Interview with Jonathan Legge, Co-Founder of Makers and Brothers
28th of June, 2012
With the development of production to a mass scale it could be said that in many respects we have lost the art of craftsmanship, the idea of a product having substance, a story. Brothers and fellow creatives Jonathan and Mark Legge look to offer us a reminder of the importance that independent craft holds though their online shop Makers and Brothers, a venture they founded in 2009.
Jonathan kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to shed some light on how the project came about, and their experience in owning the shop thus far. We have been causally admiring their work from afar for quite some time now, so it was great to be able to unearth further context to the project and provide them with the coverage they so readily deserve.
Their recent trip to New York where they hosted a pop-up shop seemed like quite a significant moment for the store, so in light of this I’m delighted we could catch up with a little Q & A.
1) For those that don’t know who’s behind “Makers and Brothers” and how did the venture come about?
It is pretty much all in the name, a selection of great makers and two brothers. We are two brothers Jonathan and Mark Legge.
The venture was an idea we had back in 2009. We talked about it over the summer and then quickly decided we wanted to test the idea, see if people might like what we had to offer. We are constantly bouncing ideas off each other, talking them through and daydreaming. However in reality, if one is to truly know if an idea is any use, we believe you have to test it. So in December 2009 we set up shop on a little street in Dublin called South William St. We were there for 5 weeks and pretty much sold out. People liked what we were doing, it was good feeling. However we also realised that we didn’t like being tied to one physical location all day, every day. So we took a step back for a year or more, reproached the idea and devolved an online business.
2) Do you believe that people are starting to support products that are made a little closer to home, and what has been your experience of this?
We believe there was a real fatigue with the overload of mass-produced items from undisclosed sources spinning around as part of an ever-speedier cycle. There has definitely been a change of thinking when it comes to the objects people wish to surround themselves with. People are looking for integrity, depth, real objects from tangible beginnings.
I think people have surprised themselves when they see the objects we have. They really connect with them, with the story, materiality and function. I think many forgot the value of well made, well designed, loved objects.
3) I’d imagine you are both quite creative yourselves, will we be seeing any handmade items that you’ve made personally featuring in the store inventory anytime soon?
We have our moments. It definitely runs deep in the family. We grew up around most of what we sell and have amazingly creative parents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Mark is a beautiful painter, but has not been so active recently. Unfortunately he is most active in the world of spreadsheets these days, which one can still get quite creative with! He went down a more business route following school, which luckily for me makes the perfect business partner.
I studied furniture design and ended up in the RCA doing my masters in Design Products and making great friends; After collage I worked in Studioilse for the last five years. The day-to-day creative side of the Makers&Brothers is my role and it is pretty all consuming. Developing more of our own work is an important goal for us. There will be more Makers and Brothers items coming out shortly. Some made and designed by us, some designed by us and made by friends. Either way there is definitely more to come.
4) What did you learn from your recent pop-up store in New York and how was this received by passers by?
We found ourselves saying awesome quite a bit. We learnt about the great cocktails and nettle toast at the Wthye in Brooklyn. Really we learnt about the strong designer/maker scene that is emerging out of New York. There is often a European snobbish attitude to American design but it’s kind of pathetic as there is some really great work there and a brilliant attitude.
The Pop-up was really well received. We were well taken care of by the team at the Standard and had a great spot in their front window/bar. We brought James Carroll, a great bodger, over with us. He was making stools with green timber we sourced up in the Catskills and once he got going each morning the crowd grew and grew. He likes to chat and the process is wonderfully physical and understandable so all who came by got it.
5) What are the benefits and pitfalls of working with your sibling?
Benefits far outweigh pitfalls so far. Have never really thought about it too much. We have many of the same reference points, an immediate understanding, know when not to push each other. They would be the good bits. The main pitfall is continuous talk of work related issues. However I do kind of enjoy that pitfall as I enjoy what we do, but sometimes it gets too much.
6) You must have a handful of favourite handmade pieces around your home, which of these are your personal favourites and where did you acquire them?
I have a quilt a relation of ours made me for my Birthday a few years back, it is pretty amazing, even more precious since she passed away. Also very lucky to have a bunch of pieces by friends from college, designers like Max lamb, Liliana Ovalle, Oscar Naruad. Writing this on the prototype bench made while developing furniture, the ‘Seating for eating’ range, with Studioilse. The most colorful piece is the big yellow bull piñata, picked it up in a Mexican market. I don’t think I have a favorite. Mark has just moved into a new place and so far I think the priority has been setting up our old family ping-pong table.
7) How ambitious are you with the project, do you see yourselves ever owning a retail space in the future for example?
We are pretty ambitious for this project. We are six months in and only really getting started. There will be many more events like New York, we will be in London in September and have a wish list of other destinations. As for owning a retail space, it is not on our giant to do list. However, if the opportunity arose we would definitely consider it. Our plan is to slowly evolve our current mix of virtual and physical presence. There are also lots of other projects that are starting to emerge in and around Makers&Brothers. There are many plans.
8) When sourcing new products what is it that you are looking for in-particular and why does Ireland have this in abundance?
We are looking for a few different things. Materiality, form, use of material and its relevance to the function. Attention to detail, colour. Price is always an issue. Potential for a good relationship with the maker. Relevance to our customer. Really we are looking for that something that you know is great but may not know why. There are many factors.
I am not sure there is an abundance in Ireland, at least relative to what there was. Unfortunately there used to be a lot more great craft in Ireland. It was at it’s best in the 60’s when the then government, based on a report by a group of Scandinavian designers, set up the worlds first state design agency, Kilkenny Design Work Shops. The work produced during its short life was really good stuff. Interesting thinkers working with local makers producing work for a young independent state. Unfortunately it didn’t last, and Killkenny Design today is a very different thing. Truly there was so much more not so long ago but it has sadly been lost through lack of demand and respect.
Ireland never had an industrial revolution of any sort. There is no great manufacturing base here. Craft, small batch production that is what Ireland does best but is slowly starting to be lost. Hopefully now, we can in some small way help sustain and grow what is left.
9) Why do you believe people should invest in products that have been made by hand, and what do they offer that a mass produced item can’t?
I don’t think people should have to, but if they can then why not. What they will get is an object made with love. An object whose form has been shaped with care for material and function. An object that is aware of its place and will last for a long long time. They offer depth and meaning to the interior landscape and mass production all too often fails at this.
To be fair we do also sell a small selection of mass-produced items. Great pieces like the MAYDAY lamp design by Konstantin Grcic. Mass production is a reality, when it is well designed and properly produced it should be supported.
A thought: I was down with the glass blowers we work with and they were talking about how mass produced glass and wine glasses so often break. It was so interesting hearing them talk about the inherent properties of glass both liquid and solid and how when this not respected fragile glass is produced. There are lots of shortcuts that can be taken when producing a wine glass. Most glasses have been created with a cut and polished rim but this means there will be a compromise with the glass’s inherent strength and its longevity will be poor. It saves the producer time and money but cost the customer in the long run. Commercial realities but we all pay the price in the end.
10) What has your experience of owning Makers & Brothers been so far and what is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt to date?
The experience has been fantastic. We are on a crazily steep learning curve and have learnt some hard lessons. I am not so sure what the biggest is, an over arching lesson is to just get on with things. Take the time, review, react but most importantly do.
11) I’ve heard you mention recently that you feel the process of making has got somewhat lost in modern society, is this why you started Makers and Brothers as a mean to eradicate this?
We are not on any great social mission. However I do believe this and do feel we can help engage the consumer with the maker and educate little by little. Making is a process and some times I wonder do people feel everything just appears on the shelves, it is a similar issue with food. A process means time and there seams to be less and less of it about. So we are not saying we all need to slow down, but we do feel there needs to be a respect for process and the time things take. It was and still is a key part of our thinking.
12) Which creatives/makers do you take the biggest influence from and who’s story have you been taken aback by the most?
We work with a great lady called Kathlean. She is retired farmer, now an amazing willow weaver. Lives with her two dogs, a cat, ducks, chickens and a horse, all great characters. Her energy and approach has been a pleasure to engage with. Mark and I hope to build a small coracle (a small willow boat) with her and go on a little adventure. Hopefully next year, we will send you the film if we ever get to realizing this.
13) What is the most challenging aspect of owning an online shop in your opinion?
The feeling, the reality that you need to continually feed the site. It is a hungry enterprise. We enjoy developing and sharing content but it definitely takes far more time than I would have imagined. So time, we are a small team, a tiny team really, working with a tiny budget and things take time for us to get to.
14) Outside of handcrafted goods where else do you pull inspiration from, can you name a few entities in-particular?
Inspiration. From all over really, our family, our childhood, interesting and engaged businesses, girlfriend, friends. We are constantly mailing each other interesting articles we have read in places like the FT, Monocle, Kinfolk, Port or online somewhere. For me working at Studioilse has been a super influence. Ilse has been amazing, to work with her for the time I did, to be immersed in her world and her thinking was better than a masters degree. I think it made me realize there was a value to how I thought about things.
15) What can we expect to see from Makers and Brothers in the near future?
The near future, in a few weeks we will have a weekend opening at our shed. James will be with us making benches and we hope to grow these quarterly home events into a real occasion, we are adding layers each time. After the summer, seven days in London mid September during London fashion week. We just confirmed an exciting partner for the event and more will come on that soon. Hopefully we can launch new products by Makers&Brothers at LDF.
We will have more going on near the end of the year. We have had many interesting offers over the past few months so there will be other developments but we are not in any rush. We want to get it right and are building a way of working that we would like to see last.