Functional art for the world

Well-crafted art that you can eat with might just be recession-proof. That’s what metalsmith Alex Austin hopes, anyway, as she peddles her handmade stainless and silver flatware to companies around the globe.

In demand: Alex Austin of Austin Creations displays some of her silver pieces. Companies in Italy and Australia have picked up her new stainless-flatware design. Photo courtesy Austin Creations

Austin began metalsmithing at age 9. She launched her business, Austin Creations, in Australia while attending grad school there, moved it to the U.S. in 1993, and brought it to Asheville eight years later.

She moved to Asheville, she says, “because it’s one of the only places I know where museum-quality artists and craftspeople live as a respected part of the community.”

Besides flatware, Austin designs and crafts everything from candleholders to challah knives to jewelry to baby cups. Many items are shown on her Web site, though she primarily sells wholesale to stores.

“It’s hard to see what my work’s really like in photos,” she notes. “You have go directly to a store where you have the opportunity to touch it, to pick it up.”

Austin’s award-winning items will soon be carried by Blue goldsmiths in Biltmore Village, joining stores across the U.S. and beyond. “We’re working on growing our overseas sales, but it costs money to expand overseas, and it takes time to see a return,” she explains. “We’re moving slow and steady and with caution.”

Until the recession hit, the “whole world economy looked great” for her products, notes Austin. But though business has slowed now, she’s downsized and reorganized, and she says, “I feel like we’re going to make it.”

At the recent New York International Gift Fair, companies in Italy and Australia bought Austin’s new stainless-flatware design even though she had no samples to show. Austin also sells to companies in Canada and France, and she’s working with a couple of U.S.-based firms to custom-make products for overseas markets.

Austin’s work has won numerous awards, and a number of pieces are in American museums, so it’s pricier than run-of-the-mill utensils. But because the artist sells wholesale, the retailers set the prices, though she says the price points are often lower than she’d expect. “I try to make sure the stores we sell to are trustworthy,” she notes.

Austin believes expanding overseas will pay off in the long run, because “with more international recognition will come more stability” for the business. She credits two local organizations—the Asheville-based nonprofit Mountain BizWorks and A-B Tech’s Business Incubator program—with helping her grasp the ins and outs of global sales.

“They both are the only reason I’ve been able to go international,” Austin explains. “I didn’t even know how shipping worked. I didn’t know how to get my product overseas, how to negotiate tax and legal documents. They helped me figure it all out.”

She also credits the U.S. Commercial Service, which helps American businesses that want to connect with overseas businesses. The federal agency found interpreters for her in Italy when she attended a gift show there, and a representative even met her at the airport to transport her to the show.

At the end of the day, Austin believes in what she’s doing, saying, “This is our perfect and best opportunity to show that American art and craftsmanship is amazing and worth the money.”

Info: Austin Creations, 9 W. Walnut St., Asheville NC 28801 (225-3148; www.austincreations.com). The work space is not open to the public.

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