By Lee Foster
It is always exciting for me to approach a city I know well, such as Portland, with a new concept. Portland fancies itself as “The City of Makers.” What does this claim mean?
The “maker” movement in Portland epitomizes a renaissance demand for custom-crafted goods in America. The Portland variation on this theme emphasizes small-scale manufacturing to fund the artisan creating quality products.
(See my overall Portland coverage, now updated, at http://bit.ly/2h3HYvy.)
I wanted to learn more about this “makers” concept and its special meaning locally.
I engaged the services of guide Robert “Bob” Fisher of Portland Walking Tours, www.portlandwalkingtours.com, for a half day to explore the idea.
Bob knew well the shops and studios we would visit. We started at a retail store, MadeHere PDX, 40 NW 10th Ave., www.madeherepdx.com, which focuses exclusively on things made in Portland. The range of goods was exceptional, from jewelry to food products. One example of a product is the SHwood wooden frames for eyeglasses. This shop would be my recommended first stop for anyone visiting Portland and interested in the local makers.
Then we proceeded to four entities expressive of the maker movement.
Our first stop was Powell’s Books, which has just about every book on every craft subject you can image. Powell’s Books, 1005 W Burnside Ave., www.powells.com, is said to house the largest collection of new and used books in the English-speaking world, with almost a million books at this one location. Powell’s, besides selling books on making things, epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit so central to the Portland maker culture.
Next we visited two actual maker shops, Orox for leather goods and Garnish for women’s apparel.
Orox was the most satisfying stop, for me, in this entire survey. They create exceptionally beautiful and durable leather goods, such as purses, belts, rucksacks, and wallets. The building is both a dedicated retail space and a compact manufacturing site, at 450 NW Couch St., www.oroxleather.com.
The family leader at Orox is Martin Martinez. However, literally adjacent to him, working at their craft, are his brother, his father, and his mother. All the elements of leather craft are being practiced right in front of your eyes.
The family came from Oaxaca to Oregon and set themselves up in the business, so they are an American success story. They are delighted to talk with visitors and explain their craft. The name Orox combines Oregon and Oaxaca.
Garnish, 404 NW 12th Ave., www.garnishapparel.com, is the retail shop of Portland women’s clothing designer Erica Lurie. Garnish expresses the adult passion for design that Erica first showed at six years old, when she sewed a paint-spattered top and skirt, entered it in the state fair, and won a ribbon.
Today Erica is the lead designer of a growing all-Portland operation of designers and seamstresses that create limited-edition apparel pieces for women of all shapes and sizes. Dresses, coats, shirts, skirts, scarves, and shawls line the racks at her retail store. A complimentary personal styling consultation with potential customers is a key part of this small-scale operation.
Finally, our tour ended at an “incubator” warehouse, called ADX Portland, located across the Willamette River at 417 SE 11th Ave., www.adxportland.com. Here makers can take out a membership and gain access to expensive tools and friendly instruction. Makers can do their work right on the premises if they wish. Tourists can sign up for a maker lesson, perhaps in graphics creations. Since this is a busy workplace, it is accessible to the general public through Portland Walking Tours or by signing up for a class. There are also some free public tours. Contact [email protected] for details.
The founder of ADX, Kelley Roy, has produced a lovely book on Portland’s role in this manufacturing renaissance, titled Portland Made, available direct and from Amazon. The book highlights the people and passions that animate this local scene.
The movement continues to gather momentum at www.portlandmade.com
Defining all the impulses behind the maker movement in Portland is complicated. There is an emphasis on locally-sourced and natural materials. The desire is for things durable and sustainable, functional yet lovely, minimalist rather than ostentatious in décor. Surrounding yourself with unique objects rather than mass-manufactured items is another aspect. A new American manufacturing revolution of customized fabrication is underway. The movement emphasizes making and learning in a supportive community of individuals and small groups sharing tools and knowledge. Portland is at the center of this new trend.
Portland’s special sensibility affects the crafts/maker expression in the city. There are aspirations toward small-scale manufacturing, rather than a one-off craft object or a mega-manufacturing operation. In Portland there is a passion for creating a beautiful object and then producing enough units to make the venture profitable. The result is craft creation as a lifestyle choice.
Portland is also the most economical large coastal city on the West Coast for housing, enabling makers to survive. Portlanders tend to have a sensibility that encourages them to follow their passions, even if that doesn’t accumulate a fortune.
One of the local jokes is, “Portland is where young people come to retire.” What is certain is that many people of all ages come to Portland to become makers of objects both beautiful and practical.
Portland: If You Go
For Portland information, look at www.travelportland.com.
The website for Oregon tourism is www.traveloregon.com.