Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at the companies that manufacture polymer clay? As part of the new IPCA Partnership Program (IPP) with polymer clay manufacturers, we thought members might enjoy getting to know some of the faces behind the art medium that we all love.
Polyform is the IPP sponsor for Q2 2023, so what better way than to start with Jen Courington, Vice President of Marketing and Product Development for Polyform?
Where and how did it all begin?
The compound known as Sculpey today was originally created in 1967, with the intent of using it as a thermal transfer to conduct heat away from electrical transformers. That didn’t work out, and the material was set aside in the lab and basically forgotten. By a happy accident, the lab director was playing around with it and discovered if it was shaped and baked at a low temperature it would retain that shape. He also determined that it could be molded, sanded, carved, drilled and painted.
With an idea of how versatile this could be for the craft industry, we started a grass-roots effort, traveling around the country to craft shows, street fairs and small art stores giving demonstrations. We brought talented artists with us to show people all the amazing possibilities, and believe it or not, this was all done with just white clay. It wasn’t until years later that we started manufacturing a range of colors. And speaking of back in the day, about 17 years ago before social media was a big thing, we had a VW Bug that we drove around, allowing people to make things out of the clay and attaching them with magnets to the car.
Our company is in Elk Grove Village, IL. We manufacture all our oven-bake clay and Liquid Sculpey onsite.
You worked at Polyform for 6 years, left for 2, and then returned for another 6 years (so far). What drew you back to this company/job?
My love for the brand and the artists/fans I get to work with—when I left I kept tabs on the marketing and product efforts since I helped build up the brand and team. I also kept in touch with co-workers and when they reached out to me to come back I was excited to return!
I love creating products that people use to express their creativity—that is a special thing to part of. Getting to see what people make out of the clay we produce is SO cool! I love to go to art fairs in Chicago in the summer and get to talk to artists who use Sculpey clay to make money as a side hustle or even a main job!
The company itself is a magical place. Although people often think we are a large company we are not. I have a very small team, but we work well together to accomplish BIG things. Because we are small, we get to do many different things and see the direct impact of our hard work firsthand.
We started a web-exclusive program for the website where we launch one new color a month on www.sculpey.com. This allows us to introduce some fun trendy colors to our fans online instead of them having to wait for a retail POG reset. We started doing monthly collaborations with other companies with complimentary products. This is a way to introduce our fans to new products/companies and for the Sculpey brand to be put in front of new people who may not know about polymer clay yet. This year we have worked with Archer and Olive, Grafix, Hue Animation, and Gelli Arts and we are working with Cool Tools in May - so stay tuned to our IG and FB accounts for announcements and contests.
Do you have an arts background?
I have a BA in business management and an MBA in marketing. I have the unique position of heading up both marketing and product development. You usually don’t find one person doing both. It allows me to marry product development and marketing seamlessly with us all moving on the same path. I do have a creative side—I am writing a book, I take street art photography, I do 3D art collage, diamond painting, and card making and I love making polymer clay earrings for my friends and family.
Do you help to choose new colors? If so, how do you go about determining what will sell?
Yes, I do and there are a lot of factors that go into this process. Trends in fashion, home décor, Pantone, etc. and we do surveys of our fans and ask what they are looking for. We look at the competition to see what they are doing, and we look at our own lines to see if there are any holes in the assortment—what is selling well, what is not, etc.
Do you travel a lot for Polyform?
Traveling in my personal life is one of my favorite things to do. I was just in Egypt in March and am heading to Cambodia in November with some domestic travel sprinkled in the upcoming months. For work, I don’t travel as much as I would like to!
I attend two tradeshows a year. One is in Germany called Creative World, and this is our chance to see our customers from around the world. We have our Sculpey Design Team member Anke Humpert from Germany to demo our new products. This year we did a class at the show to make terrazzo earrings and we were featured in the trend area!!
The second is the NAEA where we get to meet art teachers from all over the USA—the latest one was in April in San Antonio. We do “Make It - Take Its”; this year we made a panda, donut, and sunflower—a different one each day. Last year was our first year at the show and we did an owl all 3 days. I also travel to customer meetings with our major customers like Walmart, Michaels, etc.
What is your favorite part about your job?
I love every aspect of my job—it is the longest job I have ever had. I used to try out new companies and positions about every 2 years. But with Polyform, I have an amazing mix of things that I am a part of. I am involved in creating the product, marketing the product, the education behind the product, the videos, and the projects—my job is all-encompassing of the Sculpey brand and all things marketing. This is both the best part and the hardest part of the job. The best part because there are so many exciting things happening all the time and the toughest part because there are not enough hours in the day to get everything accomplished that I would like to.
Jen, it was enjoyable and informative learning about the history of the company as well as your part in it. Thank you for giving our members a peek into your life behind the scenes with Polyform! We’d like to wrap up with a couple of questions on material integrity which we believe will be beneficial to members.
Partial baking—is it ok?
Partial curing from a mechanical standpoint will produce a weaker product with all things equal. When the polymers intertwine at baking temperature during the fusion stage you get strong chain entanglement at standard baking times. This allows the most uniform and molecularly consistent product to be produced. Cutting the curing time will stop short this process and when it resumes on the next bake the polymers have fewer degrees of freedom to finish their entanglement. From a practical standpoint, the difference in mechanical strength may not be significant enough to warrant losing the benefits of using a partial cure in one process. If the piece being made is meant for heavy mechanical use, consider using a single full bake on that component for best results.
What is the ratio of inclusions mixed into polymer? If adding dyes, pigments, inks, distress powder, or any other inclusion?
Using a 5% max ratio for inclusions is a safe rule of thumb. The impact will be different depending on the medium and particle size. For example, dyes typically will soften products as they contain plasticizer whereas pigments will dry them out since they are powders with lots of surface area. Glitters and larger objects will have less impact as they act as inert fillers
A lot of artists we work with use the practice of adding a little at a time and they pay attention to the hand feel of the clay and stop adding inclusions if the raw clay gets too sticky or crumbly to work with. Alcohol inks can make the clay sticky if too heavily saturated and mica can make it too firm.