2023 Entrepreneur of the Year: Candice Luter

Candice Luter
Candice Luter

If you search Candice Luter’s name online you will find hundreds of images featuring intricate home decor pieces. From decorative mirrors to wall art to furniture, every one of them is handcrafted in Ms. Luter’s Cedar Rapids studio.

Through her determination, Ms. Luter has turned her humble farmers market stand into a nationally-recognized brand, Candice Luter Art & Interiors. This year, she has been named the Corridor Business Journal’s 2023 Entrepreneur of the Year.

Cedar Rapids native

Candice Luter
Candice Luter

Ms. Luter was born and raised in Cedar Rapids and graduated from Washington High School in 2002. She went on to study and play collegiate volleyball at Des Moines Area Community College for one year. In 2003, she became pregnant with her daughter and returned to Cedar Rapids, but continued her studies at Kirkwood Community College.

“It was very scary, and I think back now about how truly broke I was at that time,” Ms. Luter said. “I couldn’t even put $5 in my gas tank and I was crying then, thinking ‘this is all that there is to life.’”

But of course, there would be more.

After her time at Kirkwood and the birth of her daughter in 2004, Ms. Luter transferred to Coe College and earned a degree in Health & Fitness, graduating in 2007. She had a brief stint as a personal trainer but, after once again realizing that she wanted more for her life and career, she landed a job in broker sales and program management at Collins Aerospace, then known as Rockwell Collins. Ms. Luter would remain at the company for nearly eight years.

It was during this time that Ms. Luter began creating upcycled home decor projects in her garage as a creative outlet.

“I always say it was like a happy accident, because I definitely never started out to start a business,” she said. “I had a small condo at the time and it was just a fun creative outlet for me, because I’m a single mom and I didn’t really have anything that was just for me. I just liked to tinker around in the garage.”

It was through her “tinkering” that Ms. Luter found her passion for design, then began taking those designs to local farmers markets.

This is also when she decided to leave Collins Aerospace and take a position at Phelan’s Interiors, where she worked for the next three years in business development and account management for commercial projects in Cedar Rapids.

“I took the leap of faith and everybody thought I lost my mind,” Ms. Luter said. “It was very scary, trust me, but I needed to do it.”

Turning lemons into lemonade

During her years at Phelan’s, Ms. Luter utilized the resources of her new job to resume creating her designs, which she continued to sell at local markets.

“They would be throwing away fabric and broken tables in the dumpster and I’d be like, ‘no, I can use that!’” she said. “I was just using the resources that I had. I was making big pillows that were colorblocked with different fabric and upcycling different pieces of furniture… But I really wanted more control over the design. So that’s when I thought, ‘well, I can run a saw if a man can run a saw.’ So, I started buying power tools and watching YouTube tutorials and teaching myself how to do those different things.”

After her time at Phelan’s, Ms. Luter began working at Storey Kenworthy, another interior design business in Cedar Rapids. It was while at this job, in 2019, that she decided to list her designs on Etsy, a retail website that allows individual artisans and designers to list and sell their products.

“I thought, I’ll just throw stuff out there because I have nothing to lose,” she said.

Candice Luter's designs have gained national and international recognition. CREDIT CANDICE LUTER
Candice Luter’s designs have gained national and international recognition. CREDIT CANDICE LUTER

Within months, national brands were reaching out, and Ms. Luter’s “side hustle” began to take on a life of its own, hitting $70,000 in sales by the end of 2019.

“I was quickly navigating major contracts that I had no business navigating, but I just kind of jumped at it with both feet,” she said. “I was making all of this product out of my house at this time. I mean, there was dye everywhere and rope piles everywhere and it was a mess.”

Ms. Luter quickly realized she was overwhelmed and needed help with fulfilling orders.

“I was kind of delirious one night at like 2 or 3 in the morning and I put out this video saying ‘you want to be an entrepreneur? This is what it looks like … Behind the scenes, it’s very stressful,’” she said. “I immediately started getting all these messages from other women saying ‘can I volunteer? Can I help out? Are you hiring?’”

After calculating how she would pay for extra help, Ms. Luter scheduled a “training night” at her home with the women who were interested in helping her with production.

“I think I had like 15 to 20 women show up, and then I just started scheduling them and teaching them how I do things,” she said.

Today, Ms. Luter’s studio and production space no longer operates out of her home, but out of a historic Cedar Rapids building, 605 G Ave NW, that she calls “The Warehouse.” It has enough space for her all-female staff to produce and store pieces, as well as innovate new artistic techniques for future designs.

Like so many Americans, being laid off in 2020 propelled her into full-time entrepreneurship.

After leaving Storey Kenworthy, Ms. Luter’s sales more than tripled in 2020, topping $230,000 on Etsy sales alone, not including contracts with national retailers and sales made on other platforms.

Finding inspiration

Throughout her time as an artist and designer, Ms. Luter has taken inspiration from her personal life to create her intricate and striking designs, which heavily feature natural colors and textures.

In 2021, Ms. Luter won first place in the global Etsy Design Awards. CREDIT CANDICE LUTER
In 2021, Ms. Luter won first place in the global Etsy Design Awards. CREDIT CANDICE LUTER

In 2021, Ms. Luter won first place in the global Etsy Design Awards. Her business took home a $20,000 grand prize for a mirror design that called back to her roots as a “scrappy” crafter and artisan.

“The design that we won with was just me trying to cover up some scratches on a mirror,” she said. “Our building is right by this old railroad track here. The trains go by twice a day, so brick dust was shaking down on top of where we work our mirrors. I was like, ‘how can we avoid wasting these mirrors?’ So, I came up with this way to texture and add some gold on there, and that’s what ended up winning.”

Today, you can find Ms. Luter’s art on a variety of retail websites and in national stores like West Elm, Lulu & Georgia, Wayfair, All Modern, Bloomingdales and Target.

In fact, Ms. Luter designed Target’s 2021 Black History Month home decor line, which was sold at 855 stores nationwide as well as online. It sold out completely.

“It was cool to have my name on a Target tag, but for me, it really was the defining moment of me emerging into myself and not looking for other people to say that I’m enough,” Ms. Luter said. “The last few years have been transformative.”

As is evident in her past experiences, Ms. Luter believes that “a setback is really just an opportunity for a comeback.”

“I love Cedar Rapids. And honestly, every time I get asked to do an interview, I always talk about what an amazing community we have in the Corridor,” she said, when asked why her business remains in her hometown despite its national reputation. “To be able to ask for help from this community, and then to receive it … Keeping my business here is a way for me to say ‘thank you.’”