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Crafts with benefits

Joanne Furio | September 15, 2011 | Style & Beauty Story Style Fashion

Does your teapot make you feel warm—on the inside? Or is it so high-concept that it leaves you cold? Chances are, if it’s handmade and conveys a cleverness associated with great design, then it falls into the category “design-craft,” a style that’s the focus of a new website, Handful of Salt. The site is the brainchild of Regina Connell, a Berkeley-based brand-and-communications consultant whose clients include Stanford University. Connell spent much of her career working around designers, and at some point what they were doing became so interesting that she followed them into their studios to see glass blown, pots thrown, and wood worked into spirited objects. She started a blog, was asked to serve on the programming committee at San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design, launched her site, and was invited by Etsy, the giant social-commerce website for the handmade, to curate a “store.” With each new venture, Connell’s voice—like a handful of salt—brings out the flavor of contemporary craftwork.

Your site features the work of the German-born Bodo Sperlein, who created a ceramic tea service that incorporates horse legs and heads. Is that craft or design?
He is a perfect example of design-craft. He’s so respectful of materials, which is typical of craft, and integrates that with whimsy and a kind of insouciance that is typical of clever design.

Craft has gotten hot in the past decade. How are the pieces that you’re interested in different from the earthenware pottery that’s so ubiquitous in Berkeley?
There’s a lot of craft out there that’s all about materiality for the sake of materiality. People fall in love with technique and material, and that’s what it’s all about. It loses that sense of design.

Did you coin “design-craft”?
As far as I know, yes. I coined it to describe contemporary craft with a strong sense of design.

How long has this category been around?
It’s been evolving in the U.S. for about seven years.

Why did you segue from branding into design?
I’ve always been a strategy person playing on the edge of the design field. I decided that I wanted to make design more central to what I did.

From your work in branding, you’re familiar with the notion that people want to hear stories about the products they buy.
Absolutely. Done right, a brand is not about how something looks, but instead about what it means. To me, objects can have souls, and that’s what you look for. That’s what gets you excited.

Is there an iconic design object that doesn’t produce such a connection?
The Alessi teapot. I have one. It is almost too sleek. Too much “I-want-to-be-clever” falls really far into that world of design, as opposed to something a little more soulful. If you go to a party and meet someone really clever, you’re refreshed by that person, but don’t necessarily want to go home with him.

Tell me an object you want to go home with.
The Peggy Loudon vase in my living room. It has a really simple shape, yet its glaze and sense of proportion make it really beautiful.

What do you make of things like the crocheted beards you see at renegade craft fairs?
They may be fun and entertaining, but just because it’s made by hand doesn’t mean it’s valuable.

Some of the other design-craft objects you own?
We eat on a lot of Heath Ceramics dishes—I love the simplicity and consistency of their design and the fact that they make things locally. I have a Basil Racuk leather bag, which represents the kind of offhand California style that is intentional but feels unintentional. I also have a platter by Jered Nelson, a Berkeley potter who has done a lot of plates for Michael Mina.

Your website is mostly a collection of profiles. Why?
People don’t connect when artisans are discussing form and theories of design. I connect with the stories of the people who are making the product. To live surrounded by those things is still a consumer experience, but a richer one.

Your profiles include architects—professionals one usually doesn’t associate with craft.
They can be real creators and have a strong understanding of how to use materials. Seth Boor of Boor Bridges Architecture points out that some architects look for construction materials in catalogs rather than selecting them in person. Understanding and seeing your materials firsthand gives that sense of humanity and warmth.

Why did you choose the name Handful of Salt?
A handful of salt is what a sumo wrestler throws into the ring to purify it. I have always been interested in salt as a substance because it has such a rich history. And obviously it speaks to the hand.

What would you say is the Bay Area’s brand identity?
Refined, alternative—not cutting-edge, but forward. Slightly contrarian, but definitely warm. That warmth is what I see in the work of a lot of artisans here.

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