Contemporary objects should be functional, but remain connected to a rich tradition of craftsmanship. That’s part of the idea behind Maker + Place, an Aspen, Colorado, home retail space and design studio founded by Michaela Carpenter. A recent graduate of Chelsea College of Art and Design in London who studied textiles, Carpenter remains closely tied to her own work – and keenly aware of the special, inimitable value of fine handmade pieces. “They look and feel differently from things that are manufactured,” she says. “You can see the human hand at work in them. I think that is what will ultimately keep us sane in a world that is increasingly manufactured and technology based.”
She brings that same philosophy to her latest project, joining forces with Sotheby’s for Maker + Place Presents: Contemporary Objects Online (5–22 January). Carpenter enlisted some of her favourite Maker + Place craftsmen to create pieces specifically for the auction, including unique vessels, textiles, furniture and more. “People love the idea of having something that’s one-of-a-kind,” she says. “There’s nothing exactly like the objects in this sale anywhere else in the world.” We spoke with Carpenter about supporting emerging designers, the innovative layout of Maker + Place and can't-miss highlights from the upcoming auction.
Could you tell me a bit about the thinking and inspiration behind Maker + Place?
When I was still a student at Chelsea in London, I started a magazine called Feral – it was a study on how art and design graduates planned to launch their careers. We interviewed them and did photo shoots of their studios. We also held a lecture series and community talks. It was basically a platform for these artists to start a dialogue. What I was seeing was scary. People were graduating with trade skills, but with no jobs that would allow them to shine as individuals or to practice the crafts they trained to do. Many of my peers didn’t know how to write a P&L or read a financial statement, which are baseline requirements in the professional world.
How did that realisation lead you to found a retail and design studio?
As a recent graduate, I asked myself how I could build a business and a solution around this issue. I’m very inspired by my peers – they have such incredible skills. So I started an Instagram account called Maker + Place and used it to curate images of works by my favourite designers and makers. It celebrates beautiful objects while also promoting independent craftsmen. I developed that concept into Maker + Place as a retail and design studio through conversations with mentors, artists, makers and customers. We had a summer pop-up in Aspen, and our permanent space opened in November.
The layout of Maker + Place is very unique. What made you decide to put studios inside a store?
I'm very interested in process, and it clicked for me that there’s often a disconnect between production and consumption. So I thought, what if we bring in makers’ studios so that people can see high-quality craft goods being made while they’re shopping? That way the customer can witness how something is made and why something is made. It gives the product that much more narrative and context. This model also allows customers to collaborate with the designers on custom orders. Craft objects used to be revered as classic, timeless pieces to invest in and treasure. So many hours of labour go into them. One of my goals with Maker is to celebrate the craftsmen and the skills it takes to create their pieces, and I think putting them in touch with their consumer helps to do that.
Something I find exciting about the pieces you carry is that they represent luxury and fine craftsmanship that’s meant to be enjoyed and used.
I think that’s a manifestation of the modern world. There’s a strong desire to focus on pieces that have functionality. As a brand, I really want to stay away from representing art and artists – we represent makers and craftsmen. It’s been fun to explore where that line is, so that we’re not considered a gallery, but a store that happens to sell extremely beautiful, useful things.
How do you select the designers you feature at Maker + Place? What qualities do you look for?
We’ve created a set of qualifying badges – they reflect aspects of our philosophy like design sustainability, collaborative working and renewable technology and materials. We really want to see people who are devoted to what they do and have a deep understanding of their craft. As the curator of the retail space, it’s also about my aesthetic taste and style. I look for refinement – our makers are going to refuse to send something out if it’s not the best.
Did you do anything differently when curating your sale with Sotheby’s?
The scale is different – I got to work with some of my favourite designers from Maker + Place on bigger pieces. For example, Alex Devol makes small table-top vases, spoons, bowls and plates under his brand Wooden & Woven. But his passion is building larger sculptural works, which we get to include in this sale. I also reached out to makers who don’t necessarily build products to be sold in a store, like Julian Watts, whose Blob Vase is in the sale.
What are some other highlights of the online sale you’re excited to share?
We have two smaller vessels from Max Bainbridge, the maker behind Forest + Found, and two beautiful, pinched totem-like vases by Giselle Hicks. Furniture is very exciting to include in the sale because it’s both art and design. There are pieces by Carter Hopkins and Ryan Zimmerman.
What’s ahead for you in 2018?
I want to start a residency program supported by both Maker + Place and a design studio that shares our values called New Studio. The participants would have their pieces sold at Maker, get access to studio space and learn from mentors so they can better understand business and marketing. I think it’s worth investing in them, not only as collectors, but also in terms of education and in any way possible.