A handmade revolution is underway. Tiny businesses spring up daily, specializing in homemade jam or hand-knitted wrist warmers or single-source chocolate bars wrapped in hand-screened paper – and it's not happening just in trendy Brooklyn, but in cities across the country. The splash they've made, and the inroads into sales, have even caused multinational global brands to take notice – but does anyone really believe those Wheat Thins are "artisanal," no matter what Nabisco prints on the box?
An increasing number of consumers have become more cognizant of quality in the little things – a perfect heirloom tomato or a perfectly engineered shoulder strap – and some have come to expect a sense of the maker's hand instead of a factory feel. Thanks to the access afforded by Facebook pages and Etsy storefronts, some shoppers also expect to be able to communicate with the creators of the products they buy.
Here in Orlando, we have our own maker community, one that's been entrenched for years but has been steadily gaining acclaim as the artisanal revolution sweeps our culture. Some of them have brick-and-mortar shops; some cater to the wholesale trade only; others might run an Etsy shop, their own website or none of the above. But the community of people who use their hands to create something out of nothing, the DIY-ers who see a thing and want to make it a better thing; the obsessives who can't let a design challenge lie until it's been wrestled into submission … that's who we celebrate here.
Orlando Weekly is launching a semi-regular series of profiles of these people. To kick it off, we'd like to introduce you to a few standouts.
Walnut Animal Society
Lauren Bradshaw's whimsical menagerie of animal friends – Henry the Fox and his pals – hit that crucial balance between sweet huggability and pristine construction. They're not so much a toy you'd put in the crib with a baby, more something you'd put on a shelf as decor; but once baby grows up, "they're good tea-party size," Bradshaw says. "And they sit up well."
The brand's twee, cottagey feel is the yin to the yang of Bradshaw's business acumen; Walnut Animal Society grew out of the astute realization that her first handmade products, needle-felted birds and cake toppers, required too much of her time (and her own hands) to ever be a scalable business, whereas a stuffed animal could be sewn by others and still retain her personal stamp.
Their almost immediate success took the fledgling company by surprise, and they're ramping up efforts to meet the demands of their first full holiday season. "I just learned that retailers and magazines start to think about Christmas in July," Bradshaw says, laughing. "I don't want to jinx it, but …" – here she drops the name of a national clothing and housewares retailer known to weaken the knees and wallets of women who appreciate all things vintagey/boho/handmade – "just placed an order for October. So we're ordering fabric in larger and larger quantities, trying to get ready for that." They've bought up all the orange wool – two different shades – their fabric supplier makes in the last few months, and Bradshaw is looking forward to the day that she's using enough to be able to order a custom dye lot.
FOUNDED: December 2011
FIRST PIECE MADE: Henry the Fox
"I was looking and looking online for a fox stuffed animal for my son, or even a pattern for one." Bradshaw realized if no one else was doing it, maybe she should. Designing the pattern "was way harder than I imagined – it kept me up at night. I would just go to sleep trying to figure it out in my head."
TRAINED OR SELF-TAUGHT?
"I loved to sew when I was little. I've been crafting and sewing my whole life … [but] I majored in business at UCF."
Bradshaw used to work at Full Sail University, but quit shortly after having her son. She knew she wanted to build a business out of handmade, something she could do at home.
TIME SPENT EACH WEEK:
Close to 30 hours per week, mostly "while [my son] is asleep … during naps, at night."
EMPLOYEES: Bradshaw farms out sewing assignments to "a few local ladies" and has a business partner-investor.
SOLD: on their website, and at eight or nine retail shops: "A couple in New York, one in California, and in Hong Kong, Australia
With their exquisite detailing – not to mention the $98 price point – these aren't impulse purchases, but usually "special gifts … for first-time parents, new babies, unique shower gifts." But Bradshaw was surprised to see, in February, adults buying them for each other for Valentine's Day; their long skinny arms and nostalgic floppy feel appeal to a certain kind of grownup. "Learning moment," she says.
Sewing machine, obviously, but also "my handy gigantic stuffing machine. … I used to spend 45 minutes hand-stuffing an animal – now it takes about two minutes. It's crazy, the amount of efficiency that gained us."
Joy Cho, of dominating grownup-cute blog Oh Joy (ohjoy.blogs.com) "put us on her site the first day we launched." Then, in June, design-oriented flash-sale site "Fab.com approached us … we had in our business plan to try to get a Fab sale after our first year."
LOCAL MAKER SHOUT-OUT:
Anna Bond (Rifle Paper Co.) is a close friend and mentor. "She's so encouraging, and I'm always learning from her."
Two years ago, Nathan Clark gave his wife, Jenn, a candy thermometer for Christmas, on a whim inspired by a National Public Radio story about sweets. "It's not like he said, 'Now we're going to make marshmallows!'," Jenn says. The first candy they made was a batch of marshmallows: "Hard candy seemed … hard," Nathan says. "I mean, it's right there in the name."
Soon they realized that something they started doing for fun had the potential to be more. Eventually friends who'd tasted them started asking for marshmallows, then asking to buy marshmallows, and the Clarks saw that "the critical mass to go from hobby to business was close … it was just a matter of figuring it out and being crazy intentional about it."
The letterpressed boxes, emblazoned with an old-fashioned hot-air balloon and phrases like "Made with 100 percent sweet, magic air!" are as much a part of the appeal as the candy within, and that's by design. "What we're trying to deliver is not just food but an experience," Nathan says. "We put an inordinate amount of time and effort into [our packaging] because we do the same with our marshmallows. What better way to show you how much we care about the food we make than to show we care just as much about the packaging?"
The brand identity, created by Philly design wizards Heads of State, contributes to the feeling of anticipation and makes the product something you might keep around in a visible spot. And the anticipation is further piqued by creative flavor profiles: honey-pear, mojito, cranberry, Guinness rolled in pretzel crumbs.
The self-described "obsessive recipe tinkerers" just moved into their own kitchen space in Sanford, and just hired their first local sales rep. Like their marshmallows, the Clarks may be full of sweetness and light, but they pack a big punch.
FOUNDED: 2011 (as a business, not a hobby)
DAY JOB: Nathan works full time, Jenn works part time, and they have four kids. Marshmallows fill up all the spare minutes in their days. "We don't watch TV," Nathan says. "And going to sleep is quitting."
TIME SPENT EACH WEEK: 30 or 40 hours
Makers of small-batch food products face the unique challenge of remaining dependable, while sourcing the highest-quality ingredients they can in smaller amounts that often shut them out of ordering from big restaurant purveyors.
"You have to be utterly consistent every time for repeat customers," Nathan says. "It's like having a friend that you never disappoint."
"We're pretty committed to using Penzey's Double Strength Vanilla," Nathan says. Jenn adds that their new guillotine-style candy cutter is a big help: "We were hand-cutting [but] I'm not as meticulous as Nathan is, so some would be bigger, some smaller." Nathan adds, "Every time you buy one, we want it to be the same incredibly awesome experience."
EMPLOYEES: As of now, Wondermade has six "official marshmallow agents" (that's the title on everyone's business card).
SOLD: on their website, and at Blue Bird Bake Shop and Sassafras Sweet Shoppe. Their Guinness marshmallows are available at Redlight Redlight and Oblivion Taproom.
"The first place we dropped some off was Redlight Redlight, on St. Patrick's Day," Nathan says. "The first customer of the day came in and saw them and wanted to buy them." They knew then they were on the right track.
"We would like to make a million marshmallows this year."
Makr Carry Goods
Over the course of just 90 minutes on a recent afternoon in their light-filled, leather-scented Winter Park studio, Makr employees fielded a last-minute special order from the NFL, debated last touches on iPhone cases (the new iPhone 5 form factor had been unveiled the day before) and juggled logistics for a rush special order of 1,700 bags for the upcoming Leonard Cohen tour. Designer and ringleader Jason Gregory handled each question from a staffer calmly, with no sense of rush or angst. "I don't want urgency in my life," he says. He may work 70 hours a week and be obsessed with personally making "a zillion prototypes" for each product, but each problem gets solved in a considered way.
Makr goods are a study in contradiction: vintage-styled yet pristinely new, evoking a sense of the hand of the designer yet manufactured with hyper-modern processes. "As much as it seems like the energy of the company is somewhat craft-based, and it is, the only way we'd really be able to do the things that we do is using all of the available tools to our benefit … designing towards those processes to make them more human." Despite the use of a laser cutting machine and computer-aided design software, each piece is cut and tested by and on humans, right here in Winter Park.
Look closely enough at a Makr product, take in the thoughtful design ethos, and you'll be spoiled for cheaper bags, with their sloppily finished zippers and inelegantly bunchy corners. Whether it's a coathook, a wallet or an enameled drinking cup, Gregory has deliberated on each detail, from ease of use to efficiency of manufacture.
Gregory started out as a photographer and spent some time working in architecture before he founded Makr. What explains the left turn into making bags? "I don't know. I don't even carry bags. … It's like an architectural problem," Gregory says. "Bags are harder than furniture … [they're] affected by gravity and stresses, folds and turns and material thicknesses and the human body."
FOUNDED: 2007 or 2008
"I forget when it started because I've been doing it forever. It was just an art piece for a long time."
FIRST PIECE MADE: The One Wallet
"'One' because it's a single-pocket wallet and the first thing we made. I always hated wallets, so I wanted a better solution."
TIME SPENT EACH WEEK: In the office 60 or 70 hours a week, and thinking about it when he's not there. He works less now than when he started, though: "At the beginning it was nauseating how much I was working. It made me go insane … I think it ruined a relationship."
"What I do now is I get to design now and I get to think. Everyone here is supporting a design vision, helping choose materials or giving feedback on details of construction … everyone has input."
"Obsessive Japanese kids, surfer guys, old guys who want a slim wallet. Anyone." (Skate photographer Raymond Molinar is a fan; his sponsor Stereo recently released a deck with photos of his favorite things, including a couple of Makr products.)
INDISPENSABLE TOOL: CAD
"Sketching is just thinking; I need the computer to work. I'm better at CAD than anything else. I'm better at CAD than –
walking. I don't know why."
Heath Ceramics, Geoff McFetridge, Fort Standard, Unis Menswear; locally, provided the stools for Cask & Larder and currently designing interior of the new Black Bean Deli
"I like making stuff – I want to keep making stuff … [but] we want to have our own stores eventually."
Sea of Bees Jewelry
In 2009, Stephanie Rivas found herself unemployed and in pain. "After I got laid off, I started playing with clay as a stress reliever, and also because I had developed pretty bad carpal tunnel. … I thought that would help me get through it." Later that year, she started using the clay to make jewelry. She's completely self-taught, although "I've been making jewelry always," she admits. "I was always taking things apart, combining them into new or different things … clocks, keychains, little pictures Mod-Podged onto bottle caps."
"People would ask, where'd you get that?"
Yet it wasn't until three years ago that she thought about doing it as a business. Rivas began experimenting with manipulating metal, combining her sculptural clay work with more traditional metal jewelry, seemingly creating for a bold warrior muse – a forest-dweller, a huntress, clad in protective brass chestpieces and antlers. She taught herself how to solder, snip thick steel wire, and create linking techniques that took two-dimensional pieces 3-D … all of it by hand, all of it on her own.
Now a veteran of local craft fairs like the Grandma Party Bazaar, Big Bang and Stitch Rock, Rivas has a fix on the Sea of Bees customer. "People are kind of opening their eyes. They don't want mass-produced things, they want something with a story, something made by hand," she says. "And they don't want the same thing their friend has."
"I started getting a lot of design ideas in 2009. I felt like there was a huge void in the market when it came to handmade things that had a vintage quality or appeal, especially when it came to animals."
FIRST PIECE MADE:
"I did a bird necklace and a bird ring, and it definitely had a lot of people interested. I thought it would probably be easy for me to make a whole bunch of these and try to make a business out of it."
TIME SPENT EACH WEEK:
"I spend 30 hours per week at least, depending on whether there's a craft sale coming up, not just making the jewelry but also uploading images and answering customer questions." The hours have eased somewhat since she launched her own site and left the Etsy marketplace, which required a lot of customer correspondence.
No, though her boyfriend helps with cutting thick wire or packaging orders occasionally.
Clay from Michaels ("If I buy it in too large of quantities, it dries out, so I can't go wholesale yet"); metal sheets and wire online; waxes and polishes from museum
It turns out Rivas is a genius at repurposing, finding the right tool for the job in places most of us would never look. "It sounds weird, but my favorite tool is this" (she shows off a rubber gum stimulator). She also uses a nut pick, a wallpaper roller and a window screen and spline installer. "I spent a lot of money on cutters and shapers, but conventional tools don't give you that detail."
SOLD: on her website and stocked locally at Mother Falcon, Etoile Boutique and Dear Prudence.
"Women in their 20s or in their 60s … whoever can rock it, I guess." (Famous customer alert: Feist was seen wearing a Sea of Bees bear bracelet at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival.)
"I had the pleasure of meeting John and Melissa from Mother Falcon a couple years ago and I started going to art shows." After creating sculptures at the Tribute to Alien and Redrum art shows at the Felcman's gallery/bar the Falcon, Rivas now has plans to expand Sea of Bees to include small collectible sculptures.
"I feel like I was blinded before, and now I can see something that I had no idea was there."