Life At Sea: Learning Design Offline

Honing your aesthetic isn’t always shaped by what you learn at school. Whether it’s a creative retreat, a productive routine or a stint at sea, there’s no denying that skills can be picked up in just about any environment. Here, we talk to All Hands designer Jen Stilwell about how creativity is fueled by experiences gathered all over the world, and how Made in America enables an invaluable closeness to her product.

What did you learn from your travels?

A: In my travels, I learned everything from technique to camaraderie and most importantly the struggle artisans face when trying to compete with large organizations. There are a few long-held craft traditions that have been slowly dying as the children in these communities – who are supposed to inherit the knowledge of the craft – leave their homes to look for better-paid jobs elsewhere. That part of what I learned is unfortunate. Supply is equal to demand and if the demand for a certain craft is not there, then the knowledge that’s traditionally passed down dwindles. Fortunately, as a society and a country, I think we’re slowly coming around to realizing craft is important to our fabric and community make-up so I do sense that it is being supported a bit more. That gives me hope.

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Can you tell us more on your design process and why handmade designs are so important to you?

A: My design process is roughly 75% random thoughts/daydreams and 25% 3D paper mock-ups. I’ll think about something for weeks, maybe making a crude little sketch somewhere, and then continue to think about it for a week more, daydream a bit about it, slowly working out the details in my imagination. Finally I will sit down for about an hour to sketch it some more and then start making patterns out of pattern paper. I didn’t got to school for design, so I missed the whole part where you learn how to design on computers. Instead, I learned with a leather artisan the old fashioned way; draping, molding, cutting shapes, using scraps, etc. Kind of making this insane Frankenstein version first before cutting the final patterns. I heard somewhere that Frank Lloyd Wright was the same way in that he would think about the design for weeks or months and then the day that a design was due to the client, he would sit down and finally draw it out, much to the relief of his employees. I was really pleased when I heard that.

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You spent a lot of time working on a ship. How did it inform your designs?

A: I am often asked about my “time on the ship”, but truth be told, it’s an experience that has been woven throughout my life from the time I was born. When I went to go work my most recent stint a few years back, my friends thought I had lost my mind a bit. It seemed ridiculous to them that I was dropping out of society to go isolate myself on a ship in Antarctica. What most of my friends didn’t know, however, was that my father is a retired ship captain, so I was essentially raised on ships. It was not a new experience to me, though I can see why it seemed like an odd choice of work to my friends in NYC. The sights, sounds and smells from our youth, we never forget them. People who were raised near a conifer forest will conjure memories of their childhood just from the passing smell of pine. For me it’s the same, except those memories are conjured when I smell oily steel, or feel misty sea breeze, or see dirty wet ropes. So, yes – the time on the ship inspired me, but so do the memories of my youth.

Why is Made in America important to you?

A: Besides the obvious reasons of sustainability, good business practices and so on, Made in America is important to me because it enables me to support the people in my immediate environment. I am currently on extended hiatus in Los Angeles (away from my regular home is NYC) and I’m having to re-source most all of my production. While I didn’t lose these contacts in NYC, it’s about being close to the people I choose to do business with. I need to be able to meet with them in person and develop a relationship. When you go into production with hand-made goods, things can always go wrong. It’s important for me to be right there and be able to react should that happen. I’m very lucky in that I have amazingly talented people around me and we’re all working to support each other, and I can’t imagine not being able to have a physical connection to my product.

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