In an interview on her NPR program Fresh Air, host Terry Gross asked actor, writer, and musician Jason Schwartzman about his creative background. He credited his mother Talia Shire, an actress herself (most widely known for her roles in the Rocky and Godfather films), as the party responsible for his prodigious creative output. Schwartzman reminisced how walking from room to room in his childhood home, opportunities for inspiration were constantly on view. An open book, some music on the radio, a movie playing on the television, a painting in progress - some creative catalyst was always available. His childhood and its perpetual potential for artistic inspiration to take hold proved formative.
Karie Reinertson, self-taught leather and textile goods designer and one half of the collective Shelter (along with fiancé Robert Maddox), knows all too well the indelible impression a household of creatives and makers can have. Both parents crafted items for personal and professional use. Exposing her to their pursuits and passions at a young age paved the way for the artisan she would grow to become. Her mother worked with developmentally challenged children, but also crafted a great deal. “My mother is a talented maker and spent many years making all sorts of beautiful crafts and selling them - she still does! Growing up I traveled with her to different local craft fairs, which gave me my first taste of blending travel with work.
Meanwhile, her father, an environmental planner for the Air Force, pursued his creative interests off the clock, late into the evening. “My father loved woodworking and painting. When I was in grade school he decided that he was going to make a wood-strip canoe, so he stayed up until 3.a.m each night for nearly a year building one. It was beautiful.” Several years after completing his labor of love, her father gave away the canoe he’d so painstakingly created. This gesture, along with her mother’s ability to create and then relinquish (via selling) her handmade wares indicated to Reinertson “it was clear they just enjoyed the process of using their hands to create something, and the final product was a sideline to that.”
Their creative legacy endures in the bags she makes for her business Shelter. Handcrafted in a riverside studio in Asheville, North Carolina, Reinertson fashions durable, yet lovely pieces out of leather and canvas. She describes her aesthetic as “elegant yet rustic.” Incorporating leather in their goods came about three years ago, compelled by a desire to work with materials that are “strong, beautiful, and will last a long time.” Leather was a natural frontrunner. The interplay of leather and canvas is a time-honored durable goods tradition. In Shelter’s offerings, the “grounded-ness of timeless and sturdy materials like vegetable tanned leather and waxed canvas, and the playfulness of bright, bold contrasting fabric” personalizes the look and gives it a fresh, modern feel.
The trajectory from inspired child to full-time maker wasn’t a linear one, though. In an attempt to work out some high school-fueled teen angst, Reinertson and her best friend Valerie took to their sewing machine. “Our company was named ‘Lawnchair’ and we made at least two collections and lookbooks a year. We sold at stores in and around DC. I continued to sew and sell my work throughout the following few years and in art school, but never focusing on it as my main source of income.”
After graduating college with studies in painting and illustration, weaving textiles into those designs all the while, Reinertson tried on a variety of creative livelihoods. Before beginning to create bags with her then-boyfriend Maddox in Vermont in the summer of 2010, she traversed the globe, exploring creative pursuits. “I worked for an environmental design non-profit in DC, for a state park in Big Sur, CA, as a chef for a design/build school in Vermont, and as a volunteer for environmental education centers in Spain and Central America. During that time I was always designing clothing and making art.”
Until quite recently, her own two hands created all of the items Shelter sells. An intern has been added to the fold, though, a welcome addition, as well as a worker-owned sewing cooperative based in western North Carolina for handling larger wholesale orders. Reinertson travels frequently for work, often to craft fairs just as her mother did. Having help back in the studio, and in her stomping grounds, has proven indispensable to letting the business flourish. Lovers of travel, nature, textiles, architecture, and design, Reinertson and Maddox (a trained architect and builder) weave work trips with forays to inspiring “weird and wonderful architectural marvels.” These jaunts aid in keeping their mutual creative reservoirs filled. Trips abroad to Turkey, Guatemala, and Bolivia, countries known for their beautiful textiles, are on their wish list.
Holland clutch, Madesmith exclusive. Click to buy.
An abiding emphasis on sustainability underscores all of Shelter’s goods. Handcrafting items meant to withstand the rigors of time and place is quite deliberate, as in so doing, the waste stream is minimized. Reinertson has worked hard to create end products that will last a generation, or longer, as well as to begin with mindfully sourced materials. “We've always done our best to choose locally produced or US-made materials, and when that's not an option, we go for organic. All of our leather is made in the US. Above all we choose strong, beautiful materials that will last a long time.”
A lifelong night owl, Reinertson knew she’d found her calling when she discovered herself enthusiastically greeting the dawn at 6 a.m. “I knew something major had shifted.” After savoring a maple latte at home, she heads to the studio, puts on a bit of music (“pretty much anything Sub Pop puts out is on constant rotation at the studio right now”), then gets down to the business of running a creative endeavor. “I try to break up my day into a few different time blocks - orders, phone calls, emails, new designs and so on. It's so important to carve out at least a little bit of time each day to work on something new and challenging.”
Each Shelter design goes through a series of similar steps from inception to completed item. After talking with Rob about precisely what kind of design it is they’re looking for, Reinertson does a bit of research, then makes a few sketches. “Next, I use a simple cotton fabric and make the piece without a pattern to get an idea of the lines, shape, and volume. Once I've made a couple iterations, I’ll draft a pattern from there and make a couple samples to get a feel for the materials. I like for the initial part of the process to feel like I’m making a loose abstract painting - free and no focus on details. That’s my favorite part. I hone the design from there to make it perfect.”
The future for Reinertson and Shelter is packed with creative potential. An exclusive collection of all-leather handbags, an increase in the creation of bespoke items, and a long-term goal of designing and building a studio of their own will keep her busy and engaged for some time. Opportunities for teaching, learning, travel, and, of course, maple lattes, will all factor heavily into her plans, too. Whatever direction her career moves in, Reinertson is confident she’s on the right path. “The moment I realized that when we give ourselves the space to do exactly what we want and allow positive people and experiences in, the universe provides” has been one of her most cherished memories in Shelter’s development. The well of creativity tapped by her parents in her youth is actively flowing, with no indication of running dry for years to come.
Shelburne purse in vintage sashiko. Click here to buy.