Ibis and Orchid Man behind marble designs resides in River City

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 10, 2010

On John Solomon’s desk, there’s a bouquet of calla lilies. Downstairs, on the counter, there’s a vase filled with gerber daisies.

There’s a lot of difference: the daisies will fade and be thrown away, but the calla lilies are forever. They’re made of marble.

John calls the arrangement of calla lilies “my million-dollar vase — literally.” He designed and introduced the item in 2004 and in two years sold over a million dollars’ worth.

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He and his partner, Min Yi Lin, own and operate Ibis & Orchid Design, a company that manufactures and markets decorative items. Included are vases, night lights, accent lamps, votives, picture frames, keepsake boxes, candlesticks, letter holders — there seems to be no end to the ideas, the latest being a sculpted outlet cover that doubles as a cell phone charger holder.

“Ibis & Orchid is a name I came up with,” he said. “It’s sort of an engaging way of saying we’re going to do a company that is centered around nature, ibis being a bird and orchid a flower. The scarlet ibis is an unusual bird, and I wanted an unusual name.”

Most items are decorated with flowers and birds, and many of the flowers reproduced are from John’s yard here in Warren County. He’ll photograph jonquils and daffodils that pop up, then make detailed drawings of them before sending them to his partner, Min, for production. Most of the flowers on the vases and other items are those Southerners are familiar with — daisies, dogwood, magnolias, black-eyed susans, bearded iris — though the company has done some really exotic flowers, “But people tend to buy the ones they know best.”

Ibis & Orchid products are made of pulverized marble mixed with a bonding agent and cold cast. They’re heavy enough so they can’t be easily turned over. The marble gives them a wonderful cool feel, and light glows beautifully through them.

They’re in about 3,500 stores in the United States and are available in Japan and Canada. The business is wholesale, and the only retail outlet in Vicksburg is Sassafras, downtown on Washington Street.

When John began peddling his products 10 years ago, it was the one local outlet that took a chance. It’s mutually beneficial, he said, for the store is also a place where he can display his wares. At the Old Court House Flea Market a few days ago, a shopper was surprised to know, “These are from here?” because she had seen them in stores in Alaska and Canada.

John grew up in Vicksburg, graduated from St. Al and earned a degree from Southern Mississippi in graphic communications. He worked for ad agencies, did TV productions on the East Coast from North Carolina to Maryland and began work as a graphic designer for a New Hampshire company that made kitchen and garden products. While designing their catalogs, he learned to draw for sculptors — something from which they could create.

That was in 1995, and John decided to move back to Mississippi, get married and freelance for different companies. That’s when he started his own company, “when business was really hot.”

But he needed a partner, and the first person he thought of was Min Yi Lin from Taiwan. They had met when John was doing some work for Disney and had gone to Burbank, Calif., to show his drawings. Min was a sculptor, one of the few who was allowed by Disney to sculpt Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and others. Min was a master sculptor who produced fine art, “But how many of those are you going to sell? That’s why he was sculpting Mickey Mouse, and so forth. You know, you have to make a living.”

That was about 15 years ago, and John and Min became friends, “So I called him and said, ‘I can’t pay you. Do you want to be a partner?’ He said sure, this was an opportunity he had been waiting for.”

Min’s job is to find factories to produce the products and keep quality control. His sphere of influence is Asia; John’s is North America. They see each other only a few times a year and communicate mostly by e-mail.

“I can design anything,” John said, “but you have to have a good factory on the other end. The items are made in a small factory in Asia that employs about 30 people — artists, sculptors and manufacturers. John and Min are the only customers, “so if we go out of business, they go out of business. That’s why I tell people we own the factory.”

Their wives are an integral part of the company.

Min’s wife is an artist, and she’s responsible for the painting — each item is hand-painted, some colors vibrant, others delicate hues. John’s wife is budget director at University Medical Center, and she uses the same talents for Ibis and Orchid. They met when each was building a house on the reservoir in Jackson in 1990, and were introduced by their contractor — they were using the same house plans! Their courtship began when “we began walking together in the neighborhood. She’s wise; she’s tremendous,” and she agreed to move to Vicksburg where they live on Henry Road.

The company’s office is in the old Habeeb building at Spring and Clay streets, but John laughingly calls the barn behind his house “global headquarters.” It’s not just a Vicksburg company, but it’s also in some respects a family business, for several of his relatives are involved. His sister is in charge of “command central.”

John designs not just the products, but also the promotional catalogs. At Southern, he said, he learned to deal with concepts. Technology changes, but not concepts.

He said his sales reps assure him that Ibis & Orchid is unique in the market. Major shows are held in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.

John has to find different ideas because returning customers want to know what’s new. They’ve seen the older items, have many of them and want something else. Some are phased out by attrition, but others just keep selling. He began the designs for night lights with nine, and he’s now up to 130.

“You have to feed the beast,” he said.

He said he didn’t take botany in school and wasn’t a gardener, but his wife is, “and I am now.” The flowers in his designs are authentic, not whimsical, but most of what he’s learned about them has been self-taught. He’s always had a love of flowers, but just didn’t know much about them.

He does knows this: the flowers on his desk don’t have to be watered and the drought won’t kill them.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.