Ashley Viola has built a career around telling stories. She began as a children’s media executive—and Emmy Award-winning Producer/Director at Sesame Street—where she worked with companies to share the stories of beloved characters.
However, while working with Muppets and traveling the world, she developed a passion for international design rooted specifically in the unique cultural backstory of each piece. And thus Meridian was born: a self-described “digital social enterprise brand” that seamlessly blends globally-informed home decor with ethical production methods that put the artisans themselves at the center.
“Meridian lives and breathes on the basis of having tremendous respect for our artisan providers,” says Viola, who launched the company in June 2017. “We build ongoing relationships with organizations of all sizes in order to provide sustainable partnerships that have a lasting social impact.”
Customers will find a wide variety of items on Meridian’s site ranging from $33 to $225. Between blue and white printed porcelain pots from China and a cotton blanket handwoven on a standing foot pedal loom by a family cooperative in Mexico, each piece celebrates cultural diversity and artisan craftsmanship. And, of course, the story of the craftsperson who created it.
“Whether they were about furry, lovable old Grover meeting people from another country and learning about their culture, or about a cooperative of women in Zimbabwe who have developed a basket weaving business—I am telling stories about compelling characters, appreciating their skills and artistry, and celebrating their cultural heritage,” says Viola.
We spoke with the media executive-turned-business owner to get our own story on Meridian.
How did the idea for the company arise?
My family valued travel as a form of education and entertainment. I was nine when I went on my first safari in Africa, and I loved the idea of adventure on foreign land. I grew up in Minneapolis, but have also lived in Paris and Zermatt, Switzerland—so immersing myself in a new culture was something we just did. That interest propelled my career, especially when I was able to work on projects that explored ideas of world cultures and geography.
The idea for Meridian was percolating for a long time before I finally decided to dive into it full time. Several years ago, my family moved into a new apartment in downtown Manhattan; I wanted our apartment to reflect our travels, but I quickly found it difficult to source authentic and beautiful pieces from afar. I wanted every item in our home to feel like I had acquired it on the road, and I loved the idea of telling the stories about the cultural significance or maker of each piece. That desire was the spark that lead to Meridian.
How do you source your products?
We source our products from all over the world; the brand’s vision is to have a global aesthetic and not be heavily rooted in one country or continent. Much of our sourcing is done through direct travel to our key artisan partner organizations in order to build and sustain those relationships. We can’t be everywhere at once, so we have developed a system of regional directors positioned in markets who oversee our sourcing and production in the areas we can’t get to right away.
This system has worked to our advantage because often we enter a market with intentions to partner with one type of artisan organization, but through our local connections we’ve been able to discover new products. For example, we were sourcing textiles in India and discovered the fine art of bone inlay furniture and accessories. I was immediately drawn to the intricate detail and craftsmanship of this technique, and we found a family of master artisans to create our first line of bone inlay products. Each Bone Inlay Box is hand crafted in a meticulous process that requires a team of artisans to create a single box over several weeks.
There is a big focus on ethics and travel in the company; can you speak a little to the importance of both?
Our mission is to build partnerships with master artisan organizations in isolated communities worldwide and to connect them with the global economy through an online consumer marketplace. We couldn’t fulfill that mission if we didn’t travel!
Travel provides a great source of inspiration, but it also leads us to discover new artisan groups and product opportunities. Since we are focused on building ongoing, sustainable relationships with artisan groups, being able to visit their workshops and stay in regular communication is the foundation on which our business is built.
Our products are 100 percent authentic, and we have direct relationships with all of our partners. For example, we work with a women’s cooperative of basket makers in Zimbabwe who create traditional woven baskets using locally grown palm leaves. We collaborate with their organization to provide ongoing support to help grow their business; often this involves general advice and logistics assistance as they continue to grow.
Thank goodness for WhatsApp. It’s the first app I check on my phone when I wake up and the last thing I touch when I turn it off for the night.
Who is the Meridian customer?
The Meridian customer is someone who loves to travel or has a serious case of wanderlust. They are rooted in traditional design sensibilities but not afraid to mix in textiles and textures for a global appeal. They cherish the stories behind our products and appreciate an object’s origins and heritage.
How would you best describe the aesthetic of your products?
We look for heirloom quality work with an aesthetic that can work in almost any setting. We love classics but sometimes add a contemporary twist. There is so much beauty in original creations that often they go untouched and are delivered in their natural state, but sometimes we repurpose something that otherwise may have gone to waste.
I grew up scavenging flea markets for hand-knotted carpets and brass candlesticks. My personal aesthetic falls somewhere between traditional and contemporary, and I think the Meridian aesthetic mirrors that taste.
My current living room, for example, has a mid-century Iranian carpet under a Lucite coffee table with an indigo velvet couch and French Louis style chairs. Of course, we have several Meridian pillows in the mix, too. I’ve seen Meridian customers incorporate our products into very traditional settings, midcentury modern rooms, and even farmhouse-style homes.
If you had to pick, what’s a personal favorite item of yours?
Since I’m in charge of sourcing each product, I truly love everything we have. I have always been partial to anything blue and white, so our Chinese Blue and White Porcelain Pots often make my personal favorites list. I also love using beads as a simple and textural styling accessory, so our Recycled Glass Beads in the watermelon color are currently on display on a bookshelf in my living room.
Where do you see the company in the future?
I personally would like to be able to reach further into more countries and collaborate with artisans in more remote areas of the world. More broadly, I would like to continue to see Meridian grow as a socially responsible lifestyle brand that makes an impact on artisans all over the world by providing a direct and ongoing income. We love seeing our artisan providers grow over time, provide access to education for their families, or improve their facilities or supply chain.