St. Louis Woodworker Collin Garrity

 In Culture, Interviews

When we spoke with St. Louis-based woodworker and designer Collin Garrity, he was in the Cortex district’s tech shop, implementing a patterning process for a new project. It was something he hadn’t tried before. “It’s reminding me that I didn’t go to school for this,” he says. “It’s nice to be ignorant again.”

Garrity actually studied poetry at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, where every student was required to have work and service commitments in addition to academics, which offset the cost of tuition. He began by scrubbing toilets, but later discovered the school was assembling a work crew to build instruments for the music department. He joined, and began learning the craft. “I fell hard for woodworking,” he says. “It took over and got in the way of my classes.”

Though Garrity came to the U.S. for college, he grew up in Germany and lived there until he was 19. His parents are American, and his father coordinates volunteers in areas ravaged by conflict, securing them visas, helping them pass out supplies and teaching them how to rebuild broken structures. At the time we spoke with Garrity, his father was working at refugee camps in Greece. “I learned a lot of my handy skills from him,” says Garrity.

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If you ask him, he’ll tell you he started wholesaling to stores by accident. “I was in college, making these spinning tops out of wood and visiting my older sister, who was in Savannah, Georgia. She was working at a store and they saw some of the tops I had, and they were like, ‘We have to sell these.’ I get obsessive about things I like, so I had about 200 of them.
I said, ‘I don’t know how much to charge for them,’ and they told me to just come up with a number. Then I started selling on Etsy. I really didn’t think of doing business,” he says. After college, he ended up moving to Savannah, Georgia, and then St. Louis. “I moved here for a girl, three years ago. My new workspace is in Marine Villa, about a block from Sump Coffee, near the new Perennial.”

Keep reading to learn about Garrity’s process, journey and inspiration. This month, ALIVE Members will receive one of his hand-made ring bowls. Learn how you can become an ALIVE Member for $8 per month here.

Does making certain things out of wood connect you to your home?
Absolutely. The only time I’ve been able to go back to Germany has been Christmas, since I came for college nine years ago. I find myself so excited to design Christmas goods because it reminds me of home. Of the things I make, they require the least amount of skill, but I’d make them all year long if I could, because of the connection I have with home. One of my favorites are these German-inspired Santa Logs, which are really popular in Germany. They’re kind of a kid’s craft. To make them, you take a log and cut it diagonally, and paint a Santa face on it.

I’ll stay up all night painting them the night before a craft show. I originally had a designer, Erik Riley, designing them with me, but I do the painting myself now. I also do a lot of Christmas ornaments and children’s toys.

I try to make my designs look as simple as possible, which usually takes a lot more work, but I love to end up at a design that looks like you put it together quickly.

It sounds like you discovered your passion for woodworking in college. What came next?
After school, I moved down to Savannah, Georgia. I bought a lathe and saved up enough money to buy a tiny belt sander and a tiny band saw. I worked part-time jobs and ate beans and rice. But I knew I didn’t want to get stuck doing other jobs, and not the thing I’m passionate about. I didn’t want to get trapped in that life. So I had to force myself to make money woodworking.

Until I could slowly buy better machines and equipment, it was incredibly limiting. But I think limitations can be really useful in a design process. It forces you to go directions you may have never thought of before. Not to stretch out the comparison too much, but I think that’s kind of why people enjoy forms in poetry, because when you’re restricted by rhyme and meter, you think about things differently, rather than just the most efficient words.

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When did you realize you could scale a business out of your craft?
Fairly early on in my career, I got a message from Christophe Lemaire and Sarah-Linh Tran at Lemaire, a high-fashion French design house, asking if I wanted to collaborate with them. They had included a photo of this beautiful model with one of my tops, blown up and photoshopped on her wrist, like a bracelet. At first I thought it was an odd joke, but when I realized it was a real invitation, I thought, ‘Maybe I could really do this. It could still not work next week.’ But I focused on taking it day by day.

It took a few years to come to fruition, but I saw our collaboration over two different seasons on the Paris runway. It wasn’t a breadwinner, but it lends credibility to everything I do, and has generated work. It’s been hugely instrumental in finding other people to collaborate with, like Shinola. I also did a Kickstarter campaign so I could rent a larger space. My goal was $18,000, and it wound up generating $46,000. Instead of having to rent, it enabled me to buy the bare bones of a space outright. It was really incredible. I’m still sending out rewards from the campaign almost a year later, but it was so amazing to hear encouragement from people.

What do you gravitate towards making now? What inspires you?
It’s all over the place. And now that I have a big space, I’m also playing a lot with furniture. Most of what I’ve been making are tiny bowls that I can make in one sitting. I’ll make several of them. Then they’re a finished product, and they don’t take up a lot of space. I also make vases and lamps. I don’t make things like cutting boards, because there are so many beautiful cutting boards. I don’t have anything to add to that conversation. I try to find things where I think, ‘What objects do I surround myself with, and is there a beautiful alternative?’

I have a pencil holder which only holds about three pencils, which is kind of ridiculous. But typically when I sit down at the table I have three pens or pencils in my pocket and I throw them on the table. So why not have them in an object that contributes to the beauty of the table, and adds to the beauty of things I actually use?

I also love art. I love exploring and viewing, but I’m not interested in making art, because I want to make things interactive. With everything I make, I want people to have the instinct to pick it up. Even things like lamps, which aren’t meant to be picked up.

Photography by Sean Funcik

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