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Connecticut artisans who are bringing their handicrafts to new heights

  • 10 min to read

Meb’s Kitchenwares: Quiet Corner woodworking couple Meb Boden and Tom Vaiciulis make one-of-a-kind, everyday kitchen items

By Mike Wollschlager

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Meb Boden and Tom Vaiciulis of Meb's Kitchenwares in Woodstock.

Meb Boden and Tom Vaiciulis put the wood in Woodstock.

They met on Halloween night in 1995 in the checkout aisle of a grocery store in Warren, Rhode Island. Fast-forward a bit and they’re spending three years living together on a sailboat in the Caribbean. They eventually settled on land — 21 acres of forestland in the Quiet Corner to be exact.

Meb and Tom dreamed of working together in Connecticut, and it started with building a log home for Tom’s son. After they finished making the kitchen cabinets, scraps of wood were left over. Meb turned those scraps into cheese knives and gave them as gifts over the holidays in 2001. People loved them and she loved making them.

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Seven Spoons plus Salad Tongs: Made of various New England hardwoods, each spoon has a unique personality to suit all hands — large and small, left and right — for a variety of cooking and serving uses. $40-$250.

They look and cut like real knives but are made entirely of wood. And each piece, like each human hand, is unique. “I’ll put on my gloves and I’ll imagine that I have a big man’s hands, or that I’m a lefty,” Meb says. “I keep carving away until it just feels right for that person that I’m imagining that I am.”

Serving boards shaped like pigs are the signature pieces, along with the salad tongs (which Meb says are currently featured on a Los Angeles-bus advertisement for Postmates). “Those are our bestsellers and the things that have taken us to where we are today,” Meb says. Only sustainably harvested New England hardwoods are used, and for many reasons. Meb says these high-quality, highly patterned woods are beautiful, don’t have to be flown in, and support the local economy.

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Flying Piglet serving board: This little pig made of cherry has a carved, curly tail and 3D wings. $110.

Requests for customized pieces are not uncommon — “cremation urn” can be checked off the list — and Meb and Tom do their best to accommodate. “If it’s something that I really love, like the flying pigs — I made pigs and then somebody said, ‘Well, if that had wings I’d buy it.’ And she now owns five.”

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Deep Heart Bowl with Twisted-handle Chef’s Spoon: Meb’s does custom designs based on customers’ specifications, such as this flame birch bowl and spalted beech spoon. Bowl $350; spalted beech spoon $95.

Both Tom, a former NASA engineer, and Meb have endured and survived serious medical issues, but there are no plans to put away their tools and sweep up the dust. “We’re getting older, but this is a passion and you just don’t stop that,” Meb says. “It’s hard for artists to retire, so I guess we’ll be around for a while.” 

Meb’s Kitchenwares, Woodstock

mebskitchenwares.com

MebsKitchenwares on Etsy 

860-974-3504

Évocateur: From her Norwalk studio, Barbara Ross-Innamorati brings the Gilded Age to the 21st century in the form of gold-leaf jewelry

By Ann Loynd Burton

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Jewelry Designer Barbara Ross-Innamorati at Evocateur in Norwalk.

Many years ago, Évocateur designer Barbara Ross-Innamorati came across a work of art called The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. The oil-on-canvas piece incorporated gold leaf, silver and platinum to an enchanting result Ross-Innamorati couldn’t get out of her head, even as she followed a corporate career path.

“About 12 years ago, I started thinking about that gold leaf again,” she says. “I thought, why can’t we use gold leaf in jewelry? I had never taken an art class, so I was unburdened by the facts.” The facts, at the time, declared that gold leaf was reserved for the decorative arts — signs, statues and domes on ceilings, Ross-Innamorati says.

Convinced she could make it work, the designer collaborated with a gold-leaf resource in Italy and, after 18 months, they executed the first Évocateur piece of jewelry using enamel to preserve gilded artworks. “Gold leaf and silver leaf is put through rollers until it is very thin,” Ross-Innamorati says. “My team uses tweezers to apply to a base, then we use a cold enamel between each layer. More gold and more enamel is put on until everything is completely sealed. Each piece is a snowflake — it’s impossible to replicate.”

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Westport Cuff: 22-karat gold leaf, from the Mari G. Collection. “Mari Gyorgyey is a talented artist from Stamford with whom we collaborate,” Ross-Innamorati says. “It was taken from one of Mari’s large paintings on silk.” $348.

With this process, Évocateur created a new category called gilded jewelry. “Everything is under $400 retail,” Ross-Innamorati says. “It’s unique, art-driven and great travel jewelry.” Cuffs are the most popular pieces, due to their large “canvas,” but the brand also crafts bangles, earrings and pendant necklaces.

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Jellies Mini Teardrop earrings: 22-karat gold leaf, featuring an image taken from a 17th-century book on sea life, with lush blues and greens, complemented by deep orange. $158.

Working with a small team of custom-trained female artisans, everything is designed and executed out of Évocateur’s Norwalk studio. This set-up allows the brand to be extremely nimble and responsive to customers’ needs. Ross-Innamorati can execute new designs, semi-custom pieces and custom works within a few weeks.

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Time After Time three-part necklace: 22-karat gold leaf, with images of a deconstructed pocket watch, and a little gold key. $278-$348.

Though the pieces are distributed across the country (and internationally to Canada, Central America, Europe and China), Évocateur is thoroughly rooted in the Nutmeg State. Stamford-based artist Mari Gyorgyey has a colorful collection for the brand, inspired by her works of painted silks.

Additionally, Évocateur has created custom pieces depicting Cass Gilbert Fountain in Ridgefield for local retailer Addessi Jewelers. The brand is also available in Lux Bond & Green’s Connecticut and Massachusetts locations and at Cellini Design Jewelers in Orange.

“I’ve lived in Westport for 26 years,” Ross-Innamorati says. “I love our community, and I love being a manufacturer in the Nutmeg State. It’s important to keep this technique that we developed stateside — it’s a proprietary technique only these artisans can do.”

Évocateur, Norwalk

evocateurstyle.com

203-956-0705

Sideways Studio: Ivoryton’s Hayne Bayless took a sideways career turn to handcraft stoneware pottery

By Erik Ofgang

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Hayne Bayless of Sideways Studio in Ivoryton.

Hayne Bayless first fell in love with clay in high school. His art teacher was encouraging but didn’t know anything about pottery, so Bayless taught himself. “Something about it just grabbed hold,” he recalls.

But it took Bayless a while to give in to his fascination with the art form. In college he majored in journalism and in the 1980s he got a job at the New Haven Register (full disclosure: the Register is owned by the same company as this magazine). By 1992 he decided to leave journalism to pursue a career in pottery full time. Today he runs Sideways Studio in Ivoryton and produces a variety of award-winning wares, from cups, plates and other dining items to decorative pieces that he shows at various galleries. His works have been shown at the American Craft Museum in New York and he has been a regular exhibitor at the Smithsonian Craft Show and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.

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Tapered tumblers: These eye-catching tumblers feature tapered extrusions and five-sided feet, with a resist brushwork and copper matte glaze. They’re just under 6 inches tall and are dishwasher safe. $60 per tumbler.

Bayless says clay is “in many ways kind of an unforgiving medium in that, at least in my experience, it has a way of sort of telling you what it wants to do, and you either have to fight it or go along with it and see what direction it wants to go.”

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Tall Teapot: With a curved handle and curved-line design across its body, this teapot stands about 11 inches tall. It features slab construction with extruded spout, handle and lid hinge. Designed to be hand-washed. $400.

Over the years Bayless has learned to let the clay guide him. He prefers the results he gets “when I am more in league with it, rather than trying to sort of battle it.”

For the first two weekends each December, he has an open house at his studio and invites other artisans to share and sell their products. This year he’ll have a poet who will be writing poems on demand for visitors.

Sideways Studio, Ivoryton

sidewaysstudio.com

860-767-3141

Luke’s Toy Factory: Danbury father and son Jim and Luke Barber team up to create eco-friendly, educational toy trucks

By Erik Ofgang

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Luke and Jim Barber of Luke's Toy Factory in Danbury.

Five years ago, Jim Barber was in the midst of starting a toy company, but he had a major problem. He didn’t have ideas for toy designs. Things hadn’t worked out with an early partner in the venture and he found himself with a 3D printer and software but an utter lack of inspiration.

He turned to his son Luke, a recent college graduate, for help. Ever since he was a kid, Luke had loved trucks, cars, trains and anything else with wheels. Luke, who had no experience in toy design, dreamed up what would become the prototype for the company’s fire truck, which is still sold.

“I said, ‘OK, you’re the toy designer,’ ” Jim recalls.

They joined forces with another father-and-son duo, Mitch and Evan Achiron, and Luke’s Toy Factory was born.

The Danbury-based company now produces a line of 3D puzzle vehicles for children 3 and up. The trucks are manufactured in Danbury with materials sourced exclusively from the U.S. They are made from a mix of certified clean plastic pellets and sawdust from furniture mills and window factories, with colors molded in rather than painted on so nothing can peel off. The result is a unique-looking toy that goes well beyond standard safety requirements for toys.

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Luke’s Toy Factory won Learning Magazine’s 2019 Teachers’ Choice Award in the preschool category for its Educational 4-Pack of eco-friendly, American-made toy trucks.

“The idea behind these trucks is that they’re a simple puzzle that comes apart and you have to put it together,” Jim says. The pieces are designed to be simple and give children leeway if they don’t put the parts perfectly together. Once they build a truck correctly, children tend to experiment by putting the pieces together in different ways. “They immediately become engrossed in the toy. It’s not a toy that gets its appeal from a cartoon character. There are no buttons that you push. You have to think of these things yourself.”

Luke’s Toy Factory, Danbury

lukestoyfactory.com

212-598-4500

K&H Leatherworks: Simsbury’s Tucker Gasho learned his age-old craft in a thoroughly modern manner

By Ann Loynd Burton

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Tucker Gasho, owner of K & H Leatherworks in Simsbury.

“I learned like a lot of people learn things in my generation — by using a combination of YouTube videos and social media interaction,” K&H Leatherworks founder Tucker Gasho says of the non-traditional way he honed his very traditional craft. “The Instagram community has a lot of extremely helpful people.”

Gasho has made real-life friends on the social media app, and says there are many leatherworkers online who are always happy to offer helpful advice. Just a few years after taking up the craft, Gasho has turned his hobby into a full-fledged business. Coming full circle, he now sells many of his designs on Instagram and on his website. Of course, the product has a physical appeal that Gasho loves to show off at pop-up shops and markets around the state, like Feather & Bloom in Suffield. (K&H will be at the Holiday Market at the Watkinson School in Hartford Dec. 7-8.)

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Akita wallet: Three-pocket, hand-stitched snap wallets have several interior pockets to organize cash and cards, as well as a quick-access pocket on the back. $100.

Many of Gasho’s leather accessories are ready to ship, but K&H crafts an array of custom products as well — such as wallets, passport holders and belts — where customers can customize things like thread color, leather type and fastener metals. Don’t be misled by the “fast” nature of internet shopping; Gasho’s products pay mind to every detail.

For example, to craft one of his signature wallets, the artisan begins with high-quality, full-grain leather. “I start out by cutting out all of the individual pieces, then burnish all of the edges with a burnishing agent called tokonole for smoothness,” Gasho says. “Then, I lay the pieces together and glue them up. Once the glue has formed a bond, I use tools called pricking irons to punch the holes for stitching. After that has been completed, I attach two needles to the end of one thread and stitch in a figure-eight motion throughout the piece. Once that has been finalized, I use sandpaper to clean up the exterior edges of the wallet. Lastly, I apply a final coating of tokonole to the edges, and use a canvas cloth to burnish them smooth.”

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The Bernese tote: Fully hand-stitched tote bag with rolled edges and storage spaces including an open sleeve and a clutch-style pocket. Adjustable shoulder strap. From $350.

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Watch saddle: Turn any watch that accepts spring bars into a classic pocket watch with this fully hand-stitched watch saddle. Order with a custom lanyard. From $120.

A lot of heart goes into each piece, and the result is a quality item Gasho says isn’t present in New England today. “You can go to plenty of stores around here and buy things made with sewing machines, but I know of very few craftsmen in this area who are sticking to the traditional ways of doing things,” he says. “When I began doing leatherwork, I really appreciated the heritage aspect of the leatherworkers who were sticking to a handmade process, and so I decided to bring my own flavor of that to Connecticut.”

Gasho’s “flavor,” he says, strikes a balance between rugged and sophisticated. He finds inspiration from the company’s namesakes, his pets Koda and Hobbes, as well as needs expressed by friends and customers. For 2020, he hopes to design a line of pet-related products including leashes and collars.

While Gasho hopes to expand his distribution across the country, he is dedicated to keeping operations local. “I have been really lucky to grow up in this corner of the world,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine starting my business anywhere else.”

K&H Leatherworks, Simsbury

khleatherworks.com

khleatherworks@gmail.com

Studio Steel: In Litchfield County, Spencer J. Hardy brings the centuries-old craft of wrought iron to contemporary homes

By Ann Loynd Burton 

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Spencer Hardy, owner of Studio Steel in Bantam.

Studio Steel founder Spencer J. Hardy possesses an impressive combination of business acumen and artistic skill. He was working as a photographer (after studying business and photography in college) when he learned that one of his clients, textile and interiors brand Pierre Deux, was importing wrought-iron Bell chandeliers from France. The chandeliers occupied a lot of real estate in shipping crates coming from Europe, and the cost was getting to be too much for the company. “They asked if I knew anyone who could craft a wrought-iron chandelier, so I took it upon myself to do so,” Hardy says.

Identifying this void in the market, Hardy got to work learning how to bend and weld raw steel into a beautiful product. In 1991, his trademark Bell chandelier was born, and the artisan hasn’t looked back since. He and another artisan work in their New Preston workshop to preserve a level of craftsmanship that was largely forgotten in the U.S.

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Helix sconce: Crafted from wrought iron with a frosted or clear glass shade. Finish with a beeswax candle sleeve for a vintage aesthetic. Price upon request.

“We cut, clean, bend, hammer and weld together every piece of our chandeliers by hand,” Hardy says. “Some of our fixtures have wire wrapping, which is all done by hand as well. We use handmade wood jigs to get the correct curve for each piece. At the end, we hand-apply the finish.” In the case of Studio Steel’s antique finishes, the artisans create a real rust by leaving the piece outside for weeks and spraying it daily with a special solution for a deep, rich rust patina.

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Greystone chandelier: The Greystone has clean lines for a contemporary aesthetic, and is adorned with a Swarovski Strass flow drop. A hand-forged crown nods to traditional design. Price upon request. 

Classic and antique designs inspire Hardy’s creations, but the results often have a contemporary spin. Aside from the careful handmade creation, another aspect that makes Studio Steel unique is its endless customization options. Choose to add pear drops, pendalogues or glass teardrops under bobeches or the crown. Select your number of candles and opt for electric or traditional. Deck your design in dripping crystals, or keep it minimal for a contemporary edge. For a Tuscan aesthetic, add leaves, vines, tendrils, thorns or grape clusters to any fixture.

Studio Steel works closely with the trade community to distribute lighting through design showrooms to interior designers and architects. The company has since expanded to selling direct-to-consumer as well, but Hardy says you won’t find Studio Steel for sale online in any point-and-click fashion. “With most people today wanting to buy everything online, and not using design professionals as much, we have branched out to selling directly to the end user,” he says. “Although, we do not do online sales as we still need to talk directly with the client to get all of the specifications down right."

Studio Steel, New Preston

studiosteel.com

860-868-7305

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.