PITTSFIELD — Crispina ffrench and Sofia Hughes are artists and sisters who have become stewards of a family legacy their parents began more than 50 years ago.
They co-own The Dolphin Studio, a family-run hand-screen printing company in Stockbridge that their late parents, John and Primm ffrench, who were high school art teachers, founded in 1970, as a place to make and sell their own artwork. The Dolphin Studio's signature product is a hand-printed silk-screen calendar that the elder ffrenchs began making for their friends 51 years ago. The calendar has become so popular that it has become a traditional Christmas gift for families around the world. [It received national recognition a few years ago, when it was featured in Martha Stewart Living].
Crispina also runs her own creative textile recycling company out of her home in Becket; Hughes, who lives in Stockbridge, is a kindergarten teacher in Sheffield. But, family is important to them.
The ffrenchs are one of the 14 tribes of Galway, a group of merchant families who dominated the political, community and social life of the city of Galway in western Ireland from the mid-13th to late-19th century (the spelling of the last name, with two lowercase "ffs," is an Old Irish version, according to Crispina). The studio is named after the dolphin on the ffrench family crest (The Dolphin Studio's logo comes directly from that crest).
We spoke with the sisters recently about the calendar, the studio, their parents' legacy, what it's like to work and co-own property together, and how their children have become involved in the business.
Q: Why did your parents see a need to open their own studio?
Ffrench: I think there were a bunch of reasons, but I feel the main reason was that they wanted to augment their public school art teachers' paychecks [John and Primm ffrench taught at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington] with a little more income. My father's family was from Ireland, so, they kind of put money away as much as they could in order to travel and visit his family there. It was so expensive. There were five people traveling [Crispina and Sofia have an older sister, Felicitas].
Q: Why did they call it The Dolphin Studio?
Hughes: It was just to keep the ffrench family history in with the name of the company.
Q: What did your parents originally make there?
Ffrench: Initially, The Dolphin Studio was created to sell my parents' artwork, and they made a lot of different things. My dad was primarily a printer and ceramicist, while my mother was a painter. ... They made prints, they did tapestry, weaving and a lot of pottery and collages. A lot of their work was collaborative. They worked on the same stuff.
Q: Was the calendar one of the original items that they made at the studio, or did it evolve over time?
Hughes: I think it was sort of simultaneously happening.
Ffrench: My dad was Irish. He traveled to Italy and India, all over the world. He sailed around Cape Horn. The guy was kind of a nonstop traveler. My mom — they knew each other 10 years before they were married — she was originally from Virginia, and her family lived in California and Virginia. ... They both traveled a lot, and they had friends that traveled all over the place and they were really good at staying in touch with these people. So, they used the calendar as a way to touch base with all those people.
Q: Why did the two of you decide to keep the tradition going by continuing to make the calendar?
Hughes: Our father passed away first [in 2010]. He was the master printer of the calendar. We grew up printing with him. ... When he passed away, my mother was still alive [Primm ffrench died in 2013]. There were so many people that we sold calendars to when he was alive, and our friends really look forward to it and would sort of go crazy without it. They'd go, "You can't stop doing it. You have to keep doing it."
It had just been so much a part of our lives that I couldn't imagine not doing it, as crazy as that sounds. So, Crispina and I looked at each other and said, "OK, we're going to have to take the reins here and figure out how to do it."
Ffrench: Like our parents, Sofia and I know a ton of people, and they are scattered all over the world. My mother and father sent these calendars out to their friends, and most of those people's kids are our friends, so, we send the calendars to those people. Like Sofia said, I can't imagine not doing it. It's a real nice thing to have this connection, she and I. We're really close as siblings go. We hang out a lot and we would, even if we didn't have a calendar business.
Q: Who's the older one?
Ffrench: Sofie's way older than me.
Hughes: I am the younger one, don't let her fool you [Crispina is the elder sister, by 18 months].
Q: What's it like working together as sisters?
Hughes: I think most of the time we understand each other. We know what we have to do. We sort have our own little jobs cut out for us. Because we're sisters and because we're a tight family, there are definitely ups and downs, but it's more ups than downs because we've been doing this really pretty much all of our lives. It's just part of our routine.
Ffrench I run a business that's separate from the studio. ... One of the things that I remember 10 years [after] starting my business was that I wished I had a business partner. ... Just someone who was in it with me. Someone who was not an employee; someone who didn't walk away.
Sofie and I ... we're just in it. I know that if I'm overwhelmed or if I'm feeling like, "Oh, my gosh, I need help," that I can call her up. That happened this weekend. ... Within five minutes of the conversation, I was able to backtrack and feel good and know that she had my back. ... I don't know if there's a way to have that with someone who's not a sibling.
Hughes: Because we are family ... because we are sisters, we're always going to have each other's back. That overcomes whatever bumps might happen along the way.
Q: Have you guys always gotten along well?
Hughes: Yes. Crispina was my best friend growing up as a kid.
Q: Tell me something you used to do as kids that bonded you together and makes you good business partners.
Ffrench: Remember the super summer sitting service? We were, like, young teenagers, I think 13 or 14, and we had six kids that we took care of all summer in the backyard. ... It was kind of our first entrepreneurial endeavor, and we made money.
Q: Your children are now helping to make the calendar, too. Is this something you encouraged them to do, or that they decided to do?
Hughes: My daughter, Lily, is 22. She wanted to be involved in more than just making designs for the calendar. ... She started helping to print several years ago, and this year she was the print shop manager, so, she had to figure out all the times, and the work and filling up the ink and all of those sorts of things. She willingly chose to do it.
Ffrench: My youngest, Violet [who turns 15 in February] will probably start working in the company this summer. ... I have another daughter, who's 14. ... She had no interest in doing that this summer, and that's OK, that's fine, she wasn't forced. ... It's totally a choice that the kids can make.