Any student of American history knows that there was a time when Detroit was abuzz with activity, when entrepreneurs and industry made the city a critical hub for USA-made manufacturing. What’s slightly less well known is that craftsmanship and production is still alive and well in Detroit. Take Smith Shop, for instance. This metalworking shop has been creating beautiful hand-forged and fabricated architectural work, home goods, and jewelry since 2012. Based out of Ponyride, a workspace for socially-conscious business owners, they’re part of a thriving community of local makers, and their goods are on offer throughout the country. Smith Shop’s success has been hard won by their team of expert metalworkers, so we spoke to co-founder Gabriel Craig to learn more about what makes them tick.
How did Smith Shop get started?
I grew up just outside of Detroit, and I moved away thinking, Man, this city is dead. But my wife Amy Weiks wanted to get her Master’s degree in metalworking, and so she applied and enrolled at the Cranbook Academy of Arts, which brought us back. Once we moved back we both realized how great Detroit was, and we’ve been here ever since.
When Amy finished her Master’s degree we decided to open this shop. We wanted to have a more public face rather than just an art shop.
What’s it like working at a collaborative space like Ponyride?
Just through proximity we’re always learning from each other, and I think that makes everyone’s work a little better. And there’s obviously tool sharing happening all the time.
We try to collaborate as much as possible with the other businesses. Detroit Denim, for example, is another tenant who came in around the same time as us. They had been looking for someone to make really high-quality belt buckles. When they asked us if we could do something like that, I said, “Yeah, I think we can knock that out of the park.” There are some people manufacturing that kind of hardware in the United States, but it’s mass-produced by casting. What we’re doing is hand-forging and fabricating each buckle individually with extreme attention and care. So we started with a few samples, they put them on the belts, and we haven’t looked back.
What’s been the most surprising thing that’s happened along the way?
We thought we’d start a shop in Detroit to just export to larger markets around the country and that we’d have very little demand for our products locally. It was a huge surprise to realize there are many people in Detroit and in the surrounding area who really want to support Detroit businesses, and they have sought us out to make things for them. More than half of our business comes from the Metro Detroit area.
I think Detroit loves Detroit. Most may not realize that the Metro Detroit population is about 4 million people, and a lot of them are interested in supporting the resurgence of economic activity and entrepreneurial development in the city. We’ve certainly benefited from it, and for that we’re really grateful. But that was not part of our business plan.
What’s your process for creating a new piece?
In metalworking there are three variables: the material, the design of the project, and the process by which you’re going to manipulate the material. Because we’re so experienced in working with the material and processes, we can really start with any of those variables. So we might say, “I want to forge something,” and then, “I want it to be a piece of kitchenware.” And so you can start with those two things and design from there. It’s sort of like a puzzle.
Not everyone is involved in the design of every project in the shop, but there’s never any design that just one person is solely responsible for. One of the reasons why I feel that we’re so successful is that we try to take our egos out of the equation. It’s not about having the control or realizing your vision, but taking the talent pool that we’ve accumulated and using it to create something exceptional.
What’s your favorite piece that Smith Shop has made?
That’s like choosing your favorite child! But the signature servingware was the first thing that we made where I thought, This is really something very special.
What’s the most challenging thing about what you do?
Keeping up with demand. We could easily hire more people and grow very quickly, but we want to maintain an extremely high level of quality. We’re very calculating about who we hire and how much training they go through. But that’s sort of the nature of what we do—it takes time.
For more information, check out Smith Shop’s online store or stop by. They open their space to the public through classes, workshops, and private lessons.