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At Ease

At Ease

At Ease

August/September 2012 issue of American Craft magazine

Natalie Chanin, whose Alabama Chanin label has evolved to include an array of objects for the home, talks about making a life.

To Natalie Chanin, Alabama Chanin is not a business; it’s a lifestyle company. Through her practices and products (which range from couture clothing to tea towels), Chanin is sharing a vision of a well-crafted life – a slowed-down, balanced life, with emphasis on sustainability, community, and skill. At the heart of any lifestyle is the home, so we asked Chanin to share how she crafts hers.

Start by telling us a little bit about where – and with whom – you live.
I live in a late-’40s brick house in Florence, Alabama. It is a small but beautiful house that is perfect for my daughter, me, and our finches. The addition of a standard poodle puppy has livened things up a bit – it’s almost like my daughter, Maggie, has a little brother (who takes up quite a bit of room in our little home). 

What do you look for in the objects you bring into your home?
It’s just a feeling and hard to explain, but I do enjoy rescuing things that seem like they were once important to someone and forgotten by mistake. I’m drawn to pieces with a bit of history or simple elegance: a weathered patina, a good weight, signs of use and love in a past life. 

Alabama is filled with “dig stores” and antique “graveyards” that have all sorts of amazing treasures. I have a weakness for plates and printed glasses, which seem to abound here in the South. As a result, my kitchen plays host to an array of patterned and printed pieces. Matches are a rarity, but they complement one another beautifully all the same.

With all that variety, what’s your approach to organizing your living space? 
White makes a nice backdrop for displaying things I love and doesn’t compete with my rather eclectic style; it’s definitely the predominant color in my home. Overall, I favor things that are beautiful, functional, and feel at ease in the space. I like to cook, I like to entertain, I want my guests to feel comfortable, but most importantly I want to feel comfortable and relaxed in my surroundings.

Tell us about a few pieces that are particularly special to you. What makes them significant? What roles do they play in your home and life? 
In my dining room hangs a large painting by an old friend, Veronika Dirnhofer. I’ve had it for more than a decade; it’s traveled the world with me and demands a very prominent space due to its scale and coloring. There’s also a good deal of kindergarten work, as my daughter is quite the artist! I’m also enamored with my Heath Ceramics serving bowls. Robin Petravic and Cathy Bailey at Heath are friends of mine, and we were recently able to collaborate on a dinnerware collection. The pieces are very beautiful and special to me.

What makes them so special?
I adore the way Cathy and Robin run their company – the craftsmanship, detail, and attention to quality. Ultimately we both want the same things for our businesses; our message and ideologies are remarkably similar.

The collaboration itself felt as far from work as one could imagine. It seemed like (and was) a lovely time with friends. Good food, good wine, a lot of brainstorming, some samples, and repeat, until we arrived at something truly special. I’m very proud of the collection and very proud to call them friends.

One quality that marks your business is the holistic approach, a recognition of the way things are connected. Sustainability, for example, means sourcing materials with care, but also paying a living wage and creating long-lasting, heirloom-quality clothing. How does your home life fit into the picture?
Many of our pieces were conceptualized in order to answer a need for something in my own home and have sort of evolved from there. I avoid paper towels, for example, so I began using scraps of our organic jersey in muted tones for cleanup in the kitchen, as towels, potholders – I found they even made great bibs for my daughter. Then one day, I added a few stitches to a stack of mismatched jersey napkins to dress them up a bit for a dinner party. Seeing how lovely they were on the table really set my mind in motion. Today Alabama Chanin offers stitched, stenciled, painted, and appliquéd tea towels, napkins, placemats, table runners, even coffee cozies – all in our organic cotton jersey. The idea even evolved to include pieces for our collaboration with Heath.

In your latest book, Alabama Studio Sewing + Design, you write, “Good design should be available to all,” explaining why you choose to publish your company’s signature designs and techniques. That’s a powerful conviction, especially since good design (or any kind of design) is so often perceived as one and the same as expensive design. Running with your statement, what is the value of good design? Why should it be available to all?
I’m not sure the value of good design is quantitative, but I do think people benefit mentally and emotionally when they find their surroundings appealing. Design is very personal; if you choose to occupy a space, why not make it comfortable?

I think the modern consumer, however, has a misconception that is deeply ingrained – this idea that good design is only for the super-wealthy, that it’s unattainable for the average person. Most of us possess the power to make things for ourselves and – much more often than not – people find the process of making to be deeply satisfying. Through open sourcing, sharing designs and techniques, we can help make things more beautiful for everyone.

Many people told me that open sourcing would be the nail in Alabama Chanin’s coffin, yet we’ve seen our business and our brand grow exponentially since we began sharing our methods.

I think this idea of sharing is very beautiful. We all take from and are inspired by the efforts of others; it is the personal touches, the individual interpretations that separate our work and force us to keep pushing the envelope.

Finally, an easy one – or maybe a hard one: What do you love most about your home?
The light. My home is lovely and sturdy, but more than the house itself I adore the flood of sunlight that greets me most mornings. I’ve done many a product photo shoot on my dining room table with no more prep work than pulling back the curtain. Coffee and sunshine from the comfort of your own kitchen is a luxury that is hard to beat.

Know someone living a thoughtfully crafted life in a unique space? Email your Crafted Lives suggestions to [email protected]. Julie K. Hanus is American Craft’s senior editor.