Maker Spotlight: Bird Vs. Bird Designs

Bess Petty, aka Bird Vs. Bird Designs, hand-makes a variety of gifts with her own designs of little critters printed on each item. Bird Vs. Bird’s range of products spans from throw pillows in the shape of owls and chipmunk coin pouches, to magnets, stickers and buttons celebrating local wildlife. We asked Petty to share how she got started with Bird Vs. Bird, as well as her own personal experience being a maker in Oakland.


Oaklandish (O): What roads led you to Oakland? What qualities about the city made you (want to) settle here?


Bess Petty (BP): I was actually born in Oakland, at the old Kaiser Hospital, although I grew up in Davis.  I moved to Oakland from Berkeley after graduating from Cal in 2001, and have lived in the Grand Lake neighborhood for over ten years now.  I was originally drawn by reasonable rents and an easy bike commute to my job downtown, but over the years I’ve grown to appreciate so much about the city and my neighborhood — the walkability, the food, the sense of excitement and creativity and community even as the city has gone through challenging times.


O: What inspired you to start Bird vs. Bird? What was the professional and creative pathway you took in creating the concept?


BP: I started Bird vs. Bird very informally in 2006 — the stars just kind of aligned. A college friend was one of the founders of Rock Paper Scissors and asked if I could make some stuff to sell in their store.  At my job, one of my duties at the time was operating a wide format banner/decal printer.  The process generated a lot of scrap material that was going straight to the landfill, and I figured I could come up with something crafty to do with it.


I have always been kind of a nature dork, and had been experimenting with drawing birds in [Adobe] Illustrator.  I ended up coming up with a very simple design for a little one-pocket pouch that I could sew out of a single piece of folded banner material.  My boss said I could print whatever I wanted in the waste areas of the banner rolls as they went through the printer as long as I paid for the ink I used. So, I printed my birds and went to town!


Over the next several years I created more graphics, got a better sewing machine, and started coming up with more products to put my designs on. I opened an Etsy store in 2007 and soon thereafter started to get inquiries from stores about selling wholesale.  I also started doing a few craft fairs, such as the Renegade Craft Fair.  After a while, I realized I had a real business that I could take seriously, so I worked on making professional looking line sheets and catalogs and a simple website.  Creatively, I’ve tried to stay true to what I genuinely like to make — products that are both fun and useful, reasonably priced and featuring birds and animals that for the most part can be seen here in Northern California.



O: Is Bird vs. Bird a full time project for you now? Do you still juggle a day job?


BP: Bird vs. Bird has always been an evenings and weekend endeavor. From when I got started until last August, I was working full time in downtown Oakland in the wide format printing business, doing graphic design and production management. Especially around the holidays, I would not get much sleep! I’d race home and be sewing or packaging or pressing pins until midnight.


In September, I had a baby, and for the time being I’m at home with him during the day.  He’s a delightful little guy, but very active and a lousy napper. I still do all of my Bird vs. Bird work at night or on the weekends when my husband is home.  As my son gets older, I’d like to be able to devote more time to expanding the business.  And also to sleeping.


O: Describe the process of creating your products. Has the process been refined over the years?


BP: I kind of have two channels of creation. One part is coming up with the bird graphics, which I do in Illustrator using a stylus and tablet. Although the finished images have a fairly simple aesthetic, it takes a lot of deliberation and tweaking of colors and lines to get them to where I want them.


The other part is actually designing and fabricating my products, which I do all myself. I have fabric yardage printed by Spoonflower for my coasters and pillows, but everything else happens in my tiny home studio — cutting, sewing, more cutting, pressing pins and magnets with my trusty hand press, designing and printing my packaging. I love having control over the whole process. Over the years, I’ve definitely gotten faster at all of the fabrication steps.



O: How does Oakland inspire Bird vs. Bird?


BP: Oakland definitely inspires me!  I live very close to Lake Merritt, and I love seeing the ebb and flow of bird life as the seasons change. Several of my designs are of birds that can be seen at the Lake — egrets, herons, cormorants and, of course, the omnipresent Canadian goose. I love when people look at my work and recognize a bird they’ve seen at the Lake or up in Redwood Park.


O: Why do you think Oakland has become such a destination for crafty entrepreneurs in recent years?


BP: It sounds like a cliche, but I think Oakland inspires because it is so alive and so diverse. There’s just so much to look at! I spend a lot of time on foot with my baby, just rambling or running errands, and it’s so cool how many different types of neighborhoods we can cruise through within a few miles.


As an artisan, it’s also inspiring to see so many small, local business that sell things created by small, local makers. I think that gives crafty entrepreneurs the feeling that, “Hey, maybe I can make something that beautiful or functional too, and someone will actually buy it!”


O: How have you seen Oakland change since living here?


BP: A lot has changed, for sure.  Obviously the cost of living has gone up a lot, which is challenging. Especially now that I have a kid, I would like to be able to move to a bigger dwelling without working 7 jobs. On the good side, there are so many more great places to eat, and exciting, fun things going on now. When I originally moved to my neighborhood, not that many people hung out at the Lake. Now, it’s a total weekend destination, and that makes me really happy.


O: Do you have any new projects currently in the works?


BP: I’ve been in survival mode for a while due to wrangling my baby, but I do have lots of stuff in the works. I’m in the midst of editing and adding to my roster of bird and animal designs, and am hoping to have that done by the end of Summer. I also am working on expanding my product range — not sure when things will hit the market, but I’m considering offering prints and greeting cards or postcards, and more fabric-based products. I’m always eager to hear suggestions from my customers!

Another thing I’d like to expand on is doing more custom, collaborative projects like the Birds of Oakland magnet and pin sets I do for Oaklandish.  I’m currently working on something with the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, and would love to work with local wildlife and parks organizations.


You can find Bird Vs. Bird items at both Oaklandish retail locations, and be sure to follow Bess on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest Bird Vs. Bird updates!