Caravan Pacific

June 06, 2013 03:35 PM
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In summer 2008, Brooklyn television editor Shannon Guirl visited Portland and was floored by the tight-knit community of makers she found. “I just felt like it was my place to be,” she says, “like these were my people.” She returned to New York but kept dreaming of leaving the city, and her career, and moving to Oregon to make things—exactly what, she didn’t know.

As she was decorating her Brooklyn apartment (“I’m just a constant nester,” she says) she scoured shops and websites for a particular wood and ceramic mid-century table lamp she admired. She finally found it on eBay, but when it arrived, it had shattered. “I was a tiny little bit devastated,” she says, “but at the same time, the whole lamp kind of turned itself inside out, and I could see how it was made, and I just thought to myself, this probably isn’t really that hard to do.”

Guirl decided to try to reproduce the broken lamp herself, but there was one problem. “I had never picked up a ball of clay,” she says. “Just do this,” she told herself, “and just do it as if your life depended on it. Because it does. You’re dying at your desk job. And so my direction and my purpose became that lamp.” She took classes in wood turning and slip casting, producing a prototype before finally making the move to Portland in spring 2011.

Inspired by the Indianapolis designer Gordon Martz of Marshall Studios, who became a mentor, Guirl started Caravan Pacific, raising $50,000 through Kickstarter for the initial production run of her first lamp, dubbed the Alberta for the street in her newly adopted home. The Vanderbilt, named for the street she’d lived on in Brooklyn, and the Sullivan, for her Portland neighborhood of Sullivan’s Gulch, followed. In designing the Sullivan, she says, she modified the shape somewhat as she worked on the prototype. “My original idea was way more sharp,” she says, “but on the lathe, I noticed I was making this beautiful curve, so I just kind of let my gouge do some designing for me.”

Local manufacturers, including Mudshark, help her produce the lamps’ pieces based on her design prototypes. The ceramic portion is casting slip stoneware, while the necks are available in four wood types. Guirl assembles and ships each lamp herself, with an eye toward quality control. About three quarters of her business, she says, is wholesale, with about twenty retailers in the U.S. and Canada carrying her lamps and other home wares. A 2013 move to a new workshop, she says, will give her the opportunity to experiment with more prototypes.

The stress of running her own business, she says, is different from that of working sixty hours a week in New York. “I definitely wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she says. It’s only now that she’s been in Portland two years that she’s had a flash of realization: “Whoa, you’re in Portland now. You’re making stuff. This actually happened. You did it.”