Born and bred in Brooklyn, the international home furnishing retailer West Elm deepens its roots in the borough with its Makers Studio, a hub of creativity and collaboration for artists, designers, and craftspeople

by Amanda McCoy

The New Artisan Economy, aka the shift in demand from mass-produced to sustainable, handmade, and environmentally conscious products, was first described in a 2008 report by the Institute for the Future, which stated “the next 10 years will see a re-emergence of artisans as an economic force.” From coffee tables to coffee beans, a growing number of people from across the globe are interested in the stories behind their products, whether fair-trade produce or handcrafted jewelry. Jim Brett, president of the Brooklyn born contemporary retailer West Elm, was quoted in 2014 as stating, “There’s this incredible crafts movement happening. Everyone’s wearing Carhartt jackets and carrying Filson bags…these American heritage brands. It’s the symbolization of wanting to get back to a simpler time when you knew your shopkeeper and knew how and where your goods were made.”

West Elm was forged long before artisan became a buzzword. In 2002, when Brooklyn’s un-franchised streets were home to a surfeit of small, family-owned “craft” shops and independent restaurants, the home furnishings retailer, from its first store in Dumbo, was committed to celebrating the maker and the handmade. Fourteen years later, the brand links more than 5,000 artisans from around the globe, and hosts local events and workshops at all of its 70-plus locations.

“Collaboration is in our DNA,” added
Brett.

A member of the Williams Sonoma portfolio of brands, West Elm is anchored right under the Manhattan Bridge, with other retail stores in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. Everything is designed in house by a talented mélange of metal workers, illustrators, ceramists, and textile pattern designers, among others, and each individual store location brings in local community artisans to share their work and stories. This authentic, personalized shopping experience is an intrinsic component of West Elm’s heritage, and has garnered global praise and recognition from philanthropic initiatives and non-profit organizations. Paul Rice, CEO and founder of Fair Trade USA, said of the brand, “West Elm is empowering consumers to purchase according to their values and to help alleviate poverty through every Fair Trade Certified rug they buy.”

With public interest in one-of-a-kind, handmade, and locally inspired products on the rise, the retailer saw an opportunity to give its designers more room and flexibility to create. So, last April, the in house design team was pulled away from the everyday bustle of the Dumbo office and into a dedicated creative workspace in the innovation and manufacturing district of Industry City. The goal was to find a space that’s equal parts inspiring and functional, a true artist arcadia.

“West Elm and our in-house design team have grown significantly over the past five years,” said Brett. “The Makers Studio promotes design creativity and collaboration and furthers our commitment to the community we are lucky to call home.”

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On the 6th floor of one of Industry City’s refurnished buildings alongside the Sunset Park waterfront sits this staggering 11,600 sq. ft. of open space, inundated with natural light. Harboring seven sub-studios—including a colorist dye shop, weaving room, carpentry workshop, jewelry and metal work lab, craft and painting room, ceramic studio, and 3D modeling space—the Makers Studio brings in a daily assemblage of over a dozen designers, craftsmen, and artists to conceptualize, visualize, grow, and create. All the requisite tools and supplies are on hand, from reclaimed wood to every color of paint imaginable. With the vast swatches of patterns and the outpouring of light, even the most left-brained of visitors would find themselves inspired.

“It’s really a modern-day laboratory for design,” explained Jonathan Orr, West Elm’s vice president of design for textiles and decorative accessories.

In addition to the resident designers, the studio further promotes a cross-pollination of creativity by inviting a rotating list of visiting artists, with a goal of developing fresh ideas, new concepts, and different techniques.

“The artists we work with and the unique way we work together, make our brand truly distinctive,” added Orr.

Noted collaborations with New York-based talent include a joint venture with Brooklyn furniture maker Mark Jupiter in a series of contemporary Wishbone Meeting Tables that infuse modern design with traditional techniques, and a collection of colorful, vintage-style dinnerware in conjunction with the iconic local dishware company Fishs Eddy.

“Since our business began, we’ve worked with 100-plus independent designers. Our limited-edition collaborations help emerging and established artists and makers reach new markets while preserving the integrity of their designs.”

West Elm was an early tenant of the Industry City complex, opening its photo studio in 2012. Now with the induction of the Makers Studio, the creative minds behind the international retailer can continue to foster and connect with the Brooklyn maker community. Neighboring a number of eclectic local crafters—chocolatiers, furniture makers, and paper producers, among others—there’s no shortage of available inspiration and originality.

“We set out to create a collaborative environment for design to experiment and grow,” said Orr. “And love the results.”

West Elm Makers Studio
Industry City / westelm.com