Unique: The Art of Handmade


By Tom Wofford 

Photography by Chuck St. John

 

After 15 years as an art director for Cooking Light magazine, Maya Metz Logue found herself with time on her hands after the big 2009 Time-Warner downsize. Coincidentally, she had been wanting to do something with her hands for a long time.

For years, Logue had an idea for a handmade card that would employ an endearing pun. Her family’s Gulf Shores beach house, named “The Rambler,” has an old-fashioned outdoor shower, with privacy ensured by an enclosure of weathered wood planks.

“For years I’d been looking at that wood grain and the knotholes,” Logue says, “and thinking of the card I’d make with the caption, ‘Wood You Be Mine?’”

Logue decided to make that card, using an illustration that turns the knothole into a heart shyly peaking out from the wood grain. A veteran of deftly executed visual concepts in publications and in high-profile advertising, Logue felt confident that she could come up with a few more ideas, enough to have a small line of one-of-a-kind handmade cards.

As of last week, Logue had 233 different card designs. “For a while I was doing a new design every day,” she says.

The designs have clean, organic shapes and bold colors that are a blast of contrast and cleverly coordinated. The cuts and folds of the paper are sometimes highly intricate, most held together with just the right touch of humor in a handwritten line: “We make a great pair,” alongside a pure pear shape; or “A Toast to Us” in the middle of a wheat-and-white colored slice of bread created with slices of paper. The apparent simplicity is misleading, because even the binding material—carefully coordinated embroidery thread often, but sometimes as exotic as antique fishing wire—is a perfect part of the whole.

Looking at the designs as a whole, there is a stunning range of color. Color is one of the key visual effects in any one of Logue’s individual cards, which she often brings forward in the color of paper, cut and folded to reveal the color of its other side, along with the paper underneath.

The images are perhaps even more diverse, with cards picturing dragonflies, sunflowers, or a finely rendered fern outdone only by an old-school VW microbus.

Within the collection of designs, the cards hit all the typical greeting card themes: weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, love, holidays, gratitude, and more. Logue also has a series of “fruity” greetings, a set of matching hummingbird designs, and, during the last presidential election, an unfortunately overlooked series of “swing state” cards that were more imaginative than the political realm typically deserves.

Logue does not use any templates for her cuts, so every card is one-of-a-kind, even though the variation is slight within a batch of a single design. It’s time-intensive work, but the cards are still surprisingly affordable. “Everything is made-to-order,” she says, and everything ships in fewer than five days.

The daughter of internationally renowned sculptor Ted Metz, Logue was perhaps genetically predisposed to making art by hand, but her cards are also influenced by her late mother, Lenora Bermann, an artist whose paintings often used strikingly juxtaposed colors and who worked extensively with mixed media. “I’m always inspired by her,” Logue says.

Logue initially set up virtual shop on etsy.com, and one can browse photos of each of her 233 varieties of designs there. “I am sometimes surprised when I think of all the places I’ve sold my cards to,” Logue says. “All over the South, of course, but also to New York and California.” The cards have been picked up by another website, called Bourbon & Boots, and five local shops stock assortments of her cards: Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery (at Pepper Place); Full Circle (in Forest Park); Dreamcakes; West Elm (at the Summit); and the Museum of Art Gift Shop.

 

 

Michela Bruno Swafford was a proud soccer mom to her three kids when she got an idea three years ago. She was doing some harmless window shopping “when my eyes wandered through this jewelry case, and I started having ideas,” she says.

Swafford fell in love with several pieces that day, but she bought a single brooch, not completely sure what she was going to do with it at first. Soon, she had repurposed it as a necklace. If her idea of giving new life to vintage pieces of jewelry wasn’t completely formed when she made that first necklace, it definitely began to take shape when a stranger offered Swafford twice as much for the necklace as she had paid for the brooch.

“I’ve always been attracted to anything old,” she says, “and I simply love anything beautiful.” So Swafford began buying beautiful old things and making them into beautiful new things; the product is unique contemporary jewelry with vintage roots.

Swafford collects antique jewelry pieces from all over the country (sometimes from around the world) from the days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency and all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s. She turns them into new jewelry—new in the sense that it has new purpose. The end products may have been deconstructed or combined with other pieces to create the new piece. “They are all one-of-a-kind,” Swafford says of the pieces that combine history with a touch of modern edge and offer women an accessory that suggests both individuality and tradition.

Swafford started with $200 and called her jewelry line “Made in the Deep South.” She did a trunk show in Mt. Laurel, which went well. By her third show, stores were asking to stock the line. Two years later, Swafford’s work is in 80 stores and her studio is turning out as many as 200 pieces each week. (Locally, Swafford’s work can be found at Mia Moda and Leah’s in Vestavia; at Laura Catherine in Crestline Village; and at Festivity in Homewood.)

Shoe clips, brooches, pendants, old necklaces or chains—no matter what a piece did in its first life, if it’s old and interesting, it might be among Swafford’s next raw materials. “I use anything that I think is beautiful,” she says. “But a piece really only appeals to me if I can repurpose it.”

While there is no doubt that her work is stunning, the stories that come with the old pieces give her creations a distinct mystique. “Some people fall in love with the story of a piece,” Swafford says. “They find something they like, and then they love it that much more when they find out it has a part from a state where they lived or maybe where they got married.”

MichelaBrunoSwafford (103 of 14)These backstories add an invaluable dash of romance. One recent creation for sale had been repurposed from a turn-of-the-century brooch acquired from an Ohio estate and a 1970s-era chain from a Florida collector, while another combined a 1940s-era glass pin from the Czech Republic and a necklace from the same period from a Pennsylvania estate. “The history of things is so important,” she says. “And people are drawn to history.”

Swafford’s business is growing quickly, and she continues to find new ways to intrigue her clientele, including a new Gameday series that uses vintage depictions of animal images and repurposes them into upscale game day accessories featuring mascots.

“I was really happy being a stay-at-home mom,” Swafford says. “But through the work, I have had a chance to find more of myself and my creativity.”

 

 

Elizabeth David is, in many ways, a 21st-century artisan.

Not only are her some of her creative and design tools of the post-computer era, her product could not have even been imagined hardly more than a decade ago.

David makes covers for e-readers, iPads, and other tablets.

Still, it was one of the earliest of all skills, one that is increasingly becoming a lost art, that was the foundation for David’s second career: sewing.

“I have always loved sewing,” the Madison, Wis., native says. “I started sewing all my own clothes when I was 8 years old. I sewed all the time. You know how you see kids off to themselves playing with their phones? That was me, but I was sewing.”

An intensive-care nurse for 13 years, David decided to put her lifelong love of sewing to work in 2007 when she designed and made a handbag and put it for sale on eBay.

“I didn’t know if it would sell,” David said, echoing many a cautious entrepreneur before her. By the next year, she’d sold 3,000 handbags on eBay. Prices on eBay soon fell too low for David’s handbags to be profitable, and by 2008, she had found etsy.com and decided to make device covers.

LizDavid (104 of 19)They may be handmade in Jefferson County, but otherwise, covers made by Elizabeth David Design are totally 21st-century. They’re available only online, primarily through etsy.com, with the exception of a couple of wholesalers, and through direct email contact. “I have a pretty big customer base that contacts me directly by email,” she says.

Her customer base extends around the globe: About 30 percent of David’s sales are international, and her work is all over the United Kingdom, Australia, and China. David even has a Flickr site where customers can mix and match fabrics to create upwards of 3,000 designs.

Her work drew big attention immediately, as Barnes & Noble put one of her designs on the cover of its online magazine in 2008. “I was seriously running to get all those orders produced,” David said.

As much good fortune as David has had with her work, she still sounds surprised by it all. “I never thought I would be able to make a living doing something I love,” she says. “But I am, and I’m so thrilled to be able to do it. I wish everybody could do something they loved like this.”

 

 

Sherry Hartley and Beth Williams blended together the two halves of the phrase, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Their actions could not be more local, as they have collected products from more than 350 different Alabama vendors and put them all under one roof, as well as on a website, where they are only a click away from most of the consumers in the entire world.

There you’ll find a lot of good things about Alabama, a lot of good things made in Alabama, in a store (and on a website) called Alabama Goods.

Previously, Hartley had a background in human resources and had owned the website BirminghamEmployment.com, a role that gave her lots of experience in e-commerce and, after selling the website in 2005, an interest in starting a new kind of business that would make use of her new skills.

Williams owned the alabamamarketplace.com site, and when she and Hartley met at a Chamber of Commerce Roundtable event, they found themselves thinking along the same lines: A store for great products made in Alabama, with both bricks-and-mortar and online outlets.

They opened in March of 2011 on 18th Street in Homewood across from Savage’s Bakery, and business has continued to grow as the store has continued to find more Alabama artisans, craftsmen, and cooks who have a great local product looking for wider distribution.

“We have about 350 vendors, thousands of total items, originating from Elkmont to Fairhope,” Hartley says with a smile. “So while I wish I could mention every little thing, I can’t.”

The Homewood store has the comforting feeling of an old-fashioned general store, even though the dry goods at Alabama Goods are a satisfying mix of the traditional and the contemporary.

The product mix is wildly eclectic, but at the same time, nothing seems out of place. There is art from several artists, mugs of many quirky styles, candy of all kinds (including a feather-light, shortbread-based pecan cookie a certain visiting writer ate five of). There’s beautiful pottery of many styles, glassware, and food, both previously prepared and in mixes ready to become a shortcut to something delicious made at home.

The store has some standout pieces that must be singled out among the hundreds of items: Gee’s Bend Pot Holders, for only $19, are an opportunity to own a piece of that quilting legacy and the designs that originated there. “Those quilts are the best in the world,” Hartley says. “But they are so expensive not many people can own one. These pot holders have the same feeling, are made by some of the same ladies, and help spread that story by getting a piece of Gee’s Bend in more hands.”

There are Vulcan necklaces and many things that smell of paradise—some smart new candles by a company called South and a few others by the original “old South” brand, Southernness.

There are ornaments, including distinct quilted ornaments. There are incredible football-season coasters, cut into the shape of a football helmet and made of low-pile carpet; no moisture gets through that defensive line.

There is also a set of heirloom-quality reproductions of antique kitchen tools that is both fascinating and practical, and a wide selection of cutting boards of beautiful wood or stainless steel made in the shape of the state of Alabama.

The staff at Alabama Goods has an old-fashioned focus on quality—quality merchandise, quality packaging materials, and quality customer service. A recent visitor asked for suggestions for an 85-year-old man and was presented with a beautiful handmade shaving mug and brush, made in Eclectic, and handmade soap with a masculine scent, made in Huntsville.

Hartley loves discovering a new product and helped the vendor get it into the store. “Ashley Tarver brought us in this wonderful olive oil in a Mason jar and it was amazing,” she says. “So we helped her find a bottle she liked, and she had this beautiful label made, and now we have this marvelous imported olive oil that’s been locally infused with the smells and tastes of Alabama.” And sometimes she puts a call out, and the vendors fulfill her needs, like when she needed a dry muffin mix, and Laura Hester of Muscle Shoals developed one for her.

With a background putting together quite a few corporate Christmas gifts, Hartley has gotten excellent requests for the store to put several such specialties together. One corporate gift idea she recently used is the combination of a handmade breadbasket with a food dish or food mix. The breadbaskets are beautiful.

The look is quaint, but Mom and Pop it ain’t. There is an eye on growth—rapid growth.

Williams and Hartley opened their second store in Tuscaloosa this past April.

They also own the URL for alabamagoods.com-style websites in 40 other states. From local to global and back again, the state of Alabama is being represented well.

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