We Asked 25 American Makers About the State of Manufacturing (Plus Their Top Designs)

Architecture 5 days ago DWell 21

Domestic design is an important marker of culture. But it’s not easy to make beautiful things that last and are produced in America. We gathered some of our favorite U.S.-made items and asked their creators about the benefits and challenges of staying onshore.

Aurora Ray Fabric (2017) Cope Husband-and-wife design team Rachel and Nick Cope made a  significant impact with their 2013 wall coverings company, Calico. Their brand-new eponymous line  of textiles is made in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Eileen lamp (2009) Misewell Paul Georgeson, Cofounder “We’ve worked with online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores. We shifted gears and now only sell direct. This was a difficult decision, but we needed to lower prices, and this was the best way to do that without compromising our values.”

Ibis sofa (2017) Bernhardt As a result of a surprising career move, actor Terry Crews partnered with Jerry Helling, president and creative director of North Carolina–based Bernhardt, to bring his first furniture line to market, which includes Ibis, a sofa with a form inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Cypress articulating sconce (2016) Rejuvenation The most unusual element of this piece, which is made up of 25 components and takes up to four weeks to produce, is the pivot joint. Designed to hold heavy glass shades, it was inspired by a  motorcycle clutch, according to the engineer Loren Hanson.

Aeneas light (2017) Iacoli & McAllister To make this recently debuted  pendant, a glass orb is hand-blown by frequent collaborator John Hogan, and the fixture is assembled,  wired, UL-listed, and shipped from the company’s Seattle studio.

Stacks (2015) Thos. Moser Former professor Tom Moser left academia in 1972 to become a full-time woodworker, sourcing wood from the United States only. Today his furnishings company, based in Auburn, Maine, employs scores  of people. One set of Stacks boxes takes two weeks to complete.

"Most studios our size think about scale: do we want to offer a smaller volume of higher-priced pieces or do we want to offer more affordable options? Each has pluses and minuses."

Jamie Iacoli, Iacoli & McAllister

Active duty bookcase (2012) Heartwork Made of heavy-gauge steel and  available in a wide variety of riotous  powder-coated hues by color expert Laura Guido-Clark, each of  Heartwork’s storage designs is appropriate for both residential and commercial use. Like most of  the company’s products, the Active Duty collection is welded at the company’s Kansas factory

Strength in works that search for meaning

Karen John, CEO of small-batch manufacturer Heartwork, heralds unique design.

"We deal with architects and designers, as well as direct consumer clients. Especially for the younger designers, making something in the U.S. really resonates. I think there’s definitely a learning curve of education on trying to explain total value. What is it that people like about having something done in America? Do they like it because it’s sustainable, or do they like it because it’s the action of supporting a whole team? I will say that, on the client side, there are larger clients who have made a point to ask, ‘Can we have this product made within X hundred miles?’ 

"Sometimes I do think, ‘Why did I pick this?’ There should have been something much easier. But there is one thing I love about American manufacturing: I have found the people involved to be some of the most solid, good people. Especially in the U.S., because I don’t think it’s about the ginormous automated factories. It’s about real people who actually have done things that are not easy to do. "They are the best people—anybody who has the patience and the discipline and the persistence to make things right, when it’s not easy." 

brushed canvas (2017) Pottery Barn This is one of an array of domestically sourced fabrics offered on the York Square Arm Deep Seat Sofa, a  recently introduced top-seller. Made in the company’s factory in Hickory, North Carolina, the sofa takes about 15 days to produce and is touched by 30 craftspeople before completion.

Leather stool (2017) Amuneal Adam Kamens, CEO “The machine-made artifacts from CNC machining, laser cutting, water-jet cutting, and CNC forming are erased by the hands-on welding, grinding, finishing, and leather wrapping that help to give the stools their soul. But maybe one of  the most interesting facts is that the  final assembly of the stool is  made not via welding or mechanical fasteners, but using a bonding compound.”

Ombre Blush Nesting Bowls (2017) Pigeon Toe Ceramics Lisa Jones, Founder Samantha Cole, Co-owner “What keeps us up at night is the ongoing cost of doing business in the U.S. as a ‘little guy.’ Many  of the large companies in Portland, Oregon, get tax breaks to be here, while businesses of our size get no breaks at all. It’s extremely expensive to do business here—and frankly, at times, not sustainable—but we are committed to supporting jobs in our community and sustaining our manufacturing ethic.”

"I am not worried about our American manufacturing. That being said, we have the challenge of competition from individuals and companies—here and overseas—that don’t value authorship and are comfortable producing and selling designs they did not invest in."

Adam Kamens, Amuneal

Crystal Cluster sculpture (2016) R & Company Master glass artist Jeff Zimmerman created the hand-blown pendant in New York for R & Company. Zimmerman gained acclaim in the late 1990s while still in school at Tennessee Tech. Zimmerman has played a hugely influential role in setting the pace for a new age in modern lighting design.

Upholstery is the sweet spot for Pottery Barn

President Marta Benson cites the philosophy of "Kaizen" as a way to ensure competitiveness.

"There’s definitely a feel-good component to buying American-made. But there’s a lot of pressure on price. The consumer is only willing to pay about 5 to 10 percent more. Quality, design, and price come first, and then Made in America is an added value. There’s always some kind of a natural best place to make certain kinds of goods. We have a global sourcing organization, so we’re somewhat agnostic about it. In the case of upholstery, it’s a win—we can be competitive and can continue manufacturing here. We have a 400,000-square-foot factory in North Carolina that we built from the ground up, where we follow the Japanese "Kaizen" philosophy of iterative improvement, taking out waste or unnecessary steps to improve efficiency. 

"Also, with a big item like a sofa, you have to consider the cost and time of shipping. Ocean freights go up, or there’s a limit on the number of containers you can access. There are actually pressures on foreign-sourced goods—foreign labor costs are increasing. I’d say about 20 percent of our products are made domestically. It’s all upside, and quite frankly, we wish we had a higher penetration."

Orikata Saucer Pendant (2017) Room & Board In partnership with The California Workshop, in Costa Mesa, Room & Board just launched this pendant, which is laser-cut and then folded by hand by one to two people. The Minneapolis company, founded in 1980, projects sales of up to 900 units this year.

Arc Dome Pendant (2014) Allied Maker It takes seven people up to eight weeks to complete one spun-brass Arc Dome. The company, which began as a garage workshop in 2012, employs 25 people in Glen Cove, New York.

Night Dance Blanket (2017) Pendleton Woolen Mills Woven and finished using jacquard looms in Pendleton, Oregon, the Night Dance blanket is manufactured by adhering to the same trusted practices the company has followed since its founding in 1863.

Washington Circle Breakfast Table (2016) Brush Factory Rosie Kovacs, Owner The Cincinnati–based furniture company launched its first line last year when it won a $20,000 grant from the city. “Giving a designer the ability to work directly with the factory provides more in the long run in terms of lower start-up costs and the ability to adapt to customers’ needs quickly.”

"In the hand crafted business, you end up wearing a lot of hats. We design and make our furniture in-house, and we do a majority of our sales direct to consumers. We enjoy that strong relationship, but it’s not a sustainable model. We need experts, partners, and channels—retailers and manufacturers—instead of trying to reinvent the wheel."

Abir Ali, Co-owner, Ali Sandifer

Ten-cup Glass Handle (1941) Chemex Inspired by the Bauhaus and  generic lab equipment, the Chemex coffee maker is made from  a single piece of borosilicate glass. Essentially unchanged since its invention, the piece, produced today  in Massachusetts, is part of the permanent collection at MoMA.

Heiss desk (2009) Ali Sandifer Andre Sandifer, Co-owner “This table takes us sixty hours from start to finish, and we average about ten per year.”

Rod + Weave Chair (2014) Eric Trine Studio What started as a student project is  now a core product for the Long Beach–based studio, which produces 200 Rod + Weave chairs annually. The frames are made with a solid hexagonal rod sourced from a vendor  in nearby Santa Fe Springs, California. The leatherwork is done in-house.

Eric trine on the pitfalls of making things in America

An outspoken designer has some real talk for consumers.

"Often these Made in America movements tend to romanticize the idea, but what if manufacturing in America kinda sucks? 

"What happens when you have a hot item—in my case, anything plated brass or copper—and there’s not a single vendor in the L.A. area who can get the job done right and on time? I have open orders for 80 of my brass stools right now that I can’t fulfill, because out of the five vendors I’ve sought out to pick up the business, two have shuttered in the past three months, and the other three were worse than my original vendor, and three times the cost! 

"What happens when your main, stable manufacturer just drops the ball on quality control and in the course of six months you find that $50,000 worth of product has to be redone?

"There was a chunk of time, roughly the past 10 years, when new graduates of design programs were dead-set on manufacturing in America, but now that emphasis is waning—and the consumers just don’t care as much anymore. Everyone loves using iPhones to talk about how much they support things being made in America."

Ladder Line Light (2017) Fort Makers For the 2017 Site Unseen exhibition in New York, the Brooklyn-based company fabricated an 11-foot-tall LED illuminated ladder, created  by Noah James Spencer, to mark the entrance to their booth. They are now at work on an eight-foot-tall version for smaller spaces.

Stoneware Mugs (2016) CGCERAMICS Christie Goodfellow, Owner “The mugs are produced in  a 169-square-foot studio in my backyard. Each one takes about 38 minutes—this includes casting, cleaning up and preparing the piece to be fired, bisque firing, glazing, and glaze firing. Typically two people are involved in the production process; I usually cast the pieces and my studio assistant cleans up the parting lines  and prepares the pieces for firing.”

"We sleep well at night, aside from the holes we’ve scratched into our heads over all the small decisions in production that seem big. It’s all in the details! Young designers, beware..."

Nana Spears, Cofounder, Fort Makers

Bella Bedroom Sofa (2017) Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Headquartered in Taylorsville, North  Carolina, since 1989, the company spends up to six weeks to produce and ship this piece.

Mitchell Gold distills almost 30 years of wisdom

The Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams cofounder recalls how big events have shaped his business.

"What keeps me up at night is consistency. Sometimes we’ve had so much business we’ve had to race to get things made. Other times, like in 2008 or in 2001, at the start of the Afghanistan War, there wasn’t so much business. What makes me nervous is an administration that’s trigger-happy and will get into a war. War has an impact on the economy. People’s consumer confidence goes down. If there’s a hiccup in the economy, they have a reason not to buy.

"The consumer is only going to spend so much more to get something made in America. Today they can go on the Internet, compare 10 products, and if our product is $4,000 versus $3,000, they won’t buy it. But if ours is $100 more, they will.

"People appreciate that we make our furniture here and that we’re environmentally responsive. A few weeks after we first started, there was a story on the front page of the Times about the ozone being depleted. One of the biggest contributors, it said, was furniture makers. Producing foam emits a lot of C02. I called Bob and I said, "Do you know what we’re going into?" But today over 70 percent of consumers do some recycling. What that tells me is, regardless of whether people identify as environmentalists, they want to help." 

Lapa No. 436 (2017) David Weeks Studio It takes approximately 12 people  12 weeks to create this piece, which features a series of hand-spun shades that are then  hand-formed by designer David Weeks in his Brooklyn studio.

Rainbow Armchair (2017) Sawkille Jonah Meyer, Founder “We have a parts system where we’re always handmaking the individual elements of the chairs,  so we can be ahead of the game when orders come in. From steam-bending, turning, fashioning the seat, assembly, sanding, and finishing, it will cross at least five people’s hands and can take a week.”

Nonagon Plate (2017) Clam Lab Clair Catillaz, Owner “I can make a few per day,  periodically working the clay at just  the right moment of dryness in between other projects. An assistant prepares the slabs and coils  of clay so that I can be more efficient. Then they are dried, fired, glazed, and fired again. If they are bling-y, a meticulous application  of precious metal luster precedes a  third firing. In my mind they are ‘easy,’ but they do take some time.”

Elko Credenza (2011) Eastvold Matthew Eastvold, Owner “All of our furniture is made right here in our shop in Northfield, Minnesota. While I have experience in metal fabrication from my  years working on farm equipment  with my dad, we outsource  our metal bases. We found a great company in Fargo, North Dakota, that laser cuts the Elko bases.  We assemble and finish everything in-house.”
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