It's a business premise that sounds like a contradiction in terms. How could a company survive selling products to a group of parents whose philosophy is that less is more?
But as it turns out, retail in the world of Waldorf schools is a viable business. A new store opening in Sebastopol that caters to Waldorf-inspired products shows there's a market in minimalism.
Circle of Hands, a Waldorf collective of eleven artisan toy makers, is officially opening its doors for business on Saturday.
"Here in Sonoma County, we are a whole bunch of people that make the Waldorf toys," said collective co-founder Christine Schreier, owner of The Puppenstube, a company that makes handmade dolls and imports German toys made of wood. "The principle behind this is simple... They're minimalistic basically, so it leaves the child free for the imagination."
Waldorf-inspired schools place a high value on developing a child's imagination in a natural environment. Wood and wool are in, but plastic is out. Playing outside and making up an imaginary world with branches and leaves is encouraged. Activities like watching television and movies, or playing with electronics like an iPad, are not.
That might sound like a tricky environment for retailers. But a handful of companies based in Sonoma County have successfully carved out a niche in the growing community of Waldorf homes.
Sarah's Silks, which was founded in Forestville by Sarah Lee, is one of them. The company sells colorful silk cloths used for dressing up and imaginative games to an estimated 250 Waldorf schools worldwide. It brought in about $850,000 in sales in 2011, and employs five people including the founders. Before the recession, the company brought in about $1 million a year.
Another toy company, HearthSong, was founded by Waldorf parent Barbara Kane in 1983, and was eventually bought by 1-800-Flowers.com.
This all is happening in an environment that discourages consumerism. Kim John Payne, author of "Simplicity Parenting," speaks at Waldorf schools and encourages parents to look at their child's pile of toys and belongings, and basically cut it in half. And when they're done, they're encouraged to cut the pile in half again.
"He's all about &‘real simple,' and not having much," Lee said. "That's what a Waldorf mom would aspire to have, a few little things."
That sometimes gets in the way of sales. Schreier once talked a woman out of buying a doll for her daughter, after learning the 4-year-old already had 10 little babes on her doll shelf.
"We had a good talk, and I could see how relieved that woman was to not buy a doll," Schreier said. "Somebody behind me said, &‘You are the worst salesperson I ever experienced.' But I had to say that, because this is my belief."
In the end, the mother bought the doll for herself, and Schreier found a customer who trusted her.
Free crafts and activities for kids will be held at the grand opening of the store on 925 D Gravenstein Highway South on Saturday.
The products have all the makings of a successful brand carved out in a niche market. But, does that make Waldorf-inspired toys a brand? Not exactly.
"There's a Waldorf aesthetic," Lee said. "The play silks, the wooden dolls, if you talk to any Waldorf parent around the world, they have those things in their house."