The best design experiences exist when material, function, and quality overlap, and when designer, manufacturer, and merchant all believe deeply in the products they offer. The objects within this space are imbued with meaning, and understanding the narrative of an object’s creation helps give it context and make it yours. When we founded our design studio in 2008, these overlapping ideas weren’t yet a fully formed manifesto but values we used as anchors. Since then, the role of storytelling in the creation of objects with meaning is something we have been reminded of time and time again.
Making with Meaning
While on a business trip to San Francisco in 2015 we found ourselves questioning our chosen path; we were in the middle of a sourcing project nightmare and forced to ask ourselves hard questions about staying true to our self-imposed commitment to work exclusively with US manufacturers. Exhausted by the decisions we were facing, and sub-consciously searching for a sign to guide us, we took a break one afternoon and visited the Heath Ceramics tile factory. The factory guide was a third-generation Heath craftsperson, obviously passionate and proud about the products he helped produce. We heard story after story as we toured the factory, learning the names of the skilled makers and the tricks of their trade. Suddenly we were looking at so much more than tiles—we were seeing the intersections that come together to give “things” meaning. Hearing the pride in our guide’s voice, we were overcome with the feeling that this was the encouraging sign we didn't know we needed telling us to keep going.
That day, we were reminded that as humans, we want to surround ourselves with objects that become heirlooms for the next generation—objects with stories and meaning. And as makers, these are the objects we want to create.
From Makers to Merchants
The exchange that happens when an object is purchased provides an opportunity for the transmission of stories and the generation of meaning. Two of our favorite brick-and-mortar stores are perfect examples of this philosophy—one a record shop and the other a bookstore. Both were founded in the 1970s, prior to online purchasing and digitized media, and both remain incredibly valuable to their local communities. Hot Poop, located in Walla Walla, Washington, was founded by Jim McGuinn, and Peter Miller Books, located in Seattle, was founded by Peter Miller. Record shops and bookstores have seen huge declines in both small and large retail capacities over the last few decades due to the increasing competition from both digital devices and online sales outlets. But these two stores create an experience where a purchase is almost always partnered with a story. It might be an observation or anecdote related to the content of the purchase or a tangential story—a suggestion for a similar record or book or simply a recommendation for a local restaurant that must be visited. In addition, both Jim and Peter give back tenfold to their local communities and are so obviously passionate about what they sell that the energy is contagious. How have these two businesses managed to not only survive but thrive in an ever-changing retail landscape? Because a simple anecdote gives an object meaning.
Our design studio is dedicated to our community of makers and strives to create collaborative opportunities for independent designers with like-minded values. In Seattle, we recently opened a brick-and-mortar store, JOIN Shop, to showcase wares created by our maker community. Our objective is to create an atmosphere similar to a farmers market where patrons talk with vendors, choose their products with purpose, and make connections that go beyond consumption. We passionately believe that the stories behind the objects we sell are as beautiful as the objects themselves, and we want to share them with others.
Meaning is the reason we travel, read, buy souvenirs, hold on to heirlooms, treasure gifts, and go to farmers markets seeking farm-to-table experiences. We’re creating and collecting our own anecdotes. We are gathering not simply objects but physical manifestations of our own unique stories.