Made in the Tri-States: Dubuque business establishes niche, eyes growth

One of the many products of Painted Sky Designs. PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Kettering

With an emphasis on quality and a distinct artistic touch, a small, Dubuque-based business is carving out a niche in a competitive industry.

Painted Sky Designs sells benches, chairs, swings and a variety of other items that adorn decks, porches and patios.

The intricate, hand-drawn images featured on these products have become the calling card of the business.

“We say we sell functional art,” said CEO Kristin Dietzel. “We focus on the fact that our products are all artist-designed. Every detail starts with a pencil drawing.”

During the past 18 years, Painted Sky Designs has refined its processes and expanded its reach to include retail shops around the country.

A flurry of recent changes, however, suggests that the business’ best days lie ahead. Company leaders are in the process of rolling out additional product lines and establishing new ways to connect with customers.

In 2020, Painted Sky Designs began selling direct to consumers via its website for the first time. Around the same time, the business forged partnerships with a pair of local businesses that display and sell its items.

Weston Pins, who is Dietzel’s brother, has been with the company for about eight years. During that time, Painted Sky Designs has operated in relative obscurity in Dubuque. He’s confident that is about to change.

“We’re just starting to get our name out there and get our feet wet,” he said. “We have a lot of potential growth ahead of us. I am really excited about where we are going.”

HISTORY

The origins of Painted Sky Designs date to 2003. Co-founder Mike Meyer was working as a freelance illustrator at the time, creating drawings that appeared in medical and biological textbooks. A family friend, Tom Orr, suggested Meyer could use his artistic skills in a different way.

Orr believed there was a market for well-crafted images of wildlife, natural landscapes and other outdoor themes.

Mike Meyer and Orr soon co-founded Painted Sky Designs, creating a mutually beneficial partnership. Meyer and his wife, Renee, were both skilled artists. Orr, who later retired from the business, had retail experience that brought useful industry insight to the table.

“(The business) took off so fast,” Meyer said. “Before I knew it, that’s what I was doing full time.”

A new generation is making its mark.

Pins, Renee Meyer’s son, was in high school when Painted Sky Designs was founded. He majored in marketing and business at University of Dubuque, obtaining an education that prepared him for his role with the family business. Today, he is in charge of processing orders, making sure they are getting out on time, scheduling truck freight, forecasting sales and more.

Dietzel joined Painted Sky Designs a few months ago. She noted that her mother, Renee, recently stepped away from day-to-day operations at the business, creating a void that Dietzel is attempting to fill.

Prior to joining the family business, Dietzel served as the vice president of workforce solutions for Greater Dubuque Development Corp. She said that job gave her the courage to “take the leap” and join the family business.

“(At GDDC,) I was able to see inside the operations of so many businesses, to see how they function and what makes them effective,” Dietzel said. “For me, this was really an opportunity to work on the other side of the table.”

MOVING FORWARD

The family members’ chemistry is a key to moving the business forward.

Each new product begins with a brainstorming session, as the family members discuss what customers are looking for and how they can meet the need.

From there, Meyer draws the design. He often creates images of flora, birds and other wildlife, a focus that reflects his love for the outdoors. The company’s products also incorporate regional collections focused on the Western and Northwoods areas.

It’s a meticulous process, he explained.

“I will often draw five different designs (before determining a favorite),” he said. “I try to gather as much input and feedback as I can.”

Using digital software, Meyer’s drawings are rendered onto a computer and sent to a manufacturing company that has partnered with Painted Sky Designs since its inception.

Artisans sculpt the image with clay, create a mold, then cast the design with iron or aluminum. The furniture then is sealed with a bronze coat.

Each step is carried out with strict attention to detail, according to Dietzel.

“We don’t sell the lowest-priced furniture, but we sell extremely high quality,” she said.

Painted Sky Designs partners with Peosta Warehousing, an arrangement that allows it to store large volumes of furniture and distribute to clients in a timely fashion.

A pair of other local retail partners also are giving the company a boost. Painted Sky products can be purchased at Wagner Nursery in Asbury, Iowa, All Seasons Heating and Cooling in Dubuque, and Aspen Ridge Home and Garden, Mineral Point, Wis.

The company also will diversify its products. It recently obtained the necessary licenses to create furniture products bearing the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, Nebraska University and University of Texas logos. It is looking into obtaining similar permissions for other universities.

With changes coming quickly, the business’ leaders take comfort in the close, familial ties at its foundation.

“If there is any kind of issue, we are able to work through it,” Pins said. “Our meetings are usually around a kitchen or dining room table.”

Dietzel, Pins, Mike Meyer and Renee Meyer make up the business’ staff.

Mike Meyer said he doesn’t plan to retire from the family business any time soon, an important factor given the essential role that his artwork plays.

He views his work as a passion and an outlet for creativity, rather than a way to pay the bills.

“This isn’t work,” he said. “It’s something I absolutely love to do.”