“I wish I could make a proclamation for Asheville: If you move here, you have to buy local art,” says Sherry Masters. Through her business, Art Connections, Masters offers consultations “for those who want interesting art focal points for their home, business or outdoor space.” It’s a niche she’s carving from her years of experience as a gallerist, an art tour guide and by being involved in projects such as the Handmade House at The Ramble — a home in an upscale development that was furnished and decorated with local art and crafts, from a custom tile backsplash to a bespoke bench for the sculpture garden. There’s always a question, Masters says, of “How do you find the customer? How do you connect the artists to the right projects?”
In 2017, the July Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands featured three Cultivating Craft in Your Daily Life vignettes, which teamed architects and interior designers with local Craft Guild members to demonstrate how local handmade items could be incorporated in home style. Tracey Kearnes of Alchemy Design Studio and fiber artist Barbara Zaretsky produced a bedroom; Laura Sullivan of ID.ology and furniture maker Brian Boggs created a dining room; and Ann Sherrill of Rusticks and Al and Parker Platt of Platt Architecture worked with sculptural art basketmaker Matt Tommey on a living room.
Tommey says the vignettes “came out of my desire to connect [the design industry] with the wider craft community. … Craft organizations are becoming more and more isolated in their approach to marketing,” he says. “For me, strategic partnerships are at the core of how I built my business.”
Originally from Columbus, Ga., with a background in marketing, Tommey relocated to Asheville following the 2008 economic downturn and opened his studio in 2011. Though he’d made baskets for 25 years, it was just after his move to Western North Carolina that he was recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, won a prestigious award and became a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. “All these things started to converge for me,” he says.
Today, Tommey’s waitlist is 3 1/2-4 months out and “95-99% of my clients are luxury mountain homeowners,” he says. As in the vignettes, Tommey often works closely with architects and designers to craft sculptural baskets for his clientele. Also — taking a suggestion from a client years ago — he collects natural materials, such as mountain laurel, from the homesites to incorporate into the bespoke pieces. “I love the collaborative process. It really works for me,” he says.
Barbara Zaretsky of BZ Design, who was also part of the 2017 vignettes, has been involved in similar projects that pair makers with members of the design industry, including contributing pieces to the vignettes at the American Craft Council show in Atlanta and the Craft and Design Show in Richmond, Va. For NY NOW, a wholesale products and innovative designs trade show, “They had chosen my work — pillows — to publish in a number of trade publications,” she says. “That was pretty great.”
But publicity and public appearances don’t necessarily mean immediate sales. “I know I’ve had people come here to the studio [who saw my work in Richmond],” she says. “It gets in people’s minds, and they remember it. … It’s like, ‘Oh right, I wanted to do that.’”
Zaretsky’s River Arts District studio is a draw, both to customers who encountered her work at craft shows and to visitors exploring the area’s many maker spaces. “More often than not, people have walked through the studio, and if they haven’t purchased something in the moment, they take my information and then call me when they’re ready to have a piece made or when they’re ready to order pillows or table runners,” she says.
Unfortunately, the RAD “has become part of the whole scene. People are walking through with cups of beer,” Zaretsky says. “The majority of people coming through these days are not buyers of high-end work.”
She adds, “But there are serious buyers. They definitely are educated and appreciate craft.”
These are the types of art collectors Masters hopes to match with local artists. In the past year, she’s partnered on several occasions with design firm ID.ology “when a client expressed interest in local artists,” she explains. Some designers work with artists directly, she says. And some local galleries work with clients directly to order custom pieces.
Masters worked at Grovewood Gallery when it expanded to its second floor, adding studio furniture — an idea later repeated at New Morning Gallery and other craft-oriented businesses.
More recently, Brian Boggs has been in the process of exploring ways to grow his furniture-making business to work more closely with the design industry. “We’re sort of in between manufacturing and fine craft,” he says. “Our work is definitely fine craft, [but] we have employees, and we want more of them, and we want more customers. Learning to work better with the [design] trade needs to be part of our strategy.”
While Boggs’ company has collaborated with designers for many years, the pieces he’s developed, he says, “focus on artists and highly refined designs that take quite a bit of handwork … to hold tolerances and quality standards that are a very important part of our brand.” He continues, “The design trade doesn’t allow much room in the story for the designer. Our margins are too slim.” Makers are so passionate about the artistry that production doesn’t tend to drive their companies, Boggs says.
Another piece of the designer-craftsperson marriage is that “you need to be able to work a little bit differently,” Boggs explains. “Designers are used to a certain kind of professionalism that isn’t always part of craft culture.” He’s not talking about poor table manners but, instead, a consistent palette of colors, a run of patterns and the ability to hit deadlines.
“For artists and craftspeople, that’s tough,” Boggs says. “We’ve chosen to work the way that we love to work, and that doesn’t always allow us to be dependable from a timing standpoint.”
To make the partnership with a designer or design firm work, he says, “There has to be a relationship of trust there, built by reputation and repeated success of getting your [work] done to a standard, being able to hit the mark, and learning how to communicate clearly enough and consistently enough that the designer, who’s representing their work to their client, can feel confident.”
The move toward manufacturing on a larger scale or working regularly with a design firm doesn’t make sense for all craftspeople. Though such a change might bring more money into an artist’s studio, there are considerations beyond the bottom line. Industry generally wants multiples, Zaretsky notes. For the way she works, as a fiber artist, that’s more challenging than for, say, ceramists or woodworkers, who can produce in quantity through mechanization and/or with the help of a team.But for some studios, a production line is the key to success. Early on, Northern Crescent Iron — started by the late blacksmith Matt Waldrop in Taos, N.M., and relocated to Asheville’s Phil Mechanic Studios — “was doing railings and gates and a sculpture here and there,” says operations manager Jeremy Duke. “It was kind of feast or famine.”
About six years ago, Waldrop and Duke (who joined the company as an apprentice and learned every aspect of the trade from the founder) moved the shop to Flat Rock. “When we started selling hardware and bottle openers and knives, we started getting more consistent business,” Duke says.
They marketed (and continue to offer) knives and bottle openers through online craft marketplace Etsy. At first, there were few sales, “but one year, it started ramping up,” Duke remembers. “We could see there was a lot of interest in those two items, so we started [thinking about], ‘How are we going to produce the amount we need to produce; what do we need, tooling-wise, to do this.’”
Northern Crescent Iron’s line of kitchen and bath hardware attracted the attention of Liberty Hardware. A contract with that company landed Waldrop’s and Duke’s products in the Homegrown Hardware program — metal, glass and ceramic cabinet hardware — at Home Depot stores. “We put a lot of effort into the tooling to be able to hit the price points we needed to hit to sell the hardware to them,” Duke says. “That got the ball rolling, so we were able to produce the hardware in a way that would benefit us.”
And though such production means less focus on one-of-a-kind works, Duke points out the popular North Crescent Iron items have allowed the business to grow: “We wanted to create something more stable so we could keep the people around who were working at the shop and make sure there’s consistent work for them.”
And even if there’s repetition in the making process, “You never know where you’re going to find inspiration,” Duke says. “There’s beauty in the mundane.”
Work and play
While Lexington Glassworks hasn’t landed a contract with a big-box store, the business — now in its fifth year in Asheville — has created a customizable line of lighting. “We offer a variety of pendant [lights] that start at about $225 and go all the way up to about $5,000,” says marketing director Ashley Hardes. “Our lighting really spans residential to commercial.” Clients include people who are replacing old fixtures in their houses, interior designers, builders and contractors.
There are six different shapes of luminaries available in a range of colors, textures and sizes. “We work with our customers by asking them for color swatches or images,” explains Hardes. “We can work with the examples that we have on the [showroom] floor and tweak those a little bit to fit their design, or we can go from scratch” if the customer wants something unique.
Lexington Glassworks also works with Hubbardton Forge Lighting, a Vermont-based commercial forge, which puts the Asheville maker’s lights onto its fixtures.
The glassblowing studio and gallery also offers functional ware, one-of-a-kind art pieces and gift items. “We offer a little bit of everything,” Hardes says. And because the enterprise is a working studio, glass is blown seven days a week to fill orders and the in-house collection. Visitors can watch the glassblowing in process or can reserve a spot for a 30-minute demonstration.
Among the local businesses boasting Lexington Glasswork lighting are Kimpton Hotel Arras, Aloft Asheville Downtown Hotel and AC Hotel Asheville Downtown as well as restaurants such as Jargon, Chiesa, Liberty House Coffee and Café, and the bar Antidote.
So, with production in full swing, does a successful marriage to the design industry mean less time for the imaginative work artists crave? “That’s the million dollar question: How do you balance filling orders with being creative and still being able to make your work that’s personal to you?” Hardes muses. “We’ve been purposeful, like, ‘I’m going to schedule this entire afternoon [to] just make stuff for the sketchbook. I’m going to try out new designs.’”
She continues, “Over the years we’ve figured out that … trying out new ideas and experimenting is important to keep our work fresh. It’s important to hit reset.”
Learn more at arttoursasheville.com, matttommey.com, bzdesign.biz, brianboggschairmakers.com, northerncrescentiron.com and lexingtonglassworks.com.