Photo by Kyle Caldwell
I am so excited to highlight Kelsy Stromski of Refinery 43, an award-winning full-service boutique brand & design studio proudly located in Newburyport, Massachusetts. About her business, Stromski says, “We are boutique by choice, a small team doing big things, mainly creating thoughtful brands for clients looking to stand apart from the pack. We listen intently, ask lots of questions, and tell it like it is.” Read on to learn more about Kelsy and her incredible work.
ND: Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Kelsy Stromski and I am a habitual travelholic, dog mom, foodie, former US biathlete, boss lady, brand aficionado, wife, farmer’s daughter, owner and Creative Director of Refinery 43. I help people fall in love with their business and empower them to attract the right clients and customers by creating distinctive brand identities to get them noticed and make them proud. Branding and logo design is our bread and butter (but we also enjoy working on most design projects from packaging to custom chalk lettering.)
Absolutely, I drew everything from architectural plans to ponies. My Mom is a painter and crafter so I was always surrounded by artistic supplies. I’m sure it helped keep me occupied and out of trouble. There are still many boxes of this evidence in the attic of my childhood home. Growing up on a farm in a tiny Maine town also challenged and influenced my creativity. (Life was good pre-facebook and cell phones, and I’m so thankful to have experienced it.) I have no doubt it fueled my creativity being unburdened by technology because I spent my childhood building things in my Pepere’s workshop and problem solving when something didn’t work right or I couldn’t find the right tool, thinking up new games to play with my cousins outside, making up stories with my friends, exploring trails through the woods and having the opportunity to fail and to learn (without the world watching).
I strongly believe every single person is creative, we’ve just been taught not to be. Non-creative behavior is learned because we’ve always had to quickly come up with the first answer that comes to mind. We don’t spend the necessary time and energy thinking up other (most often better) creative solutions to our problems. I know for certain being able to tap into that child-like, unencumbered curiosity has helped me master creative thinking in my career.
ND: I first noticed your work when all these amazing chalk murals were popping up in my favorite local restaurants. Tell me about this.
I was first introduced to chalk lettering a couple of years ago through Dana Tanamachi. She’s an NYC-based graphic designer who started her career working with my idol Louise Fili. When I saw the typography she was creating by hand with chalk my first reaction was, I can do that. Even though much of my process consists of sketching, I was still spending the majority of time at my computer so I welcomed the chance to get to work with my hands again. I found out who was doing similar work in the Boston area and asked her out for coffee to learn more. When an opportunity arose to take on a last-minute project that she couldn’t, I jumped at the chance. Long story short: she’s become a wonderful friend and I’ll be attending her wedding this fall!
Each piece I create I try to make it better than the last. Now, two years later, I’m prepping for my next chalk lettering job which will be showcased in The Pearl Qatar in Doha (part of the Arabian Peninsula). Stay tuned!
ND: How did you decide to open your own design and branding company, and why Newburyport?
Opening my own studio was never the plan, but the best things in life usually aren’t right? I was on track, working as a senior designer in Boston, to one day become a creative director at some large agency, but the more I went down that path the more it didn’t fit. I was looking for something different. Having turned down a few very handsome offers, I wanted to see what would happen if I put all my energy into doing work I was interested in and proud of. When my husband found a rare year-round rental on Plum Island in Newburyport, we packed our things and got out of the city. We said goodbye to traffic and closed-off neighbors and said hello to a beautiful location, friendly people, and a quality of life that we never wanted to escape from. The following year we bought a home in the gorgeous South End / Joppa Flats neighborhood where I can easily bike to and from my studio on Pleasant Street in downtown. Life is good.
Every single day is different, and this is why I love what I do—it keeps things interesting. I can be working with a client on a restaurant brand identity in San Francisco, on a cheese packaging design for a local client, and on a chalk lettering project for Sonos headquarters all in the same week. Today, with the power of the internet (as long as you do good work) you can live and work from anywhere.
If you do not absolutely 110% love what you do, don’t do it. Owning your own business takes an incredible amount of time so it helps to have a great support system (like a husband who makes sure you eat when you’re slammed) and people you can trust to work with you who are just as dedicate. But honestly, as much as I truly love what I do, it can still get taxing. I’ve missed many get-togethers, family events, dinners parties, sleep, and for a while, my only response when asked how I was doing was “BUSY.” I’m working on that, which is where passion comes into play. You must have passion (without it you’ll most certainly fail). And lastly, before you even begin, you’ll need a great brand identity to back you up.
So many times I’ve seen people overlook this crucial part in their business, either they try to create a logo themselves, or hire their cousin’s friend’s sister to make website. Your brand is the face of your business, it should be unique to you and reflect the same amount of quality, passion, and professionalism that goes into your product.
ND: On our blog, we love highlighting local people, places and things. Could you tell us your favorite place to…
Explore Outdoors: Sandy Point and the backside of Cranes beach by boat
Grab Lunch: I usually make a smoothie for lunch but when I don’t have time I’ll pop into Revitalize. They never disappoint!
Pick up a gift: Sage Market & Design, Joppa Fine Foods, or Grand Trunk, because I love to give a gift I’d like to get!
Driveable Day trip, and what you would do when you get there: I’ll choose from the most recent: Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Sail on the schooner Eastwind, visit local galleries, kayak or stop in for a tasting at the Boothbay Craft Brewery, have lunch at the Boat House Bistro on the third floor overlooking the harbor, check out Wannawaf for dessert. (Order the Grand Tradition: a warm waffle with real Maine maple syrup topped with a heap of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and dash of cinnamon.) Have dinner at the Ports of Italy—order anything with truffles. The best day trips for me usually revolve around eating and making more room to eat.
ND: Our last and favorite question: what are you grateful for?
Great question, I’m continually grateful for the people who have helped me in this incredible endeavor. From my husband—my biggest supporter, whom I adore—and friends and family who always remind me how proud they are, to my clients, my rock stars who trust me wholeheartedly to guide them and push me to create my very best work. I would not be here without those who took that leap of faith when I first started out. The passion you all have for your businesses fuels my own.
Thank you SO MUCH all for the continued support!
A big thank you to Kelsy for taking the time to speak with us here at ND! Be sure to check out her new website here, and say hello if you see her around town!