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Petaluma’s Catstudio makes products that evoke nostalgia and a sense of home

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What place stirs up nostalgic feelings of good times and joyful memories? Is it your home state or town, a favorite vacation spot, your alma mater?

Wherever your happy place happens to be, a Petaluma-based design studio has probably made a pillow to commemorate it.

From Vail, Colorado to the Mississippi Coast, Kansas City to Queens, Catstudio is all over the map with whimsical pillows, drinking glasses, kitchen towels and other home accessories that pay homage to the places people love.

Founders Carmen and Terrell Swan have created a singular look with map designs that evoke nostalgia and tell stories about cherished places. Each is crowded with iconography that makes them as appealing to locals as to vacationers who may pick one up as a travel souvenir.

“It’s like an ode to these places,” said Terrell Swan, a tall, bearded promoter of fun. The Swans’ studio, set in an industrial area in north Petaluma, is a warren of offices, workspaces and storerooms bulging with crazy art, books, toys, posters, random ephemera and tchotchkes and stacks and stacks of products alphabetically arranged and ready to ship around the country.

The couple started with two hand-embroidered maps to commemorate the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. They proved so popular that the Swans, who at the time had their own clothing company, decided to devote themselves to making an ever-expanding line of pillows with designs inspired by the kitschy souvenirs so common in the 1930s and 1940s.

They opened Catstudio — a melding of their names — in 2000. Twenty years later their colorful catalog has grown to more than 300 geographical locations and 71 colleges from the University of Alabama to Yale. They also have added an array of other products such as zip pouches, thermal bottles and fine art prints.

These probably are not what you’re going to place in a formal living room. But they do make playful accessories for a vacation home or cabin, a vintage travel trailer, a motor home, a family room, a den, a summery porch or patio, a kitchen, a casual bedroom or even a college dorm room.

Celebrities such as Leonard DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, Martha Stewart, Lionel Ritchie and Taylor Swift have been seen with whimsical hand- embroidered Catstudio pillows.

Like playing a game of Where’s Waldo, the Swans love spotting their designs on social media, in design magazines and on screen. Southern Living featured a Catstudio textile of Charleston put to use as a placemat. Popular blogger and TV star Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman, photographed baking ingredients on a Texas dish towel. Pillows have adorned the sets of The Bachelor and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. In a Country Living feature on Carrie Underwood and her favorite things, the singer/songwriter singled out a Catstudio pillow of Oklahoma that included her native Muskogee.

Although some locations are more popular than others, all 50 states are commemorated with a pillow. Locals who want to show their Northern California pride can choose from Sonoma, Marin or Napa counties; the North Coast, Petaluma, Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Golden Gate Park, Carmel and Big Sur.

The geographical theme comes naturally to both Terrell and Carmel. She says she was practically born in a plane flying back and forth from Honolulu to San Francisco. Terrell took his first trip overseas on a ship to Europe before he could walk. They have spent their lives separately and together on wanderlust and even fell in love on a road trip through the great geographical landmarks of the West in 1985.

The design process is meticulous and begins with careful research. Their goal is not so much geographical as cultural accuracy.

Terrell’s office is lined with reference books on art, design, history, geography and travel. When tackling a new location, they interview friends and other people — their “toughest critics” who live in or are from the area — to ensure the final design includes both iconic and insider images.

For instance, friends insisted the Malibu pillow had to include a reference to “The Bu,” a local nickname for the ocean paradise favored by celebrities, surfers and the young and beautiful.

For their hometown of Petaluma, there is the expected Victorian houses and the Petaluma River. But there are also references only locals would know, like Bill Soberanes, the late legendary Argus-Courier columnist and “peopleologist;” The Phoenix theater; Della Fattoria bakery; “American Graffiti,” which was filmed in downtown Petaluma, and Petaluma Pete, who performs honky tonk on pianos around town.

“One design is like giving birth to a baby. It takes at least nine months, from Terrel’s beginning vision, then working with the artists. There are so many interactions, calling people in the location and getting their feedback. Deleting stuff and finally getting to a position where we can put it in the computer to clean it up and color it,” Carmel said.

A trained artist, she was working in the record industry in Los Angeles when she met Terrell, who ran a clothing company out of Houston. The couple bring complementary skills and strengths to the process.

“I’m good at starting and Carmel is the wizard at completing a project,” Terrell said, grinning. “I’m the gas pedal and she’s the brakes.”

In the beginning they did all the designs themselves. But over the years, they’ve turned work over to an art director and a design team of five artists.

Most of the 100% organic cotton material is hand-loomed, then hand-embroidered in India, incorporating up to 30 thread colors. Each 20-by-20 inch pillow takes a week to embroider to get each word and icon correct. A few that require absolute uniformity in a logo or design are machine embroidered.

That level of care means the pillows are more heirlooms (starting at around $192 on the Catstudio.com website). But for a more affordable variation of the look, a dish towel can be picked up for $20 online. The drinking glasses are $16.50.

In addition to a playful sense of humor and a love of travel and good design, the Swans have a mutual appreciation for the art of craft.

“We both love things made by hand,” Carmel said. “It just speaks to us. The craft part of it is beautiful.”

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