By Philip Berger
American manufacturing has been in an inexorable decline for decades. The reality is that we don’t make much stuff here anymore. Any instance of a business enterprise that provides gainful employment for workers in the manufacturing sector is good news. But an enterprise that provides gainful employment in the manufacturing sector for art-school graduates seems like a unicorn, or maybe a black swan. Whatever your fauna metaphor, it’s a rare thing. Yet that’s precisely what West Supply does.
In a little more than five years, the company—in Chicago’s Northwest Side Hermosa neighborhood—has built a solid reputation and an enthusiastic, supportive client base. The company is known for its expertise in the manufacture of cast metal and glass works primarily used as components for high-end home furnishings—lighting, seating, display pieces, storage vessels and decorative items.
West Supply’s operation, which employs more than two-dozen highly skilled metal and glass fabricators, is part of what Rick Valicenti, the founder of one-stop design shop Thirst (and guest editor of this very issue), calls a “hand-centric, maker-centric” phenomenon that’s uniting design and manufacturing on a new plane—what he calls a “fortuitous collision of new tech, meaningful employment and design talent.” He thinks it implies a pendulum swing for artisans, away from a widespread digital infatuation to an analog, hands-on fabrication experience not unlike those that used to define Chicago as a manufacturing powerhouse.
Of course West Supply’s foundry isn’t turning out machine parts or industrial elements; it’s producing light fixtures, table bases and chair frames, but the techniques involved are much the same as traditional tool and die production. Although nearly all of West Supply’s working staff are trained—and degreed—in the fine arts, they are essentially blue-collar factory workers: forming, casting and finishing metal and glass items. The employees at West Supply are expert craftspeople who fabricate items that are equally prized for their aesthetic and sensual qualities as for their usefulness.
If you spend just a few hours with principal Angie West, you see how her drive and vision are central to what’s propelling West Supply’s trajectory as an important player in the maker-centric environment. But as with many business opportunities, serendipity, and knowing the right people, played important roles in its development.
When West graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1999 with a degree in fine arts, she went home to San Angelo, Texas, to weigh her options. A family friend told her to get in touch with his childhood friend, another local, who had a furniture business in Chicago. That friend was Holly Hunt. If you are familiar with the luxury home-furnishings industry, Hunt needs no introduction—hers is by many accounts the most influential American brand in the luxury home-furnishings arena. (Hunt’s firm, established in the late 1980s was acquired by furniture giant Knoll in 2014, although Hunt herself continues to run it.) West’s connection to Hunt was kind of like somebody who wanted a job in baseball getting a meeting with Theo Epstein.
West ended up working for Holly Hunt Ltd for the better part of twelve years in various capacities related to marketing, photography and product development, interrupted by stints in New York City and Austin, Texas, mostly pursuing her own work as a photographer. Ultimately Hunt recruited her and asked her to return to Chicago to work full-time with the understanding that in a few years West would pursue an independent endeavor of some kind. West’s experience with Hunt intimately familiarized West with the range of product offerings in the furnishings arena, but West was eager to get out of marketing and into something more concrete. “I wanted to build my own small business and truly make things again,” West says.
A Holly Hunt colleague provided the necessary link. Rob Winkler, a staff furniture designer who was part of West’s Hunt Ltd. team, said that a small Chicago foundry that they had once worked with was about to close. It was a lightbulb moment for West, and she immediately thought about acquiring and re-creating the business. Naturally she called Hunt herself for advice. Hunt was extremely enthusiastic. “She said, ‘It will be hard, but you should do it’,” West says. “‘I will make sure you don’t fail. Let’s think about a new Bronze Age.'”
West opened her business in the old foundry’s location on West Grand, but in 2012 she moved to a more modern building at Wrightwood and Keeler. In the five years since its founding, West Supply has developed an impressive, blue-chip clientele and a remarkable record in sales growth. According to West, “We hit profitability in our third year just after the relocation and remain profitable. Our margins are tight as in any manufacturing business, but we are viable.” West Supply has grown from two artisans to twenty-five, plus another seven in office and administrative staff. According to West, two-thirds of them have art-school educations.
West says that while the pay scale for metal and glass workers is not extravagant, each of the employees earns a living wage, and because all the artisans have their own projects, they are able to use the facilities to do personal works. The metal and glass fabricating processes are labor intensive and painstaking. On a recent visit to the factory floor, metalworker Nick Van Der Maaten showcased the multi-step process involved simply in making the sand plaster cast into which molten bronze is poured to create an object. There are often even more activities involved in finishing the work. A little later, glassworks manager Allyson Reza showed off a glass slab tabletop that incorporates the impression of an alligator spine embedded within. You definitely get the sense that they like working there. “It’s dirty, hot and gritty work, but in high contrast the results are always beautiful and sexy,” West says.
Holly Hunt offered her estimation of why West has been successful. “Angie is so talented, driven and smart she could likely make any business work,” Hunt writes in an email. “She loves the arts, she loves her business and the people all feel so proud to make a difference in the world and be an important part of a developing company. She is a hands-on leader.”
“She selected a challenging road in bronze casting for made-to-order furnishing products and art. However, this business is such a rarity in this country she will make it work very well over time,” Hunt writes.
It’s no coincidence that many of the artisans who work at West Supply were educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and specifically in the school’s Designed Objects program, which fosters precisely the kind of approach to design and object making that West Supply is supporting. Although many academic institutions offer courses of study in design, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Designed Objects (DO) program has been distinct since its establishment in 2006. Helen Maria Nugent, SAIC professor and the program’s founding chair, explains that the DO program was developed in reaction to a shift in prevailing design theory, to move away from object making and toward problem solving through policy and management, de-emphasizing the act of fabrication. Much of today’s design education, she says, “focuses on the process of using design thinking to understand difficult problems. Often it’s not related to design of things; it’s more about policy or social service.” The problem with this approach is that it “has enriched potential for designers, but it’s not training designers to make things,” Nugent says.
The emphasis on hand-work is what makes SAIC’s DO program distinct from other design school curricula, and why it makes sense as an offering in a fine arts academic setting, Nugent says. “We’ve tried to create a unique program where there are opportunities to get invested in processes of making and examination,” she says.
The DO program’s focus on making doesn’t reflect some Luddite denial of progress. Although design practice, like most professions, is increasingly dependent on technology, the fields of product and industrial design’s removal from the traditional tactile involvement in creating a product is particularly perverse. The program’s aim is to re-establish the significance of actually making things. One of the DO program’s most interesting elements is its “whatnot” studio, where the students bring design experiments to life as real products. In the year-long class, students produce fully realized, original products that are launched to the public at the annual Salone Del Mobile in Milan. This year, several of the products will be fabricated in collaboration with the artisans at West Supply.
Designer Steven Haulenbeek, who was among the first MFA graduates from the DO program, is both a client of West Supply, which has fabricated many of his metal designs, and also a tenant; he rents studio space in the building on Keeler. In many ways he’s been the exemplary DO alum: finding success both in producing his own designs and as an aggregator by working with fabricators like West Supply for products he’s assembled for other designers.
In his own work, Haulenbeek has always been fascinated by fabrication processes, and his most recent production reflects how he’s adapted processes he’s observed through watching the bronze-casting artisans at West Supply. “There’s a million foundries who make stuff in Chicago but very few people who understand the importance of non-standard atypical work,” he says. For Haulenbeek, the exposure to process and technique at West Supply has had a direct impact on his own innovations. His series of ice-cast bowls (see profile in this issue) are the result of channeling the traditional “lost wax” process by pouring hot wax into blocks of ice, and his more recent resin and sand vessels reflect his appropriation of the discarded molds that were the byproduct of sand casting—the other traditional bronze-making process.
A look at West Supply’s operation raises the question whether there is a larger market for the objects it produces. Trend watchers contend that the bespoke, made-to-order home furnishings industry is dwindling: younger generations, it is said, are not interested in spending money on objects, they’re more interested in “experience.” Nugent acknowledges this generally accepted wisdom, but she doesn’t completely agree. “Younger people may not be interested in acquiring mass-produced items, but what may be replacing this is interest in the authentic,” she says. Today’s younger consumers, she posits, “want to own objects that are specific to their experience: think of the world of Etsy and what it’s accomplished” by offering “something that someone they can identify has made,” she says. That sense of identification is what she thinks will help support the universe of bespoke fabrication. Valicenti, a tireless champion of Chicago’s design culture, sees West Supply as part of a movement reflecting the significance of specialized manufacturing and craftsmanship in collective workspaces, from Dock 6, which houses a handful of woodworking artisans, to the 1871 tech incubator space, to artist studio clusters like Lillstreet Art Center.
West Supply is certainly a unique operation in Chicago, and it’s hard to say for certain that its financial viability points to it as a scalable business model. Nugent remains optimistic that it’s an idea with legs, but that its long-term possibilities may depend on some degree of public assistance.“I think that the city needs to provide more support for young designers so that they can establish their studios and enterprises here in the city,” she says. “Right after I graduated from the Glasgow School of Art, I was able to establish my own studio with support from the Prince Charles Trust, which provided access to a studio space in a collaborative workshop and a small amount of grant work for materials, etc. There is a ton of empty space in Chicago and I think the city could easily support our young entrepreneurs in a similar way.”
So the next time you hear anyone dismiss an art school education as great preparation for life as a barista or a sweater-folder at the Gap, tell them to investigate West Supply. It may not be proof of a miraculous manufacturing renaissance, but it sure seems like a step in the right direction.
Philip Berger writes about design for Newcity. He has a day job at a law firm, too, but art, design and style are his passion.