Life by Design

These Twin Citians all share a love of fine craftmanship.

Life by Design
Photos by Jake Armour
Built for 2 Twin Cities collectors John Oliva and Nancy Krant have this Tom Oliphant-designed chair at their beach house in Connecticut.

These Twin Citians all share a love of fine craftsmanship, a distinctive personal style, and a gift for finding ways to beautify their lives. Here's how they do it.

Crafting a beautiful existence isn’t as easy as some people make it look. Like anything else worth having, it takes dedication, hard work, a certain amount of time and money, and a clear idea of what you want. How to find your style and zero in on perfect pieces can be an art unto itself. Fortunately, we live in a creative hotbed.

The Twin Cities offers a wealth of goods made by skilled artisans. And hunting is half the fun, especially during spring and summer. The official art-fair season kicks off this month with the American Craft Council show at St. Paul’s RiverCentre (April 20–22), the largest juried art show in the Midwest. Art-A-Whirl, an epic weekend-long party at the Northrup King Building and surrounding galleries in Northeast Minneapolis, follows in May. After that, you can find a juried fair somewhere pretty much every weekend until September. An astonishing range of work in almost every medium can be found at these shows and fairs. Where to start? It depends on what you like.

Finding a Connection Jeremy Mayberg is an architect who specializes in building theaters and museums. He leads the Cultural Design Studio for Minneapolis-based RSP Architects, and he collects an eclectic range of items: African masks, artisan pottery, glass sculpture, and other assorted items. And though the things he collects are very different, his choices are guided by a common aesthetic.

“Whether it’s food, plants, or clothing, I prefer native and natural over cultivated and manufactured,” says Mayberg. “I like things simple, authentic, and understated—with a sense of humor thrown in.”

One of Mayberg’s prized possessions is an African hunter’s jacket that has pouches for various types of medicine attached to it. It hangs on his living room wall. “I like the jacket because when I look at it, it sparks my imagination. I think about the guy who wore that jacket, of the culture and time in which he lived. It’s a jacket, yes, but it’s also a work of art.”

For Mayberg, craft collecting is a very personal activity, one that feeds his curiosity and fuels a variety of interests. “When I go to shows and fairs, I like to talk to the artists and learn about different crafts,” says Mayberg. “I like things that tell a story, that embody some tradition or history that the artist is building on.”

Sally Wheaton Hushcha is an interior designer with a background in studio art, art history, photography, and archaeology. She doesn’t think of herself as a “collector” in the connoisseur sense of the word, but she knows her stuff. Among the items she’s interested in are Joseph Hecht engravings, Scottish Victorian jewelry, Venetian glass, porcelain figurines, and ceramics.

Wherever she travels, Hushcha almost always seeks out the local galleries, antique stores, and consignment shops—sometimes even garage sales and flea markets. “I’ve found pieces at venues high and low,” she says. “I like to find that one thing that speaks to my soul, that makes me want to bring it into my life. But it’s not about acquiring it; it’s about finding that connection—of staying open to the possibility of connecting with an object.”

Seeking Style Marnita Schroedl, founder of the social-interaction-research organization Marnita’s Table, believes that inspiration can come from anywhere and says she never wastes an opportunity to be stylish. “Everything, from walking the dog to going to the opera, is a fashion opportunity,” Schroedl insists. “Don’t worry if it all matches or goes together. If it is beautiful, well-made, and you love it, then it goes together, because it has YOU in common.”

Kelly Gage takes a more analytical approach to her acquisitions. As an assistant professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Gage teaches apparel history, an academic passion that informs her personal decision-making.

“I was taught to buy things that would last, which factors into my style today,” Gage says. “I buy classic pieces with quality construction that won’t go out of style in a year. I particularly like clothes from the 1940s and some styles from the 1960s Mad Men era.”

Gage does not suffer from indecision. “In general I am an analytical person,” she says. “I know instantaneously if I like something or not.”

When Yin Simpson isn’t designing couture dresses, she can often be found at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where she and her husband give public tours of the MIA’s Southeast Asian and Japanese art collections. “Our furniture, tables, porcelain, and paintings usually have an Asian influence,” says Yin, “but whatever it is, I have to love it before I buy it. Even my dishes have to connect to my soul.”

Yes, she likes to shop, but Yin says she also goes to shows and galleries simply for inspiration. “I love being surrounded by so many skilled craftspeople and artisans. It energizes me. I like to imagine the artist’s mind at work, and to envision how much time went into the making of a piece. Even the simplest things can be extremely time-consuming. A lot of people don’t realize that.”


Our craving for handmade goods dates back to the dawn of man.
2400 BC Potter’s wheel — 1790 Sewing machine — 1860 Arts and Crafts movement
1880s Roll film — 1900 Prairie-style architecture —1915 Minneapolis Institute of Arts
1943 American Craft Council —1960s Tie-dye craze —1970s The BeDazzler
1987 Creative Memories—1990 Martha Stewart — 2005 Yarn bombing
2005 Etsy — 2010 Pinterest — 2011 Upcycling

Their Eyes Have It

“Our life is our work, and our work is our life,” says John Oliva, who, along with his wife, Nancy, owns and runs Specs Optical on Hennepin Avenue. By that he means that the same appreciation for functional beauty that makes the eyeglasses they sell so unique also informs the rest of their lives. “There is no separation,” he says. The couple’s shop, house, and various properties are all filled with beautifully crafted furniture, tables, lamps, and other accessories fashioned by top designers. The necklace Nancy is wearing were made by Korean designer Myung Urso.

Stylish Seating

St. Paul furniture designer Scott McGlasson makes a variety of “slab benches” like the one above. The woods he prefers are blackened ash, walnut, and yellow birch, which he attaches to a strong but simple base, giving the wood center stage.

Technicolor Dreamcoat

For years, the only color Marnita Schroedl wore was black. But after reaching her weight-loss goal of 80 pounds, she decided it was time to add some color to her wardrobe. At the American Craft Council show a couple of years ago, she stumbled upon the booth of designer Marylou Ozbolt-Storer and fell in love with a raincoat and hat that are anything but black. The coat (above) is designed from a photo of a butterfly in the artist’s garden in Seattle. To create the material for the colorful coat, Ozbolt-Storer digitally enhanced a photo she took, then sent the file to a company in Italy, which silk-screened the image onto real silk and treated it with a waterproofing agent. “I’m from Seattle,” says Schroedl, “and when I wear this coat, I imagine I am that butterfly who has metamorphosed into an amazingly glorious creature.” Locally, Schroedl runs the innovative social research group Marnita’s Table.

Art Glass

Oregon-based artists Craig and Anny Zweifel’s distinctively luminescent colors are forged at 2,100 degrees.

Style as a Way of Life

Yin Simpson spends her days custom-designing couture dresses, jewelry, and accessories for her many upscale clients. She makes some of her own clothes too, but she enjoys shopping just about anywhere quality clothes are sold—consignment stores, estate sales, boutiques, art fairs, even Target. “I collect all kinds of jewelry, shoes, and other accessories to go with my clothes, because a different scarf and earrings can make a whole new outfit,” she says. “My favorite jewelry is made of jade—not just green jade, but blue, pink, red, and purple jade as well.” She also loves pearls, both black and white. Simpson is Chinese, so she likes fashions that mix Eastern and Western influences. The necklace she models in is made by Korean jewelry designer Seung-Hea Lee, whose creations are known for their lively color, elegance, and classy playfulness. The gemstones are large, beautiful, and expensive—$25,000, to be precise.

Color Play

The stones in Seung-Hea Lee’s necklace: turquoise, garnet, peridot, coral, aquamarine, and crystal.

Handle with Care

One of the artists Jeremy Mayberg admires most is Native American potter Marvin Blackmore, a regular at the American Craft Council show whose ornate, intricately patterned ceramics sell for thousands of dollars. Mayberg owns two small bowls by Blackmore and would like to collect more, but most of the artist’s work is priced out of his range, he says. Still, when Mayberg was asked what object he’d like to appear with in the photo at right, he facetiously mentioned a large Blackmore pot he’d seen a couple of years before at a gallery in Santa Fe. Mayberg was joking, mostly, but after a phone call to the gallery owner and then to Blackmore himself, the two were persuaded to pack the piece up and ship it to Minnesota for the photo shoot. Which was surprising, since the going price for Blackmore’s black and white pot is a modest $35,000.


Potter Marvin Blackmore will not sell a piece unless it is absolutely 100 percent perfect.

Smart Choices

Kelly Gage is an assistant professor at St. Catherine University who specializes in apparel history, so she knows a thing or two about fashion. Her area of professional expertise is very specific—Afro-Brazilian slave dresses—but her own sense of style is much more eclectic. “I don’t consider myself a collector, but I have enough clothes, shoes, jewelry, and other accessories that I’ve been accused of being a collector,” she laughs. Gage says she likes “classic, high-quality pieces with an element of uniqueness to them.” The faux-fur hat and stole she is wearing in the photo were both made by Lillie & Cohoe, the so-called “queen of hats.” And the gold earrings were made by jewelry artist Lisa Cimino. “I like them because  of the natural motif—a bird hanging on a branch—and because they are a little large. They’re fun to wear,” she says, “but I have to be careful, because sometimes they catch on sweaters.”


These “Bird on a Vine” earrings by Baltimore artist Lisa Cimino go for $150 and come in silver too.

Time Is On Her Side

Sally Wheaton Hushcha is an interior designer, so she spends a great deal of time navigating antique stores, consignment shops, furniture outlets, art shows, and other places to meet the needs of her clients. But when it comes to defining her own sense of style, she prefers simple, elegant handcrafted items that have a sense of history and tradition but also bear the artist’s distinctive stamp. In the photo above she is wearing a two-tone gray-and-black scarf ($325) made by Amy Nguyen and a pair of Petra Class gold dangle earrings with blue tanzanite ($4,000). In her hand is a porcelain “Whorling” bowl made by Wisconsin artist Sandra Byers, who gets her inspiration from shapes in nature, particularly flowers and seashells.


Wisconsin artist Sandra Byers works magic with porcelain, often by mimicking nature.

Fine Craft Shopping

The American Craft Show comes to St. Paul’s RiverCentre April 20–22, but you don’t have to wait until then to shop. Here are a few of our favorite gallery stores for high-quality artisan-made goods:

Grand Hand Gallery

This highly regarded St. Paul gallery store specializes in contemporary fine American craft in a variety of media, including clay, metal, wood, fiber, glass, mixed media, and jewelry. Local and regional artists are its specialty. 619 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651-312-1122, thegrandhand.com


A store like no other in town, Max’s fills the space between fashion and fine jewelry with a curated assortment of well-crafted pieces that are both. 3826 Grand Way, St. Louis Park, 952-922-8364, stylebymax.com

Seasons on St. Croix

Presenting a true “art experience” in a dynamic gallery space, Seasons on St. Croix represents 160 artists—local, regional, and national—whose work ranges from sculpture, metal, fiber, and wood to paintings and photography. 401 Second St., Hudson, Wisconsin, 715-381-2906, seasonsonstcroix.com

Gallery 360

Artisan-made jewelry, fashion, ceramics, sculpture, and photography are found here. The front of the shop is filled with functional goods and gifts. In back is a gallery space that plays host to revolving exhibits. 3011 W. 50th St., Mpls., 612-925-2400, gallery360mpls.com              —Allison Kaplan

A Nice Price

The American Craft Council show is the largest juried show in the Midwest, which means the overall quality of the work is extremely high. But you don’t need to be a wealthy collector or boutique retailer to enjoy the show. Many devotees of ACC events attend to find that special one-of-a-kind, must-have item—or to swoon over artisan masterpieces they would love to buy, just as soon as their budget expands enough to meet their aspirations. For those on a limited budget, a section of the show is dedicated to works priced less than $100.