By Jennifer A. Kingson
New York Times News Service
PHOENIX — If there is a stylish product made for cats, chances are Kate Benjamin owns it or has written about it. Or both.
Benjamin, 42, started blogging about her favorite things for cats in 2007, and over time a business began to emerge. Readers posted fan mail. Boutique manufacturers started advertising on her site and sending samples for her to review. And the number of cats in her 1,100-square-foot condominium grew. (At last count, she had 11.)
As her advertising revenue climbed, Benjamin quit her day job as the marketing director of Boon, a company that sells modern baby products, and opened a design studio where she and her employees could create cat toys and accessories to sell on her website.
And last year, she rebranded her Moderncat blog as Hauspanther, an “online magazine for design-conscious cat people.”
Next on the horizon is a consulting business built around the concept of “catification”: tailoring your living space to the needs of your cat without sacrificing aesthetics.
“The idea is to influence the mass cat-product industry to step up their game,” said Benjamin, who has teamed up with Jackson Galaxy, the cat behaviorist from the television show “My Cat from Hell,” for this effort. “We just want to be the go-to source for anyone who wants to live stylishly with cats.”
A new breed of cat lady
As the tattoo on her arm announces, Benjamin is positioning herself as a cat lady for a new generation. A vegan with Bettie Page bangs, she has upended the old stereotype of the frumpy, middle-aged woman surrounded by cats. And her two-bedroom townhouse is a showcase of the latest in feline interior design.
The living room is filled with all manner of cat beds, scratchers, hiding spots and perches, including a miniature sun bed attached to sliding glass doors that open to a “catio” (a patio enclosed for the protection of her cats).
The centerpiece on the dining table is not a flower arrangement or a fruit bowl but a white porcelain cat bed designed to look like a sink.
On the coffee table is a thronelike cat lounge that doubles as a scratcher. And a huge basket of cat toys is stationed next to the sofa.
“It is a little bit over the top,” said Benjamin, who admits to showering in the second bathroom because the master bath has been given over to litter boxes. But that’s all right, she said, because it means the cats “all have lots of options. Rarely is there a fight over places to sit.”
The crush of cat products is an inevitable consequence of having a blog that serves up a different item every day, along with a dose of attitude you will not find in the plain-vanilla pages of a magazine like Cat Fancy.
As far as she is concerned, she said, what it comes down to is good design.
“I would like to see every cat in a happy, loving, forever home, and I want to keep them there through design,” said Benjamin, who studied environmental design and analysis, with an emphasis on interior design, at Cornell and branched out into industrial design and visual communications at Arizona State University. “Because if somebody doesn’t want to buy a scratcher because the scratchers are so ugly, and then the cat scratches on the sofa, the cat’s booted onto the street or taken to the shelter. If a product design can help change that, that’s where I want to see this go.”
The people whose products appear on Hauspanther credit Benjamin with helping to build the market for designer cat furniture, a small but growing category. Once her blog became a go-to place for furnishings that appealed equally to cats and their owners, these vendors say, more specialty retailers cropped up, widening the product mix, and big chain stores like Wal-Mart and Target began carrying nicer-looking cat products.
“She has actually been a really good advocate for the industry as a whole,” said Sean Hamilton, whose company, Square Cat Habitat, sells cat furniture with a modern Scandinavian look and detachable carpet that people can match to their décor.
He considers Benjamin’s site the best way to reach likely buyers, and he echoed her views about the loftier purpose of high-end cat design.
“Our goal is to bring cats and their owners together,” Hamilton said. “A lot of times, people will buy these carpeted cat trees, and while they look OK at the beginning, they end up getting beat-up and looking shabby and getting put in the back room. Subsequently, the cat winds up in the back room.”
Her experience with modern baby accessories served as a kind of blueprint for her current endeavors.
“We were pioneering this idea of, just because you have kids, you don’t have to have ugly stuff in your living room,” Benjamin said of her previous job. “I loved the concept, but I kept saying, ‘Well, my kids have fur.’ And nobody’s doing this in the pet product business.”
During a recent tour of her condominium, Benjamin showed off a few of the products she has promoted on her site.
She lingered over a serpentine multicat tree called the Curvynest, which “causes a firestorm every time I write about it,” she said. “Isn’t this great? People freak out every time I post something to Instagram and it’s in the background or the cats are on it, because it’s so unique, it’s so beautiful.”
In addition to her blog, Benjamin uses Instagram and Facebook to reach out to consumers and sends out a daily email newsletter to 18,000 subscribers. She takes most of the photographs herself, and they usually feature the item du jour draped with one or more of her cats: Andy, Dazzler, Simba, Mackenzie, Ando, Flora, McKinley, Sherman, Ratso Katso, Little Bear and Sylvia. (A 12th cat, Claude, lives in her studio.)
“That’s why the manufacturers send me all this stuff,” she said. “Because I’m going to take shots around the house, and their stuff is going to be in it.”
She is attuned to each cat’s nuances and preferences, although she admits that Mackenzie is her favorite. (“Isn’t he adorbs? He is the one I would marry.”) Dazzler and Simba love the Hepper pod bed; Andy likes the laser pointer. And they all love a feather-on-a-stick toy called Da Bird.
“It’s the best toy ever,” Benjamin said. “They go insane. I mean, complete freakout madness.”
Despite having access to everything a modern feline might want, her cats do still claw the furniture and otherwise misbehave. And keeping the carpet clean is a challenge, she conceded, although burning incense does help offset the distinctive aroma.
On her way out the door of her condo, she called out plaintively, “Are you guys all going to pee on the carpet as soon as we leave?”
There was no response.
Although a recent bout with breast cancer has prompted her to slow down a bit, Benjamin still spends mornings in her home office working on her blog, surrounded by cats. In the afternoons, she visits her studio, in an old pie factory, where she helps her three assistants pack and ship the products they make.
Benjamin is also collaborating on a book about catification with Galaxy and is an occasional guest on “My Cat from Hell,” the Animal Planet show he hosts.
He considers her an ideal foil.
“Half of the challenge that I face in my work is making spaces appealing to cats,” he said. “I know what cats want and like, and I make spaces that appeal to them. The other half of that is that we have to make the spaces appealing to humans. That’s where Kate comes in.”