For this month’s Design Store(y), we talked to New York City-based Fort Makers founder Nana Spears. Fort Makers is a studio with a multidisciplinary approach to art, furniture, and product design, but what’s really unique is how they connect creatives across disciplines to create a curated community to make with, inside of an environment conducive to discovering and growing as creatives. Founded by Nana Spears, Noah Spencer, and Naomi Clark back in 2008, Fort Makers offers collections of furniture, lighting, and accessories, as well as artisan collaborations, design partnerships, stage, and interiors. Other artisans that currently comprise the space and community are Jason Bauer, Jane D’Arensbourg, Romina Gonzales, Tamika Rivera, Keith Simpson, and Shino Takeda.
Why did you pick this city/neighborhood/storefront?
We’re situated on the particularly vibrant Lower East Side corner of Orchard and Hester Street, that’s becoming a contemporary art and design hub with galleries like Larrie and Alden Projects just a few doors down from us. We love the proximity to the art world and the community vibe. We just launched Sundays Around Orchard, a block walk where we help promote the great exhibitions and happenings in the neighborhood we’re so proud to call home.
Where did you get the name for the store?
We were thinking of the Bauhaus as a German compound of the words “build” and “house.” We relate to that movement because we felt like we were operating under a sort of Bauhaus-in-Brooklyn model, bringing together our artist and designer friends to focus on elevated craft, collectible design, and functional art.
We also were thinking about forts, and their connotation with children playing. We have fun when we create our work, and it’s a very active process – everything is handmade right in our studios and we don’t outsource any production. In a sort of childlike way, I feel like we always come to a project with a lot of open mindedness, even naiveté, and we encourage all of our collaborators to experiment. It was important to us not to be burdened by rules, which is why I think we ended up working in so many mediums and producing so many tactile art objects.
I think people get it gutturally, the brand Fort Makers, whether they think about it or not. It is a store like a trading post where handmade things are found.Installation view of The Blue Room \\\ Photo: Joseph Kramm courtesy of Fort Makers
Has it changed much since it opened? How?
We’ve grown! It’s taken ten years to develop a collection of work that feels complete. Fort Makers started in 2008 with three people. We were working on a smaller scale, mostly just woodworking, textile projects, and the stage designs for MoMa PS1. It was always important to me that we grow organically, based on a collaborative process with each new artist we bring into the fold. We’re for all intents and purposes a gallery developing serious relationships with our artists. We like to see their practice evolve over time, and integrate our established design language.
What’s one of the challenges you have with the business?
I think people sometimes lack a clear picture about who we are, and I’m aware that sometimes we’re not completely understood as a cohesive brand face. So that has been a challenge, to tell that story about who we are and what we do. We’re a small group of artists making things that talk to each other.
Time will tell, but I think we’ve found the solution in our new store, where we’ve decided to produce large-scale exhibitions with products from our core group of artists commissioned around the theme. Every six to eight weeks the store transforms and highlights new work. Our first exhibition was called The Blue Room, and featured items that played with the theme, conceptually or literally.
I think this fits in with our design ethos, which is to playfully push design in different directions. If it’s a little funny, that’s intentional. We want to align ourselves with installation art because that’s what’s challenging to us, to make design objects with a conceptual edge.
What other stores have you worked in before opening this one?
It was a winding path to get to Fort Makers, I spent a decade working in New York before founding our brand. I pursued a master’s degree in media studies at the New School, which was my first foray into being conscious of design languages and image making. It helped develop my eye and identify similarities across disciplines, which is a big part of my job now as the Creative Director of Fort Makers. I spent years up and down the ladder in retail, culminating in a career as a buyer at Barneys. I bought for the women’s sixth floor, where there are a lot of chunky knits. I founded Fort Makers out of a desire to contribute my own aesthetics. I knew that my group of friends had something specific to add to the art and design landscape, and it was just a question of believing in that dream, and taking the leap.
What’s your favorite item in the store right now?
I’m thrilled to be working with our newest artist duo, Romina Gonzales and Jason Bauer. Their hand-blown glass ashtrays, created in translucent Yves Klein blue and fuchsia, are available at the store now. I had approached them with a series of shapes we often work with – squiggly lines and half moons – and they were able to transform them into ashtrays, which I wasn’t sure was possible. I’m excited by their fluency in the brand language.
What is this season’s theme/inspiration/story?
With the in-store exhibitions, everything starts with one idea. I try to breathe this idea into every project, so that all the objects are made within the parameters of this concept but it’s just a jumping off point. There were many things in The Blue Room, for instance, that weren’t blue. This made sense to us, because we were really considering how each object can exude International Klein Blue and have the same level of impact as the signature hue, without actually being blue.
Are you carrying any new products and/or undiscovered gems you’re particularly excited about?
We started collaborating with Shino Takeda this year. She makes ceramics inspired by Kyushu, a southern Island off of Japan, and her work often emulates the changing seasons typical of life by the sea. Her work is multilayered, and utilizes techniques important to her – she often travels back to Japan to work with a wood-fire kiln. She made blue vases – peppered with windows of red – for The Blue Room.
What’s been a consistent best seller?
Our bestseller is the wooden LED Line Lights, an organic take on Dan Flavin’s fluorescent sculptures. Like many Fort Makers products, they can be arranged in a variety of ways: standing up or lying down. Noah Spencer does all of our woodworking, and he’s currently planning a new oak Line Light, sourced from upstate and blackened with a Shou Sugi Ban treatment.
Does the store have its own line? If not, any plans for it in the future?
Everything in the store was commissioned specifically for Fort Makers by the small group of artists that make all of our products. I think that’s what’s most special about our store, everything in it is exclusive to us. Our current collaborators include Naomi S. Clark, Shino Takeda, Tamika Rivera, Noah James Spencer, Keith Simpson, Jane D’Arensbourg, Romina Gonzales, and Jason Bauer.
Any special events/exhibits/pop ups/collaborations coming up?
As part of New York City Jewelry Week, from November 18th-24th, Katie Stout and a few other designers who experiment with jewelry will have works on display in the store, inside the exhibition The Dinner Guests.
Do you have anything from the store in your own home?
I love living with Naomi S. Clark’s painted upholstery. It feels nice and it maintains its luster, holding up better than other fabrics. I have one of her hand-painted couches, and I must say it’s like a painting to me. I never get bored of looking at it.
What’s next for you and your store?
The Dinner Guests will be the most immersive installation yet at Fort Makers, opening on Thursday, November 14th. The walls will be color blocked in poppy red, bright fuchsia, and crazy green. As the name indicates, the idea behind the exhibition is a dinner party, with every design element created by Fort Makers. It will have a Surrealist-meets-Pop-Art feel. At the center of the space will be a custom, one-of-a-kind walnut dinner table, created for the installation by Noah James Spencer. The table is animated by its legs, which function as Brancusi-inspired sculptures. The table will be set for six guests, with six custom table settings – including Picasso-inspired plates made by Shino Takeda and gray iridescent goblets commissioned from Romina Gonzales and Jason Bauer. The space will be activated with additional Fort Makers goods arranged on pedestals outfitted in velvet and silk fabrics. The crowning touch will be papier-mâché masks decorating the walls, one for each guest, placed behind every seat.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned since opening your store?
I think we’ve learned that we have to keep the store activated, either with activities and events, or new choreography of furniture and design objects. We want to keep people coming back to see what’s next.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to follow a similar path to yours, what would it be?
This idea that we should stick to one career path our entire lives does not appeal to me. Everything I’ve done has fused together and fueled what I’m doing now – if I hadn’t meandered, I wouldn’t have learned about film and literature. I would say a defining ethos of Fort Makers is flexibility and freedom. I push myself and my artists to do new things, work in new mediums, and think outside of the box.