When Susan, Frances and their mother, Lee Gravely, took their first trip to Italy in 1983, they fell in love with the Italian culture. During their stay at the San Pietro Hotel in Positano, they went to lunch and found themselves captivated by the hotel's colorful, handcrafted dinnerware. The next day they arranged to meet the artisans at a nearby factory in the town of Vietri sul Mare. As they watched the artisans paint, glaze and fire each piece by hand, they were inspired to share the treasure they had discovered. The Gravelys returned home with an array of pieces with mixed patterns all related to nature. The collection would become known as Campagna, VIETRI's flagship dinnerware. The trio named their company VIETRI as a tribute to the town where it all began and the play on the phrase “tre vite,” Italian for “three lives.” Recently, Francesca Mignosa had the opportunity to sit down with Susan Gravely, one of the founders of VIETRI.
Francesca V. Mignosa (FVM): How and when did your love affair with Italian dinnerware begin? What is your mission?
Susan Gravely (SG): My father was in international tobacco growing up and we always had his customers from all over the world at our home for dinner. Momma had lots of dinnerware so setting the table was my job and my pleasure. Eating together was great fun and hearing stories from all over the world was invigorating and curious for a child. One of our dinnerware patterns was an old design from Italy owned by my grandparents, so it could have started then!
Our VIETRI mission is to take Italy’s love for enjoying friends and family at home, and especially around a table for meals, and spread the word. Talking together, laughing together and, today, talking about world events and politics should be collaborative and knowledge-building. But, we Americans learn from Italians how to take life’s enjoyments and not take things as seriously as we do. Life is short!
FVM: You started this company with your mother and sister. Are they still involved?
SG: My mother, now deceased, was always with me when designing and finding new patterns. She taught me color and style. She was our BEST employee - and unpaid!
My sister, now retired, lead the Marketing Department. She was Vice President of Marketing and Brand Building. She is now on our Board of Directors and continues to provide inspirational brand development and is our biggest cheerleader.
FVM: How often do you or your consultants travel to Italy for inspiration?
SG: I now spend two months at the beginning of each year in Florence. My product designers come to Italy 2-3 times a year. I am with them most times. We visit our long-term vendors as well as scour small villages, art galleries, artisan shows, and what is being used in homes to make sure we are learning more and more about Italy and their passion for life.
I have been involved in each selection of artisans as well as designs. I hope that my vision of Italy and the creations inspire everyone to continue in the products and traditions of Italy forever. Today, we represent more than 20 different Italian artisan groups that span from the Campania region to Friuli to Veneto and back to Tuscany and Umbria. We try to focus on the strengths and origins of these regions and bring the best of that area’s craft to the American market.
FVM: How many collections have you developed throughout the years? What are your best-sellers?
SG: Oh my! I am sure we have developed or represented more than 300 collections in these 35 years. Probably more. Today, our bestselling lines are; Incanto, designed to represent the memories of the Veneto region; Lastra, designed from the inspiration of cheesemaking; Campagna, our first dinnerware pattern from Vietri sul Mare, from which our name arrived; Hibiscus Glass, beautiful glass vases mouthblown in Tuscany by one of the oldest factories that still works exclusively in Italy; and Old St. Nick, our top Christmas pattern that sells the same volume in three months that our others sell in 12 months.
FVM: Who are your partners in North America?
SG: We sell to the top department stores and specialty stores in America and Canada. We have over 800 retailers who depend on us to create new, top-quality product lines. We sell through our beautiful showrooms in Atlanta, New York, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles and over 60 sales representatives who attend their regional shows. We have had many of the same rep groups since the beginning who have trained next generations to appreciate our mission and vision with a new, young group.
We also have artisan events in our top stores, including Bloomingdale’s, who come and meet our customers, paint their designs and sign products for special purchases. I LOVE these events and try to go to many of them myself.
FVM: Do you offer visits or tours to your headquarters or to your artisan partners in Italy?
SG: We are headquartered in Hillsborough, SC and invite anyone to come visit us anytime. We had a wonderful week in Italy with the VIETRI sales reps who won the 2018 contest for top sales. They stayed in my favorite agriturismo outside of Florence called Casetta and we ventured from there to visit some of our favorite factories in Tuscany and the Veneto region. We had dinner together every night and had a special tour in Florence. We are talking about having a few tours next year for our store owners and passionate VIETRI collectors. This is in the planning stage now!
FVM: What does VIETRI’s future hold?
SG: I am working on our third children’s Christmas book about The Magic of Old St. Nick. The tales are based in Italy and give the readers beautiful handpainted pictures of Old St. Nick with his family and his love for what he does. The first book tells the story of his birth, helping his father make toys and the transition from his father to himself as the new St. Nick. The second book starts with his return from delivering toys and the gift giving between his animal friends and himself and their love for saving the Earth, its waters and forests. The third book is in writing now and will be about a dinner preparation with the grandfather, St. Nick, and his friends! We have a gift set that includes the book, a stuffed toy and a sweet keepsake tote. This is SO much fun and has been very well-received.
Another special project is close to all of VIETRI’s hearts. For 2020, we will be representing a non-profit effort called FLO, created by three women in Florence whose mission is to have a place where all people can feel the value and confidence in working together. We will sell a children’s clothing line made by the employees of FLO on VIETRI.com. The little red bird on the clothes is a symbol for VIETRI’s Christmas books and dinnerware. When you see a red bird, it means someone who loves you is watching over you!
FVM: Anything else you'd like to add for our readers?
SG: We hope that VIETRI represents a lifestyle and a joy in life that each person feels when they think of Italy, are in Italy or dream of going to Italy. Please visit www.vietri.com to find the list of every store where we sell. We enjoy sharing what is happening at VIETRI as well as in Italy through our emails and social media channels. Follow us! If you are in Ohio, one of our favorite states as there are wonderful people, many of Italian origin, who identify with VIETRI, we have one of the best sales reps in the world, Tina Gray!
I hope I have given you an inside look at VIETRI. We are passionate and authentic in our love for our work and the responsibilities of representing Italy!
- Susan Gravely Susan Gravely
- Frances, Susan and... Frances, Susan and...
- Old St. Nick... Old St. Nick...
- Uccello Rosso Collection Uccello Rosso Collection