Citizen Profile: Leslie Aisner Novak
By Kathleen Downey
“My life has become fuller and more meaningful as I’ve learned to trust my intuition and to believe in myself,” says artist, inventor, and innovator Leslie Aisner Novak (she now goes by “Aisner,” bit it’s important to her to keep a connection to her former marital name). She becomes pensive when grappling with her thoughts to find just-the-right words to more fully express the self-realization that she has shared.
“It’s different from standing on solid ground,” Aisner says. “I’ve discovered that ‘standing’ on my faith in myself offers me much stronger support . . . allowing me to gain a more intimate understanding of myself, a ‘knowing,’ that has given me such a sense of gratitude and a passion for life . . . that, in turn, allows me to give more of myself.”
“Does that make sense?” the young septuagenarian asks.
Aisner is the edgy, funky, friendly, and joyous creator of HowdaDesignz. Founded in 1990, the company’s whimsical and functional prototype is the HowdaSeat, a canvas chair with wooden support slats. Fashioned after an old rumble seat that Aisner picked out of a heap of discarded items of her garage in Des Moines, Iowa, the HowdaSeat offers comfort and portability . . . the ideal chair for the beach, lawn, parade, car, or airplane—or for anywhere a person might want to “plunk down,” assures Aisner.
The petite businesswoman with the reddish-brown hair plunked herself in Newburyport’s South End in 1988, having moved here from Des Moines to take a job with an Italian ceramic tile distributor in Boston. With her three children grown and living apart from her, the entrepreneur began focusing her free time on transforming her idea for a hip, ergonomically and environmentally sound, legless chair into . . . well, something you could comfortably plunk your seat onto.
“I drew inspiration from the beautiful old house I was living in,” says Aisner. She alludes to a “great ghost story” from the 1680 Bromfield Street house, which gave her the idea for the name HowdaSeat, but she does not give up the ghost. “A story for another time,” she teases.
“I started my business as a cottage industry with two key people who worked alongside me and offered their assistance, expertise, and support,” states Aisner. She credits Melina “Mel” Melvin for providing a “full scope” of administrative services and Karen Scalia for providing marketing expertise. “They always had my back,” asserts Aisner (perhaps a subliminal pun to the back support that her HowdaSeat provides).
The next two years were spent reconstructing, product testing, and obtaining a patent on her design. During this time, Aisner visited countless fairs, open markets, and trade shows where she tested her HowdaSeat with the masses.
Aisner’s tenacity, and a belief in her product and in herself, paid off.
The HowdaSeat rocked the J. Peterman Co. Catalog with a full-page ad in the early 1990s, introducing the country to this authentic seat. Appearance in Solutions, L. L. Bean, and Restoration Hardware catalogs came next.
HowdaBags followed. Canvass Bucket Bags, Over-the-shoulder with leather straps (vegan model also available), clutch bags, and weekender bags are included in the line.
Aisner rocked the market again in 2005 with the introduction of her HowdaHugs seat. Designed for children with sensory disorders, particularly children “on the autism spectrum,” the chair is designed to gently cradle and rock a child, giving the child the sensation of a gentle and secure hug. “The HowdaHugs allows a child to have a sense of his or her own space” explains Aisner.
“Today,” Aisner reveals, “more than 4000 schools across the nation are using the HowdaHugs.”
Originally manufactured in a barn in Newbury, HowdaSeats and HowdaHugs are now manufactured in Lewiston, Maine. HowdaBags are manufactured in Exeter, NH, and Lynn. Locally, the Howda creations can be found at Chameleon and can also be purchased through the company’s website.
“I like working with cottage industries,” says Aisner. “It’s a community of talented, resourceful people who create the finest quality crafts.”
Her devotion to this community keeps Aisner adamant about keeping HowdaDesignz’s manufacturing operations in America.
A sense of patriotism and a connection with her fellow Americans provided the inspiration for Aisner’s FACES collection. More precisely, it was America’s tragedy of 9/11 that gave way to this body of art.
“I saw the hundreds of black and white Xeroxed photographs—faces of the missing—attached to walls all over Manhattan,” says Aisner. When she returned to Newburyport, Aisner took scraps of yellow paper and “began drawing faces like crazy,” (“not of anyone in particular,” Aisner clarifies) to fulfill her need to add color and texture.
“As human beings, Aisner explains, “there is so much color to our lives . . . who we are, our work, our passions, our relationships. Every bit of us is color.”
She explains that many more faces, not associated with tragedy, have emerged to her over the years “as light and enjoyable” and speak to Aisner of the gift of life—rather than the loss of life.
Archival prints have been created of many of Aisner’s “faces.” A collection that she has grouped together to create an expressive show will be presented at the Firehouse Center for the Arts, from July 11 through August 5, with a reception on July 21.
Plum Island is Aisner’s newest muse. She moved to a year-round cottage there last autumn when the home she was living in was put up for sale. “I feel like I am starting my life over,” Aisner joyfully states, adding that she felt the same way when she moved to her “HowdaHouse” on Bromfield Street, more than 23 years ago.
The opportunity to let her artistic life be further inspired by the salt air, sandy beach and sea, humbles Aisner. “I feel blessed,” she says.
She is reflective of her life’s journey, from her childhood in a Chicago suburb, to her former marriage, to motherhood, to her success as a businesswoman and as an artist.
Aisner speaks glowingly of her three children. Son Jason Novak is a locally based actor, artist, and musician who recently joined the locally renowned band, Liz Frame and the Kickers. Aisner’s daughters live out of state. Lisa works for the Waldorf School of Atlanta, and daughter Jolie is the online photo editor for the Daily Mail. Aisner takes delight in her 11-year-old grandson, Sasha (Lisa’s son) and her 11-year-old granddaughter, Sadie (Jolie’s daughter).
On a recent summer afternoon, Aisner is readying her cottage for a visit from her daughters and grandchildren; she’s excited to be hosting both their families.
Aisner proudly shows off a special cardboard cat house in her PI studio. It is replete with feline-themed artwork, all drawn by Sadie, who fashioned the cat house for Aisner’s two cats: Stella and Bunny Mouse. (“My cats love my artwork,” Aisner enthuses. How does she know this? “They sit all over it,” she laughs, “so they must love it!”)
An artistic calling and an entrepreneurial spirit is in the family’s lifeblood. “My father was an inventor; he invented the plastic scissors for children,” Aisner reveals.
Aisner recalls her two missed entrepreneurial opportunities: one was a decorative roping worn around the neck to hold eyeglasses when not in use (“not the old grandma chain; something fashionable and functional”); the other was for calligraphy wallpaper. She saw both of these products find a market niche under someone else’s name.
“I remember sitting on a bench inside a mall, staring up at the skylight, after walking out of an environmentally themed store where the wallpaper was on display. I made an absolute promise to myself that the next time that I was hit with an idea, ‘I am doing it!’—no matter the circumstances or the finances.”
She is grateful for what she calls her “angel services,” those individuals who believed in her capabilities and helped to fund her HowdaDesignz enterprise, getting her business off the ground (or rather, getting her sturdy and whimsical seats on the ground).
A mentor she singles out is the late founder and CEO of The Body Shop “I’ve had a lifelong admiration for Anita Roddick,” says Aisner. “She fashioned a collaborative business platform that was environmentally and ethically conscious while working with indigenous groups to foster their innate talents.”
“I once met Anita at a conference at Babson college; I gave her a double-HowdaBag . . . she loved it!” Aisner beams.
In considering her own legacy, Aisner says, “I want to continue to make products that mean something . . . that help people in their daily lives and make them smile.” She also wants to touch people’s hearts . . . artistically and poignantly through the color, facial lines, and the fabric of humanity.
Kathleen Downey is the Features Editor for Newburyport Today. If you are a townie or a citizen who would like to be profiled (or to suggest someone to profile), or if you have an idea for a feature story, please email: Kathleen@Newburyport-Today.com.