Integrity of craftsmanship is defining a new way of doing business in Portland.
MEET CHARLES HEYING on campus and the urban studies professor can quickly turn into an unofficial tour guide for “made in Portland.”
He may take you to Langlitz Leathers, where employees create jackets for Bruce Springsteen; to Hopworks Urban Brewery for an organic handcrafted beer; to Renovo Hardwood Bicycles for frames made out of Oregon wood. All locally owned, all dedicated to quality products, these businesses exemplify a growing economic and lifestyle trend in Portland toward an “artisan economy,” a term coined in Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy, written by Heying, his urban studies students, and local urban planners.
Rather than striving to get bigger and to maximize profits in order to consume more products, the artisan economy is built on different values, says Heying. The book--published in 2010 by Ooligan Press, the University’s own artisan press--is based on interviews with 118 artisans across Portland’s four signature sectors: brew, food, fashion, and bikes. It defines artisanship as a movement that challenges “the tyranny of work and consumption,” focusing instead on the integrity of craft, simplicity, people, and place.
In this world, the mark of success doesn’t rest solely on the bottom line, but on the quality of the product. For Ben Davis, co-founder and owner of Grand Central Baking Company, it was all about the perfect loaf of bread when he opened a small café on Southeast Hawthorne in 1993. Consumers, literally, ate it up and can now buy the perfect loaf at the bakery’s six locations. Despite his success, Davis has no plans to expand outside the city limits where maintaining quality control would be more difficult.
THE ARTISAN AESTHETIC draws innovators to Portland who are passionate about their interests, says Heying. “Work is a vocation for them.”
For David King of King Basses, building electric bass guitars is more than just work. “It’s like being a monk--you commit to it and you don’t have any way out once you’re in,” he says. Ristretto Roasters founder Din Johnson, who turned his hobby into a business in 2005, is so dedicated to the art of coffee that he offers regular tastings where customers can sip coffee samples side by side, much like wine tastings.
Artisan businesses have found a welcome home in Portland due to its relatively low start-up costs, still-cheap rents, and a consumer base that shares similar values. Affordability and access to hops are part of what has made Portland, with its 38 microbreweries, home to the largest per capita concentration of microbrew establishments for any metro area worldwide.
Focusing intensely on locally sourced, artisan products has apparently left Portland ripe for humor. The city’s love for all things local hit pop culture this year in Portlandia, an IFC comedy series. One skit gently mocks earnest “locavores” who not only want to know if the chicken on the menu is free range, but how and where it lived.
TO THOSE who would scoff at the long-term economic viability of artisan vocations, Heying has a ready answer. The so-called real economy? These days, that looks like 10 percent unemployment and mega-corporations outsourcing jobs overseas.
As Heying asks, “How sustainable is that economy?”
Plus, a locally based economy doesn’t have to be a closed loop shut off from the increasingly globalized market, Heying says. Thanks to the Internet, local goods made by small businesses can find customers and distributors anywhere. Chris King Precision Components, which makes bicycle parts, has built an international clientele through its website.
There’s no way to tell how the 21st-century artisan world will evolve. Heying is quick to acknowledge that the industrial economy isn’t disappearing. However, he sees immense potential in these still-early steps toward an alternate economy. The book is “a manifesto for the artisan economy as a path of resistance in a globalizing world,” he writes. “Something is happening here. The evidence cannot be ignored.” ?
Su Yim, a graduate assistant in the PSU Office of University Communications, wrote “Operation: Go to School” in the winter 2011 Portland State Magazine.
Art as the fashion business
Thanks to a community of independent designers, the home of fleece has become known as a haven for fashion. Portland didn’t start as a sister to the glitz of New York or Paris, but over time, designers here have made their mark in the high-end fashion world.
In the book Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy, student writers found that the city is supporting 90 local designers and 26 retail shops selling their wares. And Portland now has a national reputation for top design: three of the eight-season winners of Project Runway, a fashion-based reality TV show on Lifetime, are from Portland.
Photos (top to bottom):
Hopworks Urban Brewery was established about 25 years after the first craft breweries opened in Portland, and there are enough thirsty customers for all. Photo by Tim LaBarge.
Professor Charles Heying
Bullseye Glass Company is the epicenter of Portland’s kiln-formed glass industry. Photo by Jerome Hart and courtesy of Bullseye Glass.
At least a dozen hatmakers call Portland home, but in her downtown studio, milliner Dayna Pinkham creates high-fashion hats sought nationwide. Photo by Ruthanne Annaloro.