8 Artist-Run Gift Shops You Need to Know
The artist is the original jack of all trades, in the business of creating objects, testing hypotheses, solving problems—and dreaming up new environments. That’s why they make some of the best shop-owners, as attests. (Their objects for sale included t-shirts that read “I’m so fucky,” and an altarpiece dedicated to
Today, artists continue to run stores that put thoughtfully designed (and often functional) objects out into the world, inspiring consumer delight and making money for creatives along the way. There are numerous such examples around the world—including the Turner Prize-winning design collective Assemble’s store, Granby Workshop, selling ceramics and other goods to revive a depressed neighborhood in the northern British city of Liverpool, and the beautiful gift shop Nimia in Guadalajara, run by an illustrator and interior designer.
But this time around we’ve focused on eight U.S. shops, from idiosyncratic storefronts in Austin, Texas, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Not included here but very much worth a visit: Los Angeles’s Family Bookstore and Ooga Booga, and Oakland’s Marion + Rose Fine Goods.)
Austin shop Las Cruxes began its life as an online store that artist and interior designer Veronica Ortuño created at age 23 to help finance her college tuition. That venture has since blossomed into an amorphous space that sells products by independent artists and designers, as well as hosting exhibitions, performances, women’s discussion groups, chess night, and even a mixtape club.
Among Ortuño’s favorite offerings are shirts by the artist-run brand Come Tees, which produces graphic apparel that pays homage to everything from
Ortuño’s eye for design has made her an early supporter of small brands run by designers of color that have gone on to grow larger followings, including Shaina Mote and Mondo Mondo.
San Francisco, California
In San Francisco’s Mission District, Little Paper Planes brims with prints, ceramics, unique items of clothing, and hand-wrought jewelry. What began as a carefully curated online store where its owner, artist Kelly Lynn Jones, could sell her artworks and those of her fellow art school grads, has bloomed into a beloved brick-and-mortar retail space that hosts artist residencies and workshop programs, and is developing an after-school program for children, set to launch in 2018.
A highlight of the shop’s current offerings are ceramic lamps by Los Angeles-based artist Brittany Mojo. “They are these wacky, textural sculptures with a Dr. Seuss vibe, but they also have a function,” says Jones. “There is something special that happens to an object when a person’s hands and intention are creating it. Every piece has its own story and connects the artist with the person who buys it.”
New York City
Artists and designers are never just one thing, and for Elizabeth Beer and Brian Janusiak of the collaborative design studio Various Projects Inc., it is this polymathic nature that fuels their shop, the upscale Project No. 8, run out of two spaces in Manhattan, including a travel shop on the ground floor of the Ace Hotel.
“We always knew we would create a certain percentage of the objects, but noticed that the things that really kept inspiring us were often made by our friends and colleagues, and were not their main focus but passion projects,” say Beer and Janusiak. “We describe them as the ‘digressions’ that are essential for any creative practice. People were making things just because they wanted to feel and manipulate the material.”
Though the partners are in the business of promoting the handmade, they don’t write off the industrially produced. “We love some mass-produced objects,” they say. “Whenever we travel, the first place we find ourselves is in hardware and stationary stores. But with the ubiquity of the big-box stores that have spent the past two decades eviscerating small, family-owned businesses around the country, we felt we could offer an alternative.”
“Everything at one time or another has started out small,” say Peter Dunham and Linnea Gits, designers, artists, and founders of Chicago shop Uusi, which sells objects produced in their studio or in collaboration with American companies like Chronicle Books and Sharpie. “Being little is a wonderful thing. You actually get to play, because no one is watching.”
Among the objects currently on sale in the shop are their “Pagan Otherworlds” tarot cards, which feature hand-painted images by Gits and hand-inked titles by Dunham. They’re also offering items made from reclaimed, old-growth Redwood and Cypress wood that Dunham collects from fallen water towers around Chicago. “Many of the staves used in our bespoke boxes and our Puukko Knife Rack started out their life on this planet over 400 years ago as mighty trees,” says the pair. “The graining and color of this wood tells a story of the Earth long before our time and has an ancient character to it that resonates with joy and a deep sense of beauty and calm.”
In Seattle’s South Union Lake area, design studio fruitsuper recently opened a storefront space whose name, JOIN, is as much a summons to participate and make as it is to purchase goods from the 60-plus members of the Join Design Collective. Among those objects currently on sale—which are all made domestically by independent designers and studios—are a series of “Mountain Pillows” made with Pendleton wool (and inspired by Seattle’s nearby mountain ranges) by Amanda Weiss of cushion-making company Three Bad Seeds.
“We believe the stories behind objects are just as beautiful as the objects themselves,” says Sallyann Corn of fruitsuper. “We’re inspired by the authentic experience of the farmer’s market and have worked to create a maker-to-object experience, similar to farm-to-table.”
Corn sees the key to running a small business in establishing clear values and employing them as a mantra. “The day-to-day tasks for maintaining and operating a shop can be overwhelming,” she says. “Before we opened, we tasked ourselves to write a manifesto. Since the first day we opened we’ve got it proudly displayed on one of our walls to remind us on a daily basis why we’re doing what we’re doing.” That missive emphasizes the creation of objects with stories, a hands-on approach, and taking pride in their work.
“The key to running a successful store is something I like to refer to as finding ‘the glass flower,’” says Rachel Berks, whose graphic design studio in Los Angeles, Otherwild, doubles as a shop, a community space, and a workshop, and has a satellite space in New York. “My partner’s mother ran a successful gallery in Miami for 30 years, and she always refers to the success she had not only selling paintings and sculpture, but also selling glass flowers, a smaller, more giftable item that everyone wanted. For each business, it’s about finding that special item that your customers want.”
For Berks, that object has taken the form of t-shirts emblazoned with the logo “The Future is Female,” which she and two of her colleagues recently evolved to communicate a more gender-inclusive message, translated in Spanish: “El Futuro es Femeninx.” Over the years, she has sold goods from an expansive network of artists and designers who include, she says, “jewelers, ceramicists, perfumers, cooks, herbalists, quilters, farmers, gardeners, fabricators, musicians, witches, woodworkers, curators, weavers, photographers, dancers, and publishers.”
Berks’s enterprise also comes with a more existential message. “Small-scale production encourages ethical practices within an exploitative, extractive, extreme, and excessive consumer culture,” she says.
Rachel Corry’s Oregon outlet is the product of the artist and shoemaker’s dream of running an idiosyncratic shop dedicated to handmade shoes and art objects, where she can socialize with friends and meet new people. For the artist, handmade objects come with an important message. “They teach a little lesson about appreciation, and not being wasteful,” she says.
The storefront is located below a series of separate artists’ spaces and potters’ studios whose wares outfit the shop with one-of-a-kind ceramics. “With Neapolitan, I finally got to gather the work of all my friends,” says Corry, “the bags, ceramics, jewelry, body oil, books, underwear, all the labors of love that I want to share with my community. It’s so pleasing to see them all under one roof, creating a story: Girl in organic underwear and handmade sandals lies on a sheepskin rug and reads art books all day…”
“It is essential for our environment that we use fewer objects, for longer,” says Nicole Lattuca, who together with Diana Lempel runs the women-artist-owned Cambridge shop Practice Space. “We believe that beautiful, durable, well-made objects with a good story are the key for helping people do that.”
The shop comes with its own origin tale: Nicole and Diana met three years ago on Fogo Island, a tiny islet off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Nicole was an artist-in-residence; Diana was on vacation. They quickly bonded over shared interests, including the interaction between art and local knowledge, and alternative educational models. Back in Massachusetts, they met for lunch one day and happened upon a tiny, shoebox-sized vacant storefront, which evidenced traces of its former life as a cobbler’s shop. The seed of Practice Space was born.
Today, Practice Space carries objects such as Kara Weaves’s “Useful Rectangles”: multi-purpose cotton textiles that can function as scarves, tablecloths, baby slings, gift wrap, picnic blankets, towels, or wall hangings. The fabric is designed by Diana’s friend Chitra Gopalakrishnan—who developed Kara Weaves out of her graduate thesis project at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan—and hand-woven in India.
“They are the perfect example of what we love,” says Nicole Lattuca, “a useful, versatile object that has an artist’s conceptual rigor and visual creativity, made by a women-owned company that is growing in scale to provide more livelihoods for more people, without sacrificing quality or care.”
Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Writer-at-Large.