After nearly a year of preparations, John Anderson and Nicole Williams are about to tear down the paper covering the storefront windows at 1659 Summit and unlock the doors at Utilitarian Workshop, the space the couple hopes will be ground zero for Kansas City's local retail revolution.
Utilitarian Workshop isn't a physical workshop. What it builds are ideas. Anderson and Williams' design firm specializes in bringing entrepreneurs' notions to life by planning, building and decorating interior spaces, designing logos, and producing printed materials.
"We have the capability to take a business or a brand from conception to brick and mortar," Anderson explains. He and Williams did exactly that for Port Fonda.
But Utilitarian Workshop is also a physical space, one that shares its name with that of Anderson's furniture line. So, in addition to being an office for the design end of the business, the Summit address is a showroom for Anderson's furniture.
And it's a store for other makers' handcrafted goods, sold on consignment. The shop operates on a pop-up model, with new goods cycling through every three months. The opening weekend features jewelry, leather goods, ceramics, handprinted postcards and paper goods, antiques and furniture from 13 vendors, as well as pour-over coffee from Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters. The next run of new products debuts in October.
"For us, design and art are very philosophical things," says Anderson, who uses the word holistic to sum up the multifaceted business. "Utilitarian Workshop is about addressing all aspects of what a client needs — not just buying a table. We can help you brand. We can present an overall vision for you. Or you can just walk in off the street and buy something."
"We don't want to use the word lifestyle," Williams adds. "But that's the best we can come up with right now. We're home goods, design goods. It's tricky."
They may not find a better word than lifestyle to describe what's going on here. Williams and Anderson are unabashedly creative people, and they've fused their identities with their livelihood, both as individuals and as a couple.
Talk with Williams, Anderson or any of the vendors under their roof, and it's easy to believe that the West Side space might be a catalyst for something much larger. Utilitarian Workshop represents an opportunity for its sellers and customers to make quiet, positive changes rooted in the intangibles built here — among them, relationships.
Anderson didn't set out to build furniture. He studied painting at the University of Kansas, but left Lawrence for New York and found work there as an art handler. Making crates as part of that job was his introduction to woodworking, which appealed to his blue-collar streak in a way that painting didn't.
"It turned into functional painting for me," he says. "Wood is just my medium, instead of canvas."
After returning to the Kansas City area, Anderson, 37, started his own line of furniture, primarily tables, working in various garage and West Bottoms shops while also taking design and fabrication jobs. He hung out his own design shingle — Utilitarian Workshop — in 2006.
Williams, 30, wasn't at KU at the same time Anderson was, but she studied visual communications and art history there. In addition to her partnership role in Utilitarian Workshop, she puts in overtime-filled weeks for a local advertising agency.
Mutual friends introduced Anderson and Williams during an elevator ride on a First Friday art crawl.
"It was easy. It was just, like, 'Yep, that works.' " Williams says of the romantic relationship that eventually led to another kind of partnership. "Two and a half years later, we are running a business."
Over the past year, the couple has adopted a new puppy, purchased a fixer-upper in Fairway, and signed a lease on Utilitarian Workshop's brick-and-mortar location.
"There are so many people who are like, 'How are you guys still able to function and not rip each other's heads off?' " Williams says. "Even my mom is like, 'I'm just amazed that you guys don't argue.' And we don't."
The two-for-the-road spirit of their relationship informs their approach to customers as well.
"Our design process is very much like get to know our client, spending time with our client," Williams says. "When John was doing Port Fonda, he was having beers weekly with Patrick [Ryan, the restaurant's chef and owner] and getting to know his personality and his energy."
Anderson echoes: "It's important for us to really love our client. And we want our client to love us. When you are talking about a full identity and branding a build-out from A to Z, that person has to trust us with their life because we are helping them realize their dream."
"I wanted a much more urban and hip feel to go with the pace and energy of the restaurant," Ryan says of his decision to hire Utilitarian Workshop. "We've gotten a healthy amount of press and publicity, both locally and nationally. I'd like to think that part of the accolades are from what our place looks like."
What Port Fonda looks like reflects what Anderson calls the "modern industrial" aesthetic of Utilitarian Workshop: clean and sleek lines, heavily textured rustic elements, reclaimed materials from local sources. For Ryan, that translated to reclaimed barn wood for the restaurant's wall paneling; fabricating the bar, tabletops and shelves; sourcing chairs and stools; and designing the Port Fonda logo, sign, website and promotional materials.
"It's not like we reinvented the wheel," Anderson says of what amounted to a global design for Ryan's place. "This is just an old-school approach to business."
When Anderson and Williams signed the Summit lease, in August 2012, the building, which had most recently served as a storage unit, required a new façade, roof and interior walls. They also needed to update the plumbing and electrical wiring.
To get these things done, they used their own money and their own constant labor. And they turned to their friends.
Some volunteered their time; 119 backers also pledged $15,533 to a Utilitarian Workshop Kickstarter fund, launched last November.
Nick Ward-Bopp, a fellow craftsperson and a driving force behind the Jarboe Initiative and KC Maker Village, met Anderson in 2011. They got to know each other during long talks over beers discussing their business plans and goals. He describes Williams and Anderson as "aesthetic geniuses."
"Right away, when I saw their work, I wanted to help out and collaborate," Ward-Bopp says. So he helped them with the build-out in March, when local woodworkers and craftspeople gathered to raise Utilitarian Workshop's indoor walls.
The next month, West Side neighborhood residents Destiny Shelton and Angiela Meyer signed on to manage the retail end of the business, handling day-to-day operations and selecting merchandise. Like Ward-Bopp, Meyer was part of Anderson and Williams' social circle before there was a business ready for collaborators.
Another longtime friend, Kylie Grater —who moved to Oregon from Lawrence in 2011 — sells items from her Early Jewelry line and helps with visual merchandising.
Anderson found other Utilitarian Workshop vendors online. On Instagram, he spotted the handmade leather goods turned out by Dominic Scalise and Austin Lyon's KC CO., as well as landscape drawings by printmaker Kelly Clark. Bo Nelson and Bill Holzhueter, of Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters, met Anderson through Nathan Eaton of Bureau Visual. Eaton has put together videos for Thou Mayest, KC CO. and Utilitarian Workshop's Web presences.
Watch all three of Bureau Visual's marketing videos and you see some themes emerge, including a focus on hard work and a connection to the land. You see the men — Anderson, Scalise, Lyon, Nelson and Holzhueter — working with their hands in rooms filled with natural light. You also see them in timeworn urban industrial areas or pastoral Midwestern settings, doing things like fishing, driving pickup trucks and scouting materials. They wear plaid flannels, white undershirts, denim workshirts. In the Utilitarian Workshop and KC CO. videos, the closing shot pictures the men staring proudly into the camera.
Eaton's images merge distinctly different American types: the bohemian, the blue-collar, the rustic. What they have in common here is an idea of craftsmanship, harnessed to a vivid nostalgia. These young entrepreneurs are branding themselves with an aesthetic designed to recall the most prosperous eras of U.S. industry and agriculture.
Still, if you ask Scalise, Nelson or Anderson about their businesses, they'll tell you about a vision that's trained on the future.
"A young couple just purchased a home and they want to furnish it. Where do they go?" Anderson asks. "They go to a big-box store."
But just as restaurants are increasingly focused on locally produced ingredients, and organizations such as Cultivate Kansas City have helped educate local eaters about where their food comes from, Utilitarian Workshop wants to raise consumer-goods awareness. Where does your chair come from?
"We're putting people in the position to rethink how they shop for their Christmas gifts," Anderson says. "We're showing the importance of seeing something that comes out of their city or their neighborhood and supporting that."
The flourishing of the West Bottoms antique district and the boom of online craft marketplaces such as Etsy suggest that plenty of people are eager for alternatives to corporate retail.
That shift in buying habits has already helped fuel the success of KC CO. Scalise, who, along with partner Lyon, launched the website for the Kansas City–based leather goods company last November, quit his full-time corporate job in January to focus on KC CO. full time.
"People are getting tired of this throwaway society," Scalise says. "It has become normal to buy something knowing it's cheap and poor quality, but justifying the purchase because it's so cheap you can buy more when it breaks. People like the fact that we're producing heirloom-quality products. They actually get better with age."
Utilitarian Workshop isn't the first retail space in town dedicated to selling handmade goods. Stuff opened in Brookside in 1996. Westport's Mash Handmade has been around since 2009. Bon Bon Atelier, which operated on Westport Road from 2006 until January of this year, sold goods made by local artisans.
But it's a distinctly more stick-it-to-the-Man endeavor than its predecessors. Whereas Stuff's mission statement plays up words and phrases such as "personality," "unique character" and "filled with creativity," the "about" page on Utilitarian Workshop's website reads: "We instigate communal thought and collaboration. We insist on progression through action. We resist complacent satisfaction."
"It's not like we are having Marxist roundtable meetings in here," Anderson says, "but it's very anti-establishment. It's very anti-corporation, but not in an aggressive, revolutionary fashion." Purchasing power is political capital, and creative workers should have agency over their own designs, in a space where they can present those designs to a more enlightened consumer.
"We want to support the artists more than anything, and give them leverage," Williams says.
When a customer spends money at Utilitarian Workshop, from 60 to 70 percent goes directly to the maker. And while the retail space is equipped to handle that monetary exchange, it's also intended to encourage other types of transactions, especially those between makers and customers.
"We're providing a platform for interaction between the client and the craftsperson," Anderson says.
Many of the Utilitarian Workshop vendors have set themselves apart through their focus on building relationships with customers.
"We're not a huge force in a high-rise, with a plant in some random country pumping out goods," Scalise says. "We get to do personal touches, from personal e-mails to hand-written notes sent with each purchase. Most [people] aren't used to a business being run like that. These connections are one of my favorite parts of this company."
Plans are in the works for Utilitarian Workshop to host resident makers, who would work on their crafts in the retail space during business hours, allowing customers to see vendors in action.
Nelson, who started Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters in a garage last year with partner Holzhueter (see Fat City, page 18), plans to use Utilitarian Workshop's Summit location to let potential clients sample his product. But he sees it as more than just a spot to make presentations.
Utilitarian Workshop vendor meetings have already led to creative collaborations that probably wouldn't have occurred otherwise. Scalise fashioned a leather sleeve to fit around the steaming-hot Mason jars in which Thou Mayest serves its pour-overs. And the roasting company is in talks with ceramist Lea Griggs to design a line of drinkware.
Nelson, who grew up in a farming family, recognizes that Utilitarian Workshop provides an opportunity for disparate makers to band together and pool their resources. "It is difficult, as a startup, to get traction," he says. "I carry around these guys with me like we are all part of a team. I'm always selling them to other people.
"At the end of the day," he adds, "we want to have a cool fort to hang out in. We want a space where ideas can collide with each other."
It's also a refuge from the lonely difficulties of making a living as a one-craftsperson show. Grater, who began Early Jewelry in 2004 and has grown it through wholesaling and craft fairs, knows this from experience.
"Most indie designers who make their own products handle all aspects of the business — designing, fabricating the product, sales, bookkeeping, client relations," she says. "This is taxing. Having a community of other designers to talk to about highlights and hardships of the lifestyle of a full-time designer or crafter or artist is very important. The Kansas City area — Lawrence included — has a high level of contemporary artist-crafter entrepreneurs."
With Utilitarian Workshop opening, the level seems about to rise again. Starting this weekend, KC craftspeople have a new place to gather, meet and befriend clients, and sell their goods. Call the enterprise a political statement or a lifestyle choice or a social network — or all three — but Grater might put it best. "Inspiration," she says, "is local."