Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
Community builder and hat maker Anna Lee recently launched Workerby product development studio in Northeast.
Deep as we are into the “maker movement”—an era of handcrafted, hand-stitched, hand-dyed, hand-sewn, limited-run objects—I still can’t say “maker” without thinking of Play-Doh and potty training.
There’s just something so very basic about the word maker. And that’s the point. Quality goods. Constructed by hand, with care. In a world of big-box stores, the maker has become the unlikely hero—an answer to the generic sameness of mass merchandise. It’s the modern-day Little Engine That Could.
Of course, making stuff and selling it is the oldest story in business. A few years ago, we would have called these creative types artisans or designers or (shudder!) crafters. But the makers of today’s chic leather satchels and sculptural brass necklaces don’t want to be confused with those who make doilies in church basements. (Just wait, doily makers— your ironic “now trending” moment is no doubt coming!)
I recently discussed the maker phenomenon with Walker Art Center store director Michele Tobin. She put her finger on the nuance of the movement.
“The maker right now represents a desire for respite,” Tobin says. “Our digital world is sterile. It’s ugly. It’s making us crave touch points.” To that end, note the Etsy display at the Walker Shop this fall featuring objects that are handmade, but ready for the big leagues—like Milkhaus Design bags, hand dyed and stitched by Bethany Nelson of Madison, Wisconsin. “The line is small enough that she is intimately related to every product,” Tobin says, “and the quality is so high.”
Every retailer loves a maker these days. Local stores such as Forage Modern Workshop and Wilson & Willy’s in Minneapolis and The Golden Rule in Excelsior position themselves as storytellers, with modern makers as their protagonists. Even chains like Urban Outfitters are getting in on the act, inviting makers to showcase their goods at special store events. West Elm in Edina now features a weLOCAL department with locally made ceramics, tablewares, stationery, and more. The store plans to rotate its Minnesota maker collection seasonally, and that shouldn’t be a problem: There’s no shortage of independently created jewelry and clothing and textiles and candles and leather goods and beauty products worthy of shelf space. So are makers making better goods today, or are Etsy and Pinterest just making it easier to find them?
I posed that question to a true pioneer, a champion of makers since before there was a movement: Anna Lee, founder of MNfashion and a milliner by trade who produces hats under the label Ruby3.
“There’s still a layer of superficiality,” Lee says, hinting that social media makes it easy for a brand to seem bigger than it is. “But ultimately, the maker movement is about the work. Instagram is allowing artists to present themselves in ways we couldn’t have even five years ago. Technology in general has made it so easy to set up a website, a business—to do things we would have needed a whole staff to do.”
Lee devoted years to cultivating the Twin Cities design scene—helping designers think like business owners, shining a light on the creative scene and the need for domestic manufacturing. Eventually, she burned out. She went back to the corporate world, where the lack of sexy runway shows and creative cocktail parties is balanced by the regularity of paychecks and benefits.
But the maker movement has pulled Lee back in to the creative world. She recently left Target Corp. and opened Workerby, a product development studio in Northeast that “builds community and commerce,” according to her website, through consultation, workshops, and design and development. She’s staging events—more intimate than her days of selling out First Avenue for Voltage: Fashion Amplified, but also more focused on sustainable business.
“One of the core issues has always been not understanding the work that goes into making something successful,” Lee says. “There’s a whole different level of investment now. The ones that are sticking with it have figured out how to make it work. Plus, there’s more of an appetite for what they’re making.”
For anyone feeling the spark of creativity, that’s an encouraging trend—by any name.