where I worked for an interior designer, and then to New York where I worked for a furniture company. That was when I really started getting into textiles.
What made you quit your job as an interior designer to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity? I hadn’t left the country in four years and I was dying to be out in the world exploring, but didn’t want it to be a frivolous trip, so I thought volunteer work would give it meaning and purpose.
Was it a tough transition? Not at all.
Where are your Proud Mary artisans located? How do you stay in contact with them? We are currently working in Guatemala, Peru, Mali, Morocco, Ivory Coast and Paraguay. I have a facilitator in each country that I am in constant contact with via Skype, email, and WhatsApp. There has to be someone on the ground to manage the day-to-day.
How often do you get to travel to these places? I travel to West Africa, Guatemala, and Morocco once a year.
Does Proud Mary have an impact on your design choices at home? Absolutely. My home is filled with trinkets from my travels for Proud Mary, and I have apprehended a lot of samples to use personally.
Was your place love at first sight? How long have you lived there? It wasn’t love at first site – it was easy. My sister lived here for three years before I moved in. I knew I loved the neighborhood and my place is on the top floor of an old Charleston single house so there is great light and an awesome porch. I’ve been here for three years.
How would you describe the space you’ve created? Bright, clean, and full of yummy, colorful textiles.
Do you often change your décor or does it stay the same? I switch pillows around often. I have about a million throw pillows and I try to give each its time in the spotlight.
Best recent acquisition for your home? A Moroccan rug for my living room.
Where do you find yourself spending the most time? In my office, at my computer. There is good and bad to working from home. The good is that it’s convenient and your schedule can be really flexible. The bad is that you’re never not working.
What are your favorite things to bring home from buying trips? Textiles of course, hats, little animal figures, and baskets.
How did you end up in Charleston? What do you love about living there? I moved here six years ago after being in NYC for four years. I wanted a change from New York, but still wanted to be in a walkable city with good food, close to the coast. Charleston was a no-brainer. I love the architecture, the warm weather, the ocean, and the smell of jasmine in the spring. But also, I like that it’s a little gritty. It’s not all a perfectly manicured postcard like you might expect. It’s not too dirty or too clean, too masculine or too feminine. It’s so many things at once, and the charm – the charm is undeniable.
Do you have any daily rituals? What’s your work environment like? I love my morning coffee. I usually go out for coffee in the morning. It’s the perfect way to start the day. I work from home; my studio-office is full of textiles and samples from all over the world. My favorite thing about my studio is the smell. There is always a faint smell of incense from my African pieces that I love.
What’s next? Do you think about your legacy? I want to continue to grow my business and strengthen the relationships Proud Mary has with its artisan partners. My industry is becoming very saturated so I think right now I’m trying to find my voice and my place as it morphs into what it’s becoming. I am very much a purist in how I see working with artisans in the traditional textile field. It’s so important to me to be transparent and not to exploit the artisans’ plight or story to generate sales. It’s a fine line though because our customers do want to know how these products are made and who benefits. Finding that balance is crucial.
Would you call yourself a humanitarian? I am still learning what ‘humanitarian’ means. These local artisans, most of whom are women, receive a fair wage for their quality products. Through our interaction, they learn about international trade and how to expand their craft to a profitable market. I want to help people, but I want to help them help themselves.
This interview was conducted fall 2014.