North Carolina—based Vietri celebrates the Italian lifestyle
By Tracy Bulla
Above Photo: Vietri expands its Pumpkins Collection with new additions drawing inspiration from a walk through Florence’s street markets and reflecting a playful yet sophisticated take on the fall harvest.
Sharing and enjoying meals with family and friends with beautifully rendered, artisan tabletop collections is the core of Vietri’s mission. The company’s co-founder Susan Gravely sat down with us at Vietri’s headquarters in Hillsborough to dish on its evolution over the years, the good life and how she likes to entertain at home.
It all began with a trip to Italy. That serendipitous family vacation in 1983 — mother Lee Gravely and her daughters Susan and Frances — led to the birth of Vietri. Staying at the famed San Pietro Hotel in Positano on the Amalfi Coast, the trio promptly fell in love with the hotel restaurant’s colorful plates. Eager to see where they were made, the Gravelys swiftly arranged a visit to the factory located in a neighboring village. “We walked into a menagerie of color and design — flowers and animals and solids — all mixing and matching in blues, reds, yellows, turquoises, oranges and greens,” says Susan Gravely. “The Gravely girls had found their new life!”
Back at home in North Carolina with plates in tow, a second trip to Italy was planned where they negotiated their first 20,000-plate shipping container. Campagna, their very first collection and the result of that trip, consisting of four whimsical and vibrantly colored animals, as well as a standalone floral pattern meant for mixing and matching. Susan and her mother took the collection to the New York Tabletop Show in April of 1984, exhibiting in a 100-square-foot temporary space at the Prince George Hotel. “In walked Neiman Marcus,” Gravely recalls. “Cynthia Marcus sat down and wrote a $14,000 order for immediate ship. It felt like $14 million in those days!”
The company’s name pays tribute to the town where Campagna was created, Vietri sul Mare. It’s also a playful reference to its owners – by transposing the syllables of Vietri into tre vite, which translates in Italian as three lives – Lee, Susan and Frances Gravely.
After that initial collection and based on a fast-growing demand from customers, Vietri began to “set the table” by expanding its offerings to glasses, flatware, candles and cotton placemats, plus napkins. Today, Vietri has evolved from one line of dinnerware to 3,000-plus items still almost exclusively made in Italy — with the same mission of bringing the Italian spirit and style to American homes with joy and happiness around a table.
Gravely believes that both growing up and headquartering Vietri in North Carolina have been a boon for business. “Coming from a Southern culture where Vietri’s outlook on life parallels how the Gravely family and many Southerners have always valued friends and family has been a huge benefit. We have been surrounded by support and pride for what we do and how we have built a woman-owned business,” she notes. “Our state worked with our hands. We worked with the earth, like Vietri, creating designs that start with the earth and become plates or glasses or pots or accessories.
Naturally, Gravely loves to gather friends and family around a table set with Vietri designs. Her secret to a great dinner party? “For me, it is the warm environment and the openness to great conversation and original thought that enhances a dinner party,” she explains. “Each guest is welcomed quickly with a drink of choice in a Vietri glass and a cocktail napkin from yet another product line, VIETRI papersoft. There are flowers in the house, soft music, welcoming smiles and laughter, and delicious smells wafting from the kitchen throughout the home.”
For small groups, Gravely adheres to Vietri’s signature mixing-and-matching approach, and not just for the tableware. She may use a single pattern for dinnerware, but choose different colored napkins or glassware. She also loves to mix the guests, including their ages, so everyone has a chance to meet someone new or catch up with someone they haven’t seen in a while.
For larger parties, Gravely often includes name tags and two words about how she and her husband know them. “We add humor — and people really appreciate it,” she observes. Larger gatherings normally call for a buffet with simple, clean and colorfully tasty food for everyone to savor. Gravely’s dinners often come with a special treat for lucky attendees, a takeaway gift, such as a small floral bouquet wrapped in clear floral wrap for each person. “We love to entertain and our goal is for each person to feel comfortable and welcomed in our home.”
That said, Gravely has noticed a distinct difference not only in how people entertain, but also in what’s actually on the table. “Life has gone from ‘serving’ dinner to ‘picking up’ dinner. In our earlier years, people had many seated dinners with heavy food that took at least a salad plate, a dinner plate and a dessert plate as well as water glasses, wine glasses, whiskey glasses and probably an after-dinner glass,” she explained. “Today, entertaining is simple. We use one plate and reuse it for salad and the main course or put it on one plate together. Desserts are finger foods or easy on a napkin!” The idea is to spend less time preparing and more time enjoying each other: “Vietri calls it ‘being around the table’ with friends and family.”
With everything under the sun available on Amazon or other online sources, Vietri maintains its competitiveness in a crowded digital age through exclusive, copyrighted designs and exceptional customer service, among other things. “What sets Vietri apart is our original designs, our aesthetics to today as well as classic tastes, our functionality and our stories,” she concludes. “Everything that Vietri does has a reason, a story, a nod to design, Italian history or the people who work in the small family-owned artisan companies. Vietri represents friends and families being together, enjoying life and time together, eating and laughing and living it — each person’s individual reasons for loving life.” h
With cooler temperatures coming, former Home Accents Today Editor Tracy Bulla looks forward to dining al fresco.
Info: www.vietri.com. Vietri’s much-loved annual warehouse sale will be held exclusively online from October 8–12.