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Harbinger Leather Design Heralds Great Goods to Come

har•bin•ger ('här-b?n-j?r): noun 1. one who goes forth and makes known the approach of another; herald; portent; messenger of secrets and omens. 2. Anything that foreshadows a future event; sign.

On a chilly fall evening, I arrive at an old home in Eastown to interview my ‘subject,’ Jake Vroon. Rumor has it that he’s quite the leather artisan. As I enter, Maple, the house pit bull, welcomes me to the abode. She has the softest, brindle-colored fur. It is evident that she is well loved. The house has a cool vibe, and a look around reveals why. Vroon and his roommates are all artisan crafters, and their works populate the space, spicing it eclectic.

Over a cup of hot tea, Vroon and I settle into an easy conversation in the dining room as his roommates saunter in and out of the kitchen. Two cats sleep undisturbed in the living room. Maple nudges my arm as I try to write.

So, with all of this as a backdrop, I ask Vroon how he came to craft leather goods. His answer is surprising, and it boils down to this: One day, roughly a year and a half ago, he decided -- literally out of the blue -- that he needed a leather satchel, and he was going to make one because no ordinary satchel would do. Thus, Harbinger Leather Design came into being.

Well, okay, then. Sounds reasonable, right? The man’s got gumption. Except…

“I never did anything creative before in my life,” Vroon says. "This thing with leather crafting just came out of nowhere.”

Indeed, Vroon, 24, had no sewing experience, had never worked with leather, and had no idea where to begin. But, through trial and error, he made a satchel -- and, he had a great time doing it. He employs rectangles to create patterns and merges Florentine leather with fabrics like canvas. An antique treadle sewing machine serves as a trusty workhorse. The backpack he showed me sported canvas salvaged from a jacket he sourced from the Salvation Army. He has also taught himself how to tan deer hide, which is usually a waste product. He uses environmentally friendly materials and processes, the way early Native Americans did.

The time it takes to make each item varies, and prototypes are generally time-consuming. By the third item from a pattern, things go faster. Vroon constantly refines the process and designs his wares around the fabric’s availability. He creates an atmosphere and attitude as he works, incorporating music, stories he has learned, and the ambience of his home.

"The medium just works for me,” he says. “I connect with it. It’s one of the first creative forms that clicked for me. I was more of a curator than a creator until I started making backpacks.”

Vroon stamps the Harbinger label on his handcrafted iPad cases, journals, backpacks, and satchels. Right now, his stock is sufficient for limited editions, but once he sources bigger pieces of leather and bolts of fabric, he plans to produce his goods on a somewhat larger scale.

Asked why he didn’t seek out a teacher, he admits that he’s shy about showing his learning curve. “The result must be awesome before I will reveal it to someone,” he says. “I have to suck it up and learn it before I will show it to anybody.”

That goes for playing the guitar, too. He credits his ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) for this ability to self-learn. Tedious, meditative tasks allow his mind to wander. He likes to work with his hands, and he’s a stickler for details. One look at his leather goods, and I have to agree that this ADD thing comes in pretty handy. Besides, there’s this sweet little purse that insists on following me home.

Until recently, Vroon has mostly traded or bartered his leather goods for supplies, art, and other items that strike his fancy. He now limits the bartering to services he needs.

“I’m becoming picky,” he says. “I’m learning to assign a value to my work. Barters need to be things that grow, sustain, and edify my business. At the end of the day, it’s a business -- a thoughtful and creative business. It has my heart and mind in it.”

When he isn’t crafting leather, Vroon works for a local landscaping company. “My day job is circumstantial,” he says. The seasonal aspect of the business is conducive to his lifestyle for now. “The monotony allows me to think up patterns,” he says. “In the winter, I’ll shovel snow for extra income. My goal is to escape the traditional 9-5 job, sell/barter/trade services, and be a self-employed craftsman.”

Vroon is community-minded and serious about becoming self-sustaining. He is striving for an ecologically responsible lifestyle and studied homesteading skills on an organic farm while attending Sterling College in Vermont.

“I don’t have much faith in the global economy,” he says. “I prefer to work with others on a community level.”

A native of Holland, Mich., Vroon has lived in Grand Rapids since he was 18 years old. The oldest of four siblings, all of whom appreciate art, Vroon is close to his parents, who are proud and supportive. Something tells me Vroon takes after his inventive father, who also has ADD, as well as six patents to his credit.

Interested patrons may see Vroon’s works at events such as “Muscle Memory” at Live/Work 42 during Avenue of the Arts Free Radical event held recently at 42 S. Division SE. He also has an Etsy page

“I’m going to show people that this business has legs,” says Vroon.

Victoria Mullen is (in alphabetical order) an actress, artist, attorney, photographer, and writer based in Grand Rapids. She is originally from Milwaukee, Wis. 

Photographs by Adam Bird

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