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Leather and wood live: Grand Rapids embraces craftsmanship done the old-fashioned way

Rusty Zylstra designs a new bag.

You see it happening throughout our city, country and world: consumers trading in mass-produced goods in favor of hand-crafted, local items. From handbags to tables, silverware to sunglasses, products made by one person from design to completion are catching on proverbial fire and providing local artists with a platform for their creativity.  Here in Grand Rapids, wood and leather goods are experiencing a resurgence as residents dedicate themselves to craftsmanship and the local economy.
You see it everywhere: consumers trading in mass-produced goods in favor of hand-crafted, local items. From handbags to tables, silverware to sunglasses, products made by one person from design to completion are catching on proverbial fire and providing local artists with a platform for their creativity. Many of these local artisans also prioritize sustainability, which is a vital element for many of today's savvy and environmentally conscious consumers. Here in Grand Rapids, wood and leather products are experiencing a resurgence, filling city homes with handcrafted furniture and dressing Grand Radipidians in stylish designs that last for years and exhibit the buyers' dedication to quality, craftsmanship and the local economy.

Jack Woller

"Certain things in the world are timeless," says Jack Woller, founder of
Lost Wood, a handcrafted wooden glasses company based in Grand Rapids. Having worn prescription glasses since he was in the fourth grade, Woller found himself tired of the pre-chosen styles at his optometrist's office. "It was always a frustration…you picked something off a rack that was designed by someone else," he says. Because glasses are "such a large part of your own personal visual identity," continues Woller, he sought to create frames for glasses and sunglasses that were unique, both in design and their material: wood.

In 2012, Woller created his first pair of wooden glasses and soon after founded his company. An industrial designer by trade and surrounded by carpenters and others in similar industries, Woller decided to stick to wood as his principal material. "I was intrigued by the idea of being able to create something with a sustainable product that wasn't harming the environment," he says. Unlike plastic and metal, wood is also highly unique, giving each frame its own identity. "Every piece of wood is different," says Woller.

Desiring distinct designs as well, Woller decided to partner with his customers throughout the design process. Utilizing a Wayfarer style frame as a blank canvas for each unique design, Woller uses a computer-controlled laser to create the finished product. With this type of partnership and attention to detail, Woller's customers "actually get some say in this major aspect of their identity," he says. This individual-run design process has caught on, producing 20 to 40 percent more units each year and spreading to wholesale dealers around the country and in Canada.

However, though Lost Wood continues to grow, Woller has a very clear mission with his glasses: "It's a collaboration, not the traditional dealer relationship." Refusing to make deals with big box and chain stores, Woller keeps his partnerships intentional and focused, supporting only small businesses.

A focus on handmade items from small businesses has also inspired a local leatherworker to expand his hobby into a nationally known brand. "I started Mercy Supply out of a 10-by-10 shed in 2009," says Rusty Zylstra, founder of the Grand Rapids-based leather working company. With a focus on craftsmanship, Zylstra started with one item: the belt. "From the beginning, I was always interested in the functional items," he says. "Belts serve a purpose and if made properly with quality leather, should last for several years to come. It's safe to say that we will always carry belts." In addition, Mercy Supply carries one-of-a-kind leather lunch sacks, backpacks, hats, and wallets.

Rusty Zylstra

Creating all of his own items by hand, Zylstra slowly began selling his products in stores throughout the country, including Detroit's
Moosejaw, Chicago's Mildblend and Denver's Bolt. Recently, Zylstra has also added two collaboration pieces, a knife by Doyle Knives and a camp tripod by Pyre Forge, both Michigan companies. "Our products are handcrafted, which is something we will always hold true to," says Zylstra. "Attention to detail and quality materials are the building blocks for a solid handmade product. When you purchase a Made In USA product you are supporting the family who owns that business, as well as the many families that produce the canvas, hardware and leather," he says.

A belt and apron that will last a lifetime from Mercy Supply.

William Campbell, founder of Grand Rapids-based
Anvil Goods, agrees. "More people are waking up to some of the facts and realities of how stuff is made [and are] caring about where it comes from," he says. Working almost completely out of a 1,200-square-foot studio and borrowing a local friend's metal working shop, Campbell practices what he preaches, keeping his process local from start to finish.

William Campbell and Megan Shannahan.

Relocating from Illinois to Michigan five years ago, Campbell sought to carry on the legacy of his father and grandfather, who were both blacksmiths by trade. Founding his company with an aim of perfecting his handcrafted wood and metal work, Campbell found himself among friends. "Grand Rapids has been a really good location…a young, growing city that really gets behind its own artisans," he says.


A year into development, his girlfriend, Megan Shannahan, joined the team, and the two have been working on evolving Williams’ "functional" and "fairly minimalist" style ever since. Showcasing a passion for practical design with a Frank Lloyd Wright tattoo on his arm, Campbell seeks to create "clean, minimal lines," with rustic details, such as maintaining the live edge of a wooden table (like this coffee table seen here), he says. Though the industrious pair now craft a selection of kitchenware pieces, such as silverware and cutting boards, they have evolved to an almost entirely custom-work business.

From dining tables and credenzas to entire corporate spaces, these custom pieces have impressed individuals and business owners alike, and have furnished such local spaces as Bartertown and MadCap Coffee. Working closely with their customers, Campbell and Shannahan develop collaborative pieces that fit each need, and space, accordingly. With a respect for the process and the material, Campbell and Shannahan are really about "letting the natural beauty of the wood speak for itself," says Shannahan.

The wood itself also communicates an important piece of Anvil Goods: the sourcing of its materials. Using exclusively domestic Michigan woods, such as walnut, maple, cherry, ash, and oak, Campbell and Shannahan stay local. "Using wood from here in West Michigan reduces the fuel-thirsty process of shipping lumber across continents, and sourcing trees that our Kalamazoo friends take down out of folks' yards means we're not using materials that are the result of the clear-cutting of forests," says Shannahan.

Though the end products may differ, Grand Rapids wood and leather craftsmen are dedicated to using their hands to let their particular material sing. In order to be sustainable, to stay local and to give their customers something entirely unique that could last decades, leather and woodworkers are giving GR products to get excited about.

Photography by Adam Bird
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