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."