A Home In The World: Jessica And Ryan Mead Bring The Work Of Global Artisans To Kansas City

If you asked Kansas City-based business owner Jessica Mead who Tyler Kingston is, she’d have to admit that he doesn’t exist. If he did, he might be a traveler in Nairobi, or rummaging for the perfect textile in a dusty flea-market stall in some high-desert town. Mead thinks he’d be a simple, quiet man who’d surprise sometimes by being bold and a little adventurous. You wouldn’t quite be able to put your finger on what was so special about him until he slowed down for a while, invited you over and let you see the home he’d made.

In reality, Tyler Kingston isn’t a person at all. It’s a home-decor and lifestyle brand with a retail location in the heart of Kansas City, Missouri, created and run by Mead and her husband, Ryan. The name is inspired by the couple’s young sons—Gentry Tyler and Isaak Kingston—and you might say the company began as a natural extension of the Mead’s life as a family. But in the six years since Tyler Kingston was born, it has grown into something bigger than they’d ever dreamed.

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When Mead talks about the early days of the company, it sounds similar to how she recounts meeting her husband for the first time—as Missouri college students with a handful of common friends, wistful and sweet, still a little amazed that it happened at all. “Ryan and I were both working in finance. But one day, he read a furniture how-to in ReadyMade Magazine, and he just said, ‘I think I can do this.’ He started making a few things for our house. Pretty soon, he made his first piece for sale.”

That piece was a bench made out of old railroad ties—lucky finds at a local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. The buyer was a Craigslist stranger. But the thrill of that one sale was enough to set them on a path that would change their lives.

Custom-made furniture is still the heart of Tyler Kingston. Mead’s pieces are inspired by mid-century design and industrial engineering: think hairpin legs and reclaimed factory lumber, or a clean-lined table that stuns in silhouette and only gets better as you close in. The chosen materials tell the history of his native Kansas City; he preserves the notches, saw marks and bolt holes, leaves the scars intact and polys over them so they shine.

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For the first few years, the couple worked in their garage and later in a second-floor studio with aging white-painted brick walls, growing their business one pipe-shelving unit and Etsy sale at a time. But, as Tyler Kingston became a full-time job and their customers started to tell them how much they wanted to experience the work in person, they made a pivot.

“Kansas City is definitely all about shopping locally: make it here, buy it here,” Mead says. “And that’s definitely us, too. But when we opened the retail store, we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we try something just a little bit different?’”

Mead isn’t a retail stockist by trade, and certainly not an international buyer, either. But she started buying, anyway: mud cloths from Africa; rugs from Iran; pillows from artisans in Turkey. Family vacations in the Southwest were detoured through flea markets where she loaded up on Native-American craftwork and brought home palettes and patterns as removed from a Midwest aesthetic as one can get. Guided only by her own tastes and eye for color in the natural world—she says Joshua Tree National Park is her favorite place she’s ever been—cacti and long-horn steer and adobe-tone ceramics became new staples of the store’s larger brand. “It’s been a risk, because we didn’t know if people in Kansas City would respond to it like I did,” she says. “But they love it.”

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That sense of risk and adventure, grounded by home and history, seems to be core to who the Tyler Kingston customer is. Mead says those wandering into the shop are much like her and Ryan: young couples in their mid-20s or 30s, new families just starting to build their homes together, yet still nourishing the itch to get in the car and wander a few states away. The larger home-goods collection is bold and full of globe-trotting statement pieces, but it’s also important to the couple that everything is affordable, functional and up to the challenges of ‘real’ family life. “We’ve got two kids who are nine and eleven, so when someone asks me, ‘Can you wash that blanket?’ I’m like, absolutely. You can wash everything in this store.”

The couple’s two boys have grown up alongside Tyler Kingston, and it seems likely that the brand will grow and change just as they do. It’s easy to picture the shelves of the shop changing as the family widens their radius to travel further and further across the globe, getting a little bolder in their destinations and designs. But, for Mead, Tyler Kingston will always be rooted in the sort of values the Midwest—and her husband—personify: sturdiness, hard work and an understated, patient creativity.

“Ryan’s the mid-century, the clean lines, classic thing,” Mead says. “I’m the pop of color.”

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This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 6, 2017. Purchase Issue 6 and become an ALIVE subscriber.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.

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