Maybe it's being so close to green space and nature. Maybe it's having a little distance from the flavors of the moment in L.A. and New York. And maybe it's the relatively low cost of living, which lets people launch businesses without a huge war chest.
Whatever the reason, the past three to four years have seen a mini-boom of designers in Seattle, both locals who grew up in the area and new transplants drawn by its many liveable charms.
Despite the relatively small scene, some designers have managed to create a critical mass by banding together in effective but loosely knit groups. Consider Join Design, founded in 2008 by Jamie Iacoli, one-half of the design firm Iacoli & McAllister.
Along with her partner Brian, Jamie designs lighting fixtures, furniture, and smaller items, often working in collaboration with other manufacturers. The company has gotten the most attention for its frame lights (powder-coated steel frames that enclose a light fixture) and mini-pedestals?old brass candlesticks transmogrified through sand-blasting, powder-coating, and the addition of a sturdy top into a display for plants, cakes, and just about anything else worthy of such a dramatic presentation.
Jamie describes Join as a "super-loose" collective: the idea was to "bring together what was [in Seattle] already" by making the designers already there more prominent. The ten designers in Join don't share workspace or a store?there's no manifesto either?but they have found themselves sharing leads and collaborating in more casual ways. And although Jamie set up Join in part to show that "you don't have to leave" town to pursue a career as a designer, the consensus is that you "do have to leave Seattle to make money" at it. That's one way in which Join helps, by making it easier to attend major trade shows.
BLK PINE Workshop's bags are crafted from canvas, nylon, leather, and other materials. Their clean-cut lines have caught the eye of stockists as far away as Japan; the company has also gotten attention for backpacks incorporating old Pendleton wool*. [The backpacks featured above will be available this coming May.]
Ladies & Gentlemen Studio is probably the most whimsical member of the group. One of their most popular (and blogged-about) designs is a black ceramic piggy bank that can be easily chalked on and personalized. Also popular: a rug made of thin cotton strands that have been "crocheted" into a monster doily.
Ladies & Gentlemen's co-founder, Jean Lee, says that Seattle's design scene "isn't that big"; perhaps because of that the designers tend to be "more aware of the materials and the process" and "very involved in the making."
Jean is also active in the Brite Collective, which she describes as a side project to get non-designers involved in design. Brite Collective was one of the first recipients of a grant Storefronts program, which matches up groups with empty storefronts in the International District (aka Chinatown), and Pioneer Square. During its three-month run, the Brite's space was used as a base for scavenger hunts and other crafty events, such as helping the general public make their own terrariums.
Although everyone I talked to had their own take on Seattle and its geography, one area that kept coming up was Georgetown, an "industrial/raw/rustic neighborhood," as Jean describes it. A little bit of '90s grunge lives on here, and you'll find lots of loyal Burning Man attendees among the warehouses and small factories here. It's in Georgetown where Iacoli & McAllister gets their powder-blasting done, and many of the city's custom furniture makers work from here.
But Seattle's design scene can't be boiled down to just one hotspot. Many designers gravitate to surroundings that are a lot more rustic than Georgetown. For instance, the partners and founders of the environmentally focused Grain Design, Chelsea Green and James Minola, live and work from Bainbridge Island, a half-hour ferry ride across the Puget Sound.
As you might expect from a company based in an old farmhouse with a yard of chickens, Grain Design has an environmental bent. Their big seller is a shower curtain made of HDPE rather than off-gassing, hard-to-recycle vinyl. Although most of their ideas are fabricated locally, Grain also finds a place for chunky fabric necklaces. These, handmade by artisans in Guatemala, grew out of the coursework for a class that three of Grain Design's staff took while enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Although this may change in the future, there isn't yet any store in Seattle that stocks the work of all Join Design members. In the meantime, the Far4 boutique downtown does stock some items, including Iacoli & McAllister's mini-pedestals and frame lights as well as Ladies & Gentlemen's piggy banks.
[Frame lights photo: Charlie Schuck]
* Correction: The backpacks are made partly from Pendleton wool but were not done in collaboration with the manufacturer.