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Going With the Grain
For some of us, the path for getting from point A to point B is a direct, linear one. There are toddlers who seem to know with unshakeable resolve, at age 4, that they intend to become veterinarians. It’s entirely possible to find 15 year-olds who go on to fulfill a self-ascribed destiny, becoming cardiovascular surgeons, or biophysicists, or professional baseball players later in life. Others of us, though, opt for a more circuitous route, stopping to smell the roses, re-read the map, and take in the scenic overlooks and historic markers along life’s way. We vacillate regularly as children when asked what we want to be when we grow up, change majors several times in college, and try out a variety of careers over the course of our lifetimes.
Thankfully for the rest of us, Joshua Vogel falls into the latter category. Originally thinking a career as an anthropologist was where he was headed, the founder of Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Co. (along with his partner, Kelly Zaneto) paid close enough attention to his intuition to veer a bit off course. Anthropology classes in college led to travel, which in turn led to an interest in pursuing architecture as a vocation. While attending the University of Oregon, Vogel began supporting himself working in a wood shop. “I loved working in the shop. I had great fun, learned a lot, and found segues to using those skills with classes I was taking.”
Beginning to sense he’d reached “a dead end with architecture,” the time spent in the wood shop, and all of the joy and passion and discovery it had offered him, “took over”. After a close friend and at-the-time girlfriend set their sights on New York City, Vogel followed suit, quitting school and headed east. Once there, he pursued any and all work to fund his end goal of getting a wood shop of his own together. “There’s this dichotomy with living and working in the same space, or having a studio in your apartment, which immediately creates overhead, so you’ll do any kind of work needed to support your art.”
Early work involved everything from creating showrooms for fashion companies to renovating boutiques or small stores, all with the ultimate goal of having his own space to create. He’d long held an affinity for building furniture. “There’s a great history of furniture makers that were also builders.” He eventually opened a few stores in Brooklyn featuring handmade furniture, and later, a location in Manhattan. “To really sell furniture effectively, you need to have a number of pieces available on the sales floor”, Vogel asserts. His move to a larger location in the city came right before 9/11.
His company was right in the middle of a giant renovation project, and “suddenly the plug got pulled out of everything.” A slow, uphill climb to remain solvent, keeping both the business and its products “fresh and relevant,” eventually paid off. BDDW, the company Vogel had co-founded, fought hard to stay in the post 9/11 game. In time, their effort and perseverance paid off. “They got quite big; part of their manufacturing got really big, and moved out of the city upstate” Vogel relayed. He elected to make the move as well, to aid in the manufacturing process.
As the business continued to grow, Vogel’s role in it shifted, too. “The company had grown so much, my role became mostly management - I was very disconnected from the physical work I’d initially done.” When the company even further increased production and relocated again, this time to Philadelphia, Vogel knew it was time to part ways. A return to his old love of woodturning proved fateful, and went on to intersect with a love of a different, yet complimentary, kind.
Having met through BDDW, Kelly and Josh kindled first a friendship and then later, a romance. It was Kelly that helped Blackcreek Mercantile move from idea to actuality. “I’d always believed in him,” states Kelly. When it came to creating their business, “we didn’t really have a plan-we just knew we wanted to get a lathe, and have no downtime or distraction; we just kind of jumped into it, so that Josh could just get on the lathe and start turning.”
Which is just what they did. Back at the lathe proved to be precisely where Josh needed to be to find himself, in both a business and a personal sense. “The actual ‘doing’ of things is the most important thing-if I’m doing something, everything else will fall into place. Many of my creative ideas develop when I’m busy-one idea develops out of another, etc.,” he shares.
In 2010, the couple followed their intuition, got a space, and put out a press release that they were open for business. “All we had in the beginning was the wood and the lathe and some turnings. We soon realized the turnings weren’t quite as marketable as some utilitarian goods.” Following his one-thing-develops-out-of-another guiding mindset, the concept for cutting boards and cutting board oil was given genesis. Some early press for the oil generated a few orders, which turned into more orders, which turned, ultimately, into a full-fledged successful business.
With a small business like theirs, coupled with the climate of craft in the U.S. lately, there is a great deal of flexibility with product and idea development. “The ideas don’t have to be locked in-they can develop and change, and change direction, and we can follow that,” says Vogel. From the offcuts of the cutting boards came the kitchen tools Blackcreek Mercantile sells, such as their wooden spoons. “Time in the studio created the idea for a new product. I have a mania about that sort of thing in the shop; I’ll walk in circles, reorganize-that process sees new uses. Scraps are difficult to work with sometimes, because there’s this diaspora of things that emerge. Patterns then emerge from the offcuts.”
Today, Blackcreek Mercantile items are sold all over the world. An international appreciation for handmade goods keeps their oils, boards, tools and more in constant demand. Josh credits their success to “a confluence between educating people [about how their items function, and appealing to a specific demographic such as chefs] and an interest in people cooking and caring about what they eat and how it’s prepared.” Whatever the reason, its clear people are responding to the handmade, heirloom quality of their goods. To borrow from Thoreau, Vogel went to the ‘woods’ because he wished to live deliberately. It would appear that he has more than succeeded.