March 24, 2015
America’s Best New Makers, From Brooklyn to Bloomington
From Brooklyn to Bloomington, these ten creatives are changing the face of maker culture in the United States.
Portrait by Christopher Leaman
Across the country, young designers and craftsmen are rediscovering the value of a hands-on process, and a select few are going the extra mile. Here we profile ten up-and-coming makers who chose a craft, pursue it with rigor, create beautiful objects, and—above all—find inventive ways to bring them to market.
Brooklyn, New York
Furniture, Mixed Materials
Designer and maker François Chambard in his Brooklyn Studio, at work assembling a Holy Stool.
Portrait by Christopher Leaman
François Chambard considers himself a precursor to the maker movement, and rightly so. He founded UM Project, a furniture-making practice, in 2004 with a moniker that stands for “Users and Makers.” Over the years, his Brooklyn-based workshop has produced myriad well-crafted objects, both one-offs and product lines, including stools, mallets, lamps, theremins, tables, and interior fit outs.
Chambard likes to combine manual techniques with a touch of mass production. “What might seem like a contradiction is a great source of inspiration and creativity, as novelty and innovation often come from unexpected opposites,” he says. “I believe that is actually the main source of appeal in my work, as cues from both are mixed in an unexpected way.” This mash-up of methods often leads to playful, colorful pieces reminiscent of gizmos from some gigantic machine. His design process, however, begins by hand, and his sketchbooks are filled with drawings and details of potential creations.
Since its founding, UM Project has rapidly gained exposure—Chambard recently created an exclusive line of mallets in wood, metal, and lacquer for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, for example—at times challenging the balance between creativity and production. François seems quite able to deal with this pressure: “The split between experimentation and products, between art and industry, between producing and making, has always felt somewhat artificial to us.”—A. J. P. Artemel
When the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum reopened in New York, its store carried specially commissioned Mad Mallets made by UM Project. “The pieces were an instant success and sold in a few days,” Chambard says.
Courtesy Francis Dzikowsji/otto
To call yourself a maker, he insists, “you have to manufacture your designs, or at least most of them.” Three-quarters of UM Project’s designs are made in its Brooklyn studio. The rest are entrusted to a network of local collaborators.
Courtesy Christopher Leaman
Photographs courtesy Dana Bechert
Behind the intricately carved geometric patterns of Dana Bechert’s ceramic vessels lies an ongoing problem-solving process: “I create things as I develop a need for them,” says Bechert. From coffee pour-over funnels to planters and tea sets, Bechert’s interests in cooking and gardening find a functional expression in her ceramics. She credits her time at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the broad range of classes she took there, with teaching her how different crafts can inform one another.
In her work, Bechert, who grew up in rural Connecticut and has a studio in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, draws from imagery as diverse as American pieced quilts, Native American Acoma Pueblo pottery, and historical textile prints and weavings, but her primary source of inspiration remains geometry as it appears in nature. “Most of my ceramic work is done outside, among the birds, bugs, and plants,” says Bechert. “I find my work looks best when it is paired with organic matter, and I feel like, in some small way, I am able to add value to these wild subjects.”
For an artist who prefers to work in nature, winter might be considered a quiet time to rest and regroup, but Bechert has, instead, been keeping busy with her next project, a camp and artist residency called Oak Hill Nature Center. “It will be focused on environmental and agricultural education, with traditional craft and culinary skill-building as part of the curriculum,” says Bechert. “I’m excited to see how my ceramics practice will fit into my pursuits there.”—Dora Sapunar
Dana Bechert scratches away a thin layer of clay on these objects to reveal the color underneath.
The Light Herringbone Vase shows the result of the etching process.
Bechert’s Small Hanging Planter
John Hogan at his glass foundry, working with his molten raw material.
Photographs courtesy John Hogan
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, the birthplace of the Studio Glass movement, John Hogan had a long tradition to draw from. “I started blowing glass at the Toledo Museum of Art youth art program at 15 years old,” says Hogan. “That started me down the rabbit hole of glasswork.”
With the help of some of the country’s most influential glassmakers, Hogan immersed himself in the history of the craft, from the highly technical Italian approach to the more minimal method, focused on the optical qualities of glass, that he observed during a sojourn in the Czech Republic. Finally settling in Seattle, the current hub of the glass-blowing community, Hogan is now eager to help other artists and designers develop their own projects through Ballard Assembly, a consulting, prototyping, and production operation that he is developing.
Meanwhile, Hogan’s personal work, which manipulates glass for experiments with color and light, is garnering accolades in both commercial and gallery settings. And while influences on his work come from sources as diverse as electronic music and culinary art, he distills them all in crisp, simple forms that let the material shine through. “For me, the most challenging aspect of working with glass is staying out of its way,” Hogan says. “I admire artists and designers who choose to work in many materials. But, for me, the specific elements of a material as complex as glass can only be understood with immense amounts of time and focus.”—D.S.
This lamp from the Atlas Collection was created in collaboration with Ladies & Gentlemen Studio.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Photographs courtesy Joseph Siciliano
Founding studio DAMM gave wife-and-husband team Brenda and Robert Zurn (above) an opportunity they were more than happy to embrace—to work on new projects together. “From our very first apartment together, we have made our own furniture, including bookshelves, coffee tables, bed frames, and cabinets,” Brenda says. Based in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Zurns decided to launch their joint venture with a foray into lighting. “Lighting allows us to be sculptural in an open way,” says Robert. “The restrictions on lighting are minimal and, if done well, a fixture or a lamp can stand alone like a unique art object.”
From a Memphis-inspired table lamp to the pastel simplicity of their Hombre pendants, their products reveal a wide variety of influences and visual expressions. And although their ideas might start in different places—Robert being heavily inspired by concepts rooted in the art world and Brenda’s interest in history and storytelling—they share a strong preference for utilizing simple, honest materials.
In their work, the Zurns strive not to disguise the authentic nature of materials such as wood, brass, and glass. “These types of materials have a built-in history because people have interacted with them for millennia,” says Brenda. “They also have sense of authenticity that goes all the way through the object.” The duo is set to continue exploring the field of lighting design in developing its first floor lamp, but is also eager to expand its range through a line of home goods, which it plans to release later in the year.—D.S.
“Inspiration can come at any time, from any direction,” says Brenda Zurn. The Theo Lamp (below) is cheekily named after Theo van Doesburg, the founder of the Art Concret Group in Paris. The base is made of elements individually cast in high-tech GFRC concrete (above), and tinted by hand to produce a gradation of color.
Smith Shop co-owners Amy Weiks, Gabriel Craig, and Adam Whitney
Photographs courtesy Smith Shop
Detroit, once the national icon of mass manufacturing, is quickly becoming one of the most exciting incubators for young makers and craftspeople. Among these is Smith Shop, a metalworking studio founded in 2012 that has made a name for itself with a selection of ethically sourced and exquisitely crafted jewelry, kitchenware, and architectural hardware.
Smith Shop is based in Ponyride, a vibrant studio space and community of small creative businesses in the Corktown area that sprang up in an effort to revitalize the city. Spaces like Ponyride have been instrumental in organizing exchanges between makers and the general public—Smith Shop values workshops and lectures. “There’s a long history of craftspeople sharing what they do with people who want to learn,” says Gabriel Craig, one of the founders of Smith Shop. “Metalworking is primarily an oral tradition. It’s an opportunity for people to engage with their hands and learn how manufacturing happens.”
A sense of history, both in terms of its aesthetics and the exceptional level of craftsmanship, is a signature quality of Smith Shop’s work, particularly its elegant copper and steel serving ware. “We look backwards a lot, and try to create work that embraces tradition, but also breaks away from it a little bit,” says Craig. One of these historical points of reference is Detroit itself, its Art Deco heritage, and, even more so, its unwavering sense of entrepreneurship. “For a long time in Detroit, the currency was talking about doing things that would turn the city around, and eventually it became a city of doers,” Craig says. “We’re here, we’re committed, and we’re doing things.”—D.S.
Three partners, a full-time metalsmith, and an intern work at Smith Shop’s forge.
Courtesy Trisha Holt
Copper is a current preoccupation because of Smith Shop’s efforts to recycle metal. “For copper, there isn’t a mill or refinery that is auditing the input into its own production. Over the past couple of years, we’ve been trying to figure out a way to artisanally melt copper.”
Courtesy Trisha Holt
In its kitchenware, Smith Shop takes historical metalsmithing and gives it a contemporary twist. “The objects that we make have been forgotten in a lot of ways,” Gabriel Craig explains.
Providence, Rhode Island
Asher Dunn had woodworking in his blood—his father was a carpenter—but he initially “wanted nothing to do with it.” Nonetheless, while studying industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Dunn felt the undeniable pull of the craft.
Photographs courtesy Studio Dunn
Faced with the difficulty of finding custom-design work in the throes of the economic downturn, Asher Dunn decided to create his own. “When the market crashed, we all looked at this uncertainty around us and were eager to regain a sense of stability in our lives,” Dunn says. “A huge amount of innovation and entrepreneurship came out of it because one way people recovered a sense of control, was by employing themselves.” For Dunn, the decision was fortunate—his first collection won him the Best New Designer award at the 2010 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF).
That same year, Dunn founded his studio, which has since grown to employ seven other designers and makers. “I wanted to recreate the atmosphere that I found while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design,” says Dunn. “Our design process is very natural, but there’s always a lot of back and forth.” The work produced by the studio is highly varied, both visually and materially—from the warm, midcentury modern-inspired wooden furniture to raw industrial lighting—but is driven by Dunn’s desire to explore the capabilities and limitations of materials, as well as a commitment to using only sustainable materials.
As the studio’s repertoire is expanding, with forays into metalwork and soft goods, Dunn remains dedicated to carving out his own path. “There is a huge amount of value in entrepreneurship and being able to create your own success,” Dunn says. “It’s exciting to see that people are returning to creating things themselves, and that we are starting to reevaluate what it means to manufacture products in the United States.”—D.S.
After graduating, Dunn founded a community woodshop where he produced his first designs. “Things kind of took off from there,” he says about starting his namesake studio. His work, such as the Coventry Stool (above) reflects a midcentury influence that he grew up with, he says. “My parents had a huge appreciate for it.”
Silvia Song’s Bay Area workshop contains all manner of tools for wood turning, as well as dozens of found objects.
Photographs courtesy Silvia Song
Silvia Song started her wood carving studio in 2012, after more than a decade of working in architecture and design. Based in the Bay Area, Song has gained a cult following, as her 15,000 Instagram followers can attest.
Her wooden bowls and vessels are influenced by lessons from working in the building industry. “I don’t consider myself a maker so much as a designer that utilizes different methods of construction,” she says. “Wood is a breathing material. It expands and contracts. If you think about it, buildings also function in the same way.” Similarly, Song considers the spaces within her bowls and vessels to be analogous to those designed by architects.
Many of her pieces are made from wood, salvaged by arborists and neighbors, that she then turns on a lathe with traditionally forged Japanese carving implements. The freshly turned vessels are then usually dried and oiled before being sold through many retail outlets and collaborators around the country. Song has added other types of woodworking to her repertoire—she is now working on a series of butcher blocks with complex double-dovetail joints. Recently, she teamed up with an indigo dyer to create a popular series of dark blue maple bowls. However, her biggest upcoming project—designing and building her own house—presents the perfect opportunity to bring together wood-working and architecture.—A.J.P.A.
Song developed indigo versions of her nested maple bowls with dyer Kristine Vejar for kitchenware seller March.
The Doma Butcher Blocks use sugar maple wood to give them a vintage appearance.
Rowland Ricketts learned the craft of indigo dyeing in Japan, where he met his wife and partner Chinami.
Photographs courtesy Ricketts Indigo
Chinami and Rowland Ricketts began cultivating indigo on their Indiana farm in order to supply dyestuff for their respective crafts, turning green leaves into deep blue dye through an almost alchemical process. “The choice we make to plant, harvest, dry, winnow, compost, and create indigo-dyed textiles by hand is not one of necessity,” they say. “Rather, it is a conscious one that places value and meaning on the actions we take in the world, in our ways of making.”
While the duo focuses on creating different types of textiles—Rowland dyes both functional and artistic pieces, while Chinami weaves yardage that can be tailored into traditional Japanese obis and kimonos, among other things—they both channel the indigo into highly meaningful and beautiful artifacts. “By keeping the actual textiles as close to ‘just a piece of cloth’ as possible, the goal is to make the indigo the focus and not the thing itself,” Rowland says.
The pair first met in Japan, where they were apprentices to the same dyer; afterward, Rowland refined his method of cultivating indigo while Chinami began to apprentice for an expert weaver. After a stint at Cranbrook and many exhibitions of their work, the Rickettses are expanding the reach of their textiles and of indigo plants themselves. In 2014, after winning a Martha Stewart American Made award, they spread production to small farms around the Midwest in order to create more dye for other weavers and artisans.—A.J.P.A.
Chinami Ricketts weaves traditional Japanese narrow-width cloth.
The Striped Triangle Table Runner uses a simple repeating geometric motif that lets the indigo come to the fore.
Bainbridge Island, Washington
Photographs courtesy Grain
Wife-and-husband design team Chelsea and James Minola founded Grain in 2008, beginning with a line of self-made sustainable products such as Ty, a recyclable shower curtain that does not off-gas. While Ty remains Grain’s biggest commercial success, James and Chelsea have expanded the business to encompass a wide variety of handmade products, from bowls to furnishings and textiles. This has meant expanding production beyond their workshop—the pair collaborates with artisans in Guatemala, where they met, as well as with several specialists around the Pacific Northwest.
Grain has built enough expertise that large retailers such as Design Within Reach and Anthropologie have looked to them for advice on combining business and sustainability. Despite all this growth, Chelsea and James still design and make many of their products by hand. “For us, being makers means taking an idea from concept to sketch to model to prototype to finished sample to small production run. This same process permeates the way we have built our life together as well. Our design process and our hands touch every aspect of our home, the food we eat, and the way our family travels and explores,” says Chelsea. Grain will be rolling out a new chair and a collection of wool rugs at ICFF this spring.—A.J.P.A.
Grain’s Totem Candles (below) are completely made in-house on a lathe. The process (above) is painstaking but integral to the design, says Grain cofounder Chelsea Minola, because while the candles could easily be cast en masse, “we feel doing so would take away from the final object.”
The end result is satisfying for additional reasons, Minola says. “The whole shop fills with the smell of beeswax, plus the wax scraps can be melted down and reused so there isn’t any waste.”
Maura Ambrose dyes all her fabrics in her studio, and continually experiments with new dyes.
Courtesy Folk Fibers
Quilting can be a time-consuming practice, requiring a lot of patience and the ability to stitch together the many different pieces of cloth into a cohesive, pleasing design. And that’s just the way Maura Ambrose, founder of Folk Fibers, thinks it should be. “Spending time making things by hand, you start to develop patience,” she says. “There’s a slower rhythm to craft that’s different from the bustle of daily life.”
Ambrose takes the craft of patience further than most, however, insisting on hand-quilting her textiles—a process that often involves some help from neighbors in the Austin community. Folk Fibers’ quilts also incorporate natural dyes such as cochineal and indigo, the cultivation and harvesting of which Ambrose would like to make part of her business.
For design inspiration, she looks to the colors of the dyes themselves, but also to American tradition. “I prefer to stick to the classic quilt blocks—I find the older designs stand the test of time.” Of course, Ambrose quilts only one piece at a time, making each quilt a serious investment of time and attention. Which quilt, then, is she most proud of? “I really am most excited about my next quilt. By the time I finish my current project, I’ve had so much time to consider the next, I can’t wait to get started.”—A.J.P.A.
Like all of Ambrose’s textiles, Ada’s Quilt is made using natural, plant- based dyes: “I don’t deviate too far from the classics because I find using naturally dyed fabric elevates the quilts.”
Courtesy Folk Fibers