The New Makers: An American Artisan Renaissance

For the artisan, craft is an end in itself. For you, the artist, craft is the vehicle for expressing your vision. Craft is the visible edge of art.
—David Bayles, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

A few weeks ago, my wife, Sally, and I attended the Country Living Fair in Columbus, OH. The Fair was a collection of vendors selling a variety of crafts, antiques, foods, and other handmade items that seemed to generally fit into the “country chic” style made famous by Chip and Joanna Gaines on the HGTV show: Fixer Upper.

As we moved among the booths and displays, I was struck by the number of craftspeople selling handmade or artisan products. In this case, “artisan” is defined as low volume, specialty-produced craft items that focus on quality and design. The variety was amazing.

Over the last few years, the appetite and availability of these specialty products has exploded. We have craft beer, artisan cocktails, farm-to-table restaurants, self-publishing authors, self-recording musicians, boutique hotels, and Etsy has brought us a whole new world of crafty, high-quality products that are quickly produced and often customizable.

Sure the term “artisan” has been overused and hijacked for marketing purposes but the demand for these products is strong and, as is the truth with most art, beauty and quality are in the eye of the beholder. The age of low-volume, high quality, artisan goods is here and Americans can’t get enough of it.

While at the fair in Columbus, we stopped at a booth set up by a candle maker called The Rustic House. We were greeted by Kelly Turner, a friendly young man with a business card that said “Sales & Production” – a clear indicator of a small company in which everyone is wearing multiple hats. The company’s story is reflective of the American Dream as well as the artisan movement: two childhood friends get together to build a company focused on providing environmentally friendly, high quality products to a hot new niche. In this case, the founders are two millennial women, Emily Warr and Chelsea Cash, and their story is so very American. In spite of their artisan beginnings, they embody true American spirit with the last line on their About Us page: “we have no intention on staying small.”

They embody true American spirit with the last line on their About Us page: “we have no intention on staying small.”

What’s driving these new makers? New tools, new distribution channels, and a new hunger for non-cookie cutter, healthier, and environmentally friendly  products. In Indianapolis and across the country, the trend away from chain restaurants and toward locally-owned, farm-to-table and organic fare has opened up new worlds for would-be restaurateurs and entrepreneurs. Hand-in-hand with this trend is the explosion of craft brewing which seems to spawn a new brewery with amazingly cool names and labels for incredibly creative mixtures of flavors and ingredients sold as the no longer mundane product we call beer.

Want to create a candle company? There are companies who will get you set up to produce your own soy candles. Want to publish a book? There are companies who will walk you through every step of getting your novel to market. Want to sell your handmade sweaters? Etsy and other online outlets provide easy access to a entire world of consumers looking for your artisan product.

For those of us who enjoy these products, it is a feast for the eyes, ears, and taste buds. Looking for a cool wood-block tray to hold a collection of shot glasses etched with your name? It is now just a couple of clicks away. Wanting non-gmo, gluten free, free range name-your-product? It is now available in virtually any shape, size, or flavor. The artisan movement is a consumer’s paradise for variety and personalization while  assuaging our need to feel that what we’re buying isn’t killing the planet, destroying our health, or enslaving some young worker in a third world country.

Yes, the term will get watered down. Yes, the industrialists will work to mass-produce the artisan flavor to build more value for shareholders. However, my sense is that something has tipped for us as consumers and that the new makers will find ways to survive as large companies try to emulate and compete with these consumer demands.

Something has tipped for us as consumers and the new makers will find ways to survive.

For me, the trend is profound in a different way. As much as I love the artisan products, I really admire the new spirit of these businesses and the craftspeople behind them. Though Emily and Chelsea from the Rustic House state that they have no intention of staying small, in many of the cases for these artisan makers, the ambition is not to create a mega-company. For many of them, the trends, tools, and channels are simply an opportunity for them to do something they enjoy.

Will you get rich selling your hand-sewn blankets? Probably not. Will you make enough to enable you the opportunity to produce your art for an interested market? It is now possible. I see amazing opportunities for those willing to put themselves out there, bring their art to market, and then roll with what the market tells them simply for the chance to do it again. I believe this approach can yield dividends in many ways with financial rewards possibly being the least important element.

These trends are opening new possibilities for artists and perhaps even redefining what it means to build your own business.  In a world of more scale, more regulation, more employees, more money, and more challenges, perhaps a new equilibrium is available to those who are simply seeking to make more art and the opportunity to give it to the world.

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