“When the last worker passed through the doors of White Furniture Company in May of 1993, hardly anyone beyond the city limits of Mebane, North Carolina, noticed. In national terms, it made little difference that 203 men and women were out of work or that a venerable, family-owned firm (the ‘South’s oldest maker of fine furniture’) had been sold to a conglomerate and now was being shut down. After all, what happened to White’s is hardly unique. In the 1990s, in every walk of life and on all social levels, Americans have had to learn a new vocabulary of economic anxiety – layoff, outsourcing, buyout, off-shoring, downsizing, closing. The statistics are mind-numbing: 70,000 people laid off from General Motors in 1991; 50,000 workers from Sears and 63,000 from IBM in 1993; 40,000 from AT&T in 1996. In these times, why should we care about the closing of one furniture factory in a small southern town?”
Davidson’s text accompanies Bill Bamberger’s photographs, which document the closing of this small American factory and capture the artisans, many of whom were masters of their craft. White’s Furniture Company operated by assembly line, though many of the details were executed by hand. The company was small, almost unknown, but to people in the know, White’s was regarded as one of the highest quality furniture crafters in America. Though Closing was published in 1999, nearly fifteen years ago, the trend of downsizing and outsourcing has continued, and our American factories have all but disappeared. Production, as we well know, has mostly been shipped overseas.
I told someone the other day, “Books saved my life when I was growing up.” And they did. I have spent days/weeks/years with my nose in books and, consequently, in libraries. As a designer, I find inspiration, and sometimes escape, inside of a library; as a business owner, I find critical information that has helped me grow who we are as a business and who I am as an entrepreneur. As Alabama Chanin (and my skill as a designer) has grown, so has my personal library (just ask our accountant). I have stopped dating certain men because of the absence of a library in their life, and my daughter believes the library is part of her own living room.
Ask almost anyone to describe their feelings about libraries and each person you speak to has a vivid memory of their own childhood library. I’m sure part of the reason for this is that, once upon a time, there were fewer ways to occupy yourself as a young person, and you had to actually check out a book to read it. An actual book – something that had weight, and pages you could turn, and needed bookmarks to hold your place. Ask someone about their smart phone or their Kindle and they will probably tell you how much they love it, how convenient it is, or how many features it has. Ask someone about a book, about a library, and people will tell you their memories.
Every 4th of July, my neighborhood throws a parade in honor of Independence Day. Everyone dresses in celebratory costume – dogs, children, adults, bicycles, scooters, and an occasional fire engine sport some U.S.A. flair. It’s come to be one of my favorite days of the year. We begin on a shady street and promenade in a 6 block radius, to end up back where we started for red, white, and blue ice cream; cookies; cupcakes; and an assortment of beverages.
All of this is followed by the Annual Kids vs. Adults baseball game on a lot built and maintained by the neighborhood children behind the houses of some very community minded neighbors. Then, we share a beautiful pot luck lunch and a pool party. We end the day back at the baseball diamond with blankets, mosquitos, and fireworks, as always, provided by Florence based TNT Fireworks. In my mind, it’s community—and the celebration of a nation— like it’s supposed to be.
At Alabama Chanin, we practice Slow Design, which focuses on producing goods in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. The intent is to design clothing and home goods that are made from sustainable raw materials using environmentally sound methods, resulting in beautiful, healthy, and long-lasting products. We want to create connections with our customers and for Alabama Chanin pieces to be used and worn for many years, to be incorporated into the life of a customer.
Our business model and method of production is based on sustainable practices. Rather than purchase low cost materials and manufacture products quickly and cheaply, we opt for a Made-in-the-USA approach, using local, artisanal labor sources. To-date, Alabama Chanin items have been made entirely by hand, without any machine work.
We’ve written about our friend Phillip March Jones on our journal before – we carry his newest publication, Points of Departure, in our online store. Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky, is his gallery, a music venue, and multi-faceted publisher, which recently released a compilation of recordings from artists who have performed in the space. Phillip joins us as a contributor to the journal, with an introduction to 193 SOUND.
Sound is a mechanical wave that is an oscillation of pressure transmitted through a solid, liquid, or gas, composed of frequencies within the range of hearing. 193 SOUND is a collection of musical sounds: continuous, regular, and in this case, site-specific vibrations that tell the story of our small space, Institute 193, in Lexington, Kentucky. This compilation records the artists, performers, musicians, and general sound-makers who have emitted, transmitted, and radiated their own SOUNDS from within our walls and that now travel into your range of hearing.
Institute 193, a project I began in October 2009, is a non-profit contemporary art space and publisher that collaborates with artists, musicians, and writers to document the cultural production of the modern South. We produce exhibitions, books, and records with the goal of unearthing significant ideas from the region and sharing them with the world. Institute 193 engages and directs, steering and shaping projects into reality without sanitizing the vision of the artist.
We have written before about the rich manufacturing and textile history present in our community. The Shoals area and surrounding communities were working fabric and textile materials beginning in the late 1800’s. Those earlier years were often unkind to the mill workers and their families who worked long hours, lived in factory-owned apartments, and shopped in factory-owned stores. But, as the Industrial Revolution gave way to reform, textile manufacturing stayed in our community and flourished. Eventually, it was something that we in The Shoals were known for, as we were often called the “T-Shirt Capital of the World.”
Terry Wylie’s family founded Tee Jay’s Manufacturing Co. here in Florence in 1976, and in doing so became the foundation for a local industry. Whole families were known to work together, producing t-shirts and cotton products. Typical of our community, the company and the employees were loyal to one another. It was common for an employee to stay at Tee Jays for decades. Our Production Manager, Steven, worked for the Wylie family for years – for a time, working in the same building where Alabama Chanin is currently housed. It was this way until the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tee Jays and other local manufacturers eventually shuttered all domestic manufacturing. It was an undeniably tough hit for a community that had “worked” cotton for most of its existence. Some of those who hand stitch for us once worked in mills and lost their jobs when plants here in Alabama closed and moved to cheaper locations. This move left our building, once a thriving manufacturing center, an empty shell, as you can see from the picture above. Machines like the ones below were moved elsewhere, and the resounding hum of our once busy manufacturing community was silenced.
The music industry as we once knew it has been forced to evolve rapidly in recent years, as technology has grown faster than established business models. Major record labels struggle to maintain control of the radio waves, music sales, artist development, and our ears; meanwhile, established artists like Radiohead and Beck have embraced the Internet, a one-time enemy to record sales, by offering their work at pay-what-you-want prices, or occasionally for free. Other artists, like Jack White with Third Man Records, have taken control of the entire creative process by starting their own indie record labels, effectively surpassing the gatekeepers of yesterday.
Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and The Bear, John Paul White of the Civil Wars (DIY band of 2012), and financial advisor, Shoals native, and friend Will Trapp, are bringing some of that anti-Old Guard attitude to our community with their indie label, Single Lock Records. The Shoals has a rich music history, thanks to Rick Hall, Muscle Shoals Sound, and many others who helped establish the recording industry here during the 1960’s and 70’s. Hall’s FAME Studios, with its talented roster of studio musicians, attracted diverse recording artists, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Cher, Paul Simon, and even the Osmonds. Some of these artists created their best work here. Later, Muscle Shoals Sound opened, recording the Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Bob Dylan, among many others. These days, the music flows OUT of the Shoals, not INTO it.
On Sunday, as part of MAKESHIFT 2013, we co-hosted a Chair Workshop, modeled after the MAKESHIFT 2012 workshop, Crafting Design, sponsored by Partners and Spade. This year we teamed up with Build It Green!NYC (BIG!NYC) and Krrb and invited an array of makers to join us for an afternoon of collaboration, innovation, and chair re-design. While our event at The Standard focused on conversation (though there was plenty of making going on as well), the chair event has evolved into a make-centered occasion where a community of designers work both independently and together through skill sharing and mutual encouragement.
The event was held at BIG!NYC’s restore facility in Brooklyn – a warehouse filled with doors, fireplace mantels, sinks, mirrors, tiles and a number of other goods, much of it vintage and antique, acquired through donations and offered at low prices for those looking to save money (and the landfill) in home renovations. Or in the case of friend Kerry Diamond (of Cherry Bombe Magazine) and her chef/partner Robert Newton, the interior of their third and most recent restaurant, Nightingale 9, was designed with salvage bought from BIG!NYC.
“Craft” might seem like it’s for the amateurs, and “fashion” for the auteurs. Yet we live in an age where creativity and innovation are increasingly found in collaborations between makers and users, crafters and designers, designers and manufacturers, and in the loosening of the boundaries between them. – MAKESHIFT 2012
The MAKESHIFT conversation began last year to discover where and how various creative industries can work together as one. The discussion continued last Thursday evening at The Standard, addressing the intersection of industries on the artisan level, where the interchanges occur, and how we can transform those intersections through innovation and collaboration for the greater good.