A Visual Guide to New York State's Heritage
Can heritage crafts be curated?
Creative workmanship of the visual or edible variety that hews to centuries-old manufacturing methods is, by its very nature, a rare pearl. The work is often unique to the region in which it’s made and says something both the people who create the work and those who buy it. Every once in a while, one of these handcrafted jewels can be found gleaming under heaps of other unremarkable ephemera. This treasure, once found, is cherished and passed from the hands of one generation to the next.
Organizing a vast collection of these finds, and making them accessible with the click of a button, seems anathema to the very definition of high-quality heirloom regional handiwork, but a dynamic team of three female entrepreneurs are doing just that online at New York Makers.
The ecommerce site and magazine was created and conceived initially by Silda Wall Spitzer, a New York transplant from North Carolina and former first lady of New York State, who was captivated by the array of ingenious craft, design and food made in her adopted state—and dismayed by the anonymity of much of it.
“When Silda had the opportunity to travel all 62 counties of New York, she was in awe of the ingenuity and creativity she found there,” says Christine Murphy, COO and co-founder of New York Makers. Crafters in the Adirondacks, Buffalo and Saratoga were all producing gorgeous regional design, handiwork and foodstuff, but there was no cross-pollination or awareness between creators in different regions, Murphy explains.
Spitzer mulled the conundrum for years. She discussed the problem with Murphy, who at that time was her assistant, and Murphy’s background in art history led to many exchanges—until the inevitable “a-ha” moment.
“Silda turned to me and said, ‘How would you like to be a curator for the entire state?’” Murphy remembers. “Silda thinks big. From the beginning, her goal was to create an economic engine for connecting businesses to new customers around the state through a marketplace that focuses on traditional heirloom crafts. She also wanted consumers to be able to shop for these amazing items quickly, from home. Clearly, this opportunity was too compelling for me to pass up, and we started fleshing out the concept.”
In addition to giving makers in New York new networking and marketing opportunities, Spitzer and Murphy wanted to tell the story of the state.
Cyberspace is a cluttered market, Murphy acknowledges. “So in addition to the e-commerce and larger community component, we wanted to tell the story of the makers, talk about their personal history, their creative process, and find out how their work speaks not only about them personally but about the place they live in. We created New York States of Mind, an online magazine that does just that.”
Murphy, who is based in Manhattan, edits the magazine. The marketplace, New York Makers, launched in late 2012, the website in 2013. (Full disclosure: when the site launched initially, I wrote several profiles for New York States of Mind, but I never met the founders in person.)
Concept, check. Beautiful objects, check. Curator, check. Editor, check.
But how to decipher true pearls from faux? And how to coax the sometimes tech-phobic artisans to sell their wares through an unknown online company? That’s where Audra Herman, New York Makers’ marketplace director comes in. She and Spitzer, who have known each other for more than 20 years, bonded over their love of all things green, local and gorgeous when Spitzer was first lady.
“Back then, I managed the Governor’s Mansion, and part of my mission was to find humanely raised local provisions,” Herman explains. “I visited more than 200 farms across the state to find the best food. I also had to find all New York–made tabletop, home and art for the mansion. But it couldn’t be anything of course, it had to be the best, with a specific aesthetic you can’t describe but immediately recognize when you see it.”
Herman’s deep knowledge of small art galleries, antique stores and specialty farms across the state—not to mention a working relationship with many of New York’s leading artisans—made her a shoe-in for the position.
“I grew up in New York, and I’ve always loved supporting my community makers,” Herman, who is based in Saratoga Springs, says. “Even in the 1970s, when it was extremely uncool, I was scouting out the best handmade food and wares in the East Village for my family. But the problem with New York is that it’s so segmented, and New York Makers provides artisans with a unifying platform and voice. It also gives people who are just selling their wares in small-town stores and at fairs a whole new market of people to access.”
While the regions and makers can shift slightly depending on sea- son and availability, every area of the state can be found on New York Makers in one of nine categories: Women, Men, Kids, Pets, Beauty & Grooming, Jewelry & Accessories, Art & Crafts, Food and For the Home.
“Everything on the site is something that Silda, Christine and I would be proud to use in our own home,” Herman says. “Almost all of it is functional art. Even the maple syrup—have you seen Crown Maple’s bottles?”
One local maker capitalizing on his partnership with New York Makers is Noah Khoury, a second-generation blacksmith who started executing historically accurate reproductions, ornamental work and home objects at the tender age of seven.
“I love what I do, whether it’s hand-forged stalks of wheat for a cathedral in Schenectady or smaller production work for New York Makers,” Khoury says. “The work connects me to my father and to my grandfather, who was best friends with the man who taught my father, not to mention a long line of welders and blacksmiths who have been doing this kind of work for centuries.”
What’s next? The operation aims to “become a top resource and trusted friend for visitors and residents who want to know what to explore and see in this great state,” Murphy explains. While the model of the company isn’t nonprofit, it seems its soul is. It’s also the rare company that, like the wares it sells, is able to align its goals and its execution, avoiding the dread gaping chasm between the two so many others experience.
As Herman says, you don’t know it until you see it. And suddenly, everything else starts to look ordinary. See for yourself at NewYorkMakers.com.