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Nicole Whittington and James Waldron of Phoenix's Handmade Riot on Balancing Function and Beauty

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Nicole Whittington and James Waldron, the duo better known as Handmade Riot, once were using their hands to roast and brew coffee at Lux on Central. Now they've shifted that attention to craft not just to coffee, but also to wooden bike shelves, toys, coffee pour-over stations, and honeycomb shelves.

They work out of their studio in their small but efficient Coronado home, which has a barn in the backyard that Nicole works out of and an enclosed patio space where James is set up. They use traditional woodworking techniques to craft handmade objects with an attention to detail so exact that even woodworkers have taken notice of their work, at craft fairs like Crafeteria 2013.

See also: Handmade Riot: Home Accessories and Toys by Phoenix Artists

Their minimalistic and geometric aesthetic is informed by using reclaimed and salvaged wood. The couple started this project simply as a way to create things to condense space in their home and as a hobby to bond them together, but their friends quickly took notice, as did the Internet.

With The $100 Startup, a book about making a living doing what you love, the duo became motivated to take their project to a larger audience, which has been largely receptive of their products, especially in New York and San Francisco. They exhibited their bike shelves, created in collaboration with the Heavy Pedal, at Cartel Coffee Lab in Old Town Scottsdale. Currently, their honeycomb shelves are on display at that Cartel location.

Jackalope Ranch talked with Whittington and Waldron about their past, present, and future as Handmade Riot.

I read somewhere that James' grandfather used to make clocks? James: My grandfather used to have his own little shop where he would make clocks, after he retired. When he was younger, he used to build houses, so I have that in my family roots -- building things.

When did both of you start creating together? Did someone initiate it or did both of you leap into it? James: I was working at a design firm downtown, where they build and design interactive centers that go into libraries for kids. I started woodworking seriously there, and at the time both of us were working at Lux Coffee. We wanted to build stuff for our little house, so our first project that we built together was a bench that we still use as our TV stand.

Did you have experience in design as well, Nicole? Nicole: I didn't have any significant experience in any sort of workplace. My experiences come from more of a DIY background.

What was it like working with your hands in this field? Nicole: The same. If you have a vision and you're able to translate that into what you want to do with woodwork, then it's just about having a creative idea and translating that into a physical product.

James: You just have to be determined. You learn, maybe, a couple of new tricks, or new tools, but generally I like to live by the mentality of "it was built by somebody else; I can do it too."

Your style is influenced by a Midcentury Modern design aesthetic, but it also remains functional. Where did your inspiration for this process come from? You've said that your home is small, so you started out imagining products that would help condense space in your own home. Did you eventually realize this would appeal to more people? Nicole: We started doing it for ourselves. It was a hobby, but it was also a way to bond and create together. The overall design as far as clean lines, the geometry, and the functionality of it is a direct by-product of us together. James always likes to go with what looks cool aesthetically, and we eventually hash it out together, but first and foremost, what is most important to me is the functionality of it. His number one priority is "how good does this look?" and my number one priority is does it actually function as anything? We end up with a product that does both really well, I believe.

James: It's like a Bauhaus byproduct, with the idea of art, fine art, architecture, and design, which is well made but also functional, beautiful, and pleasing to the eye. The biggest thing is that when you walk into the little house we're renting in the Coronado, and when you walk into most of these places, they've got these cabinets in the kitchen that have been repainted and repainted. They're fucking hideous and you want to, like, rip the doors off. They are disgusting, and hard to keep clean, so we created these honeycombs. Just imagine them in an entire kitchen with all your stuff, and it would be way more pleasant to walk into than the poorly hung boxes in these houses that don't even fit well in the kitchen.

How did you transfer over from creating things for yourselves to making products through what is now Handmade Riot? Nicole: The Internet. Summers here are so hot and miserable. In 2012, I was using the summer to read through a few different books, and somebody suggested I pick up The $100 Start Up. I was reading that, and it's laid out so simply that it makes you think you can achieve anything. It was really inspiring. During the same period that I was reading the book, James and I had just started creating things together, and our friends really liked what we were doing. I started researching online, but I couldn't find anyone doing what we were doing, so I thought: Let's just throw it up there.

James: We had access to everything we could possibly want at the studio I worked at. I was roasting coffee and designing at the firm, both part-time. We would work during the day, and then after that, we would start our second part of the day just making these honeycomb shelves, and then they started selling.

You started getting overwhelmed by orders? James: It took a little while. We were loading up my little hatchback Honda with honeycombs and taking them back and forth to try and keep them from not stockpiling in my work studio. It was fun. I would have drawers where my tools were supposed to be with parts ready to be assembled.

Were you already putting your products on Instagram by this point? Nicole: We posted a picture of the first three honeycombs that are still hanging in the same spot in our kitchen. They are so janky because it was our first version. It took us probably five or six versions to come to what we release regularly now.

James: I think I was actually getting ready to take a photo for Instagram, when the Honeycomb broke, and I thought: "Oh, this isn't going to work . . ." [laughs]

Nicole: It all started with that photo. I showed some friends, and somebody said something about Etsy, which I had only vaguely heard of at the time. We let it take course, but we've had a lot of luck with it. We definitely stand behind our design and think it's a good product. We love what we do, but there's definitely an element of luck with the amount of success we've seen.

James: We started out with Instagram photos on Etsy and everything. Nicole: They were not good photos. James: Not good photos at all. We got real photos, and then more people started reaching out to us. Good photos sell a product; it's amazing.

You've had a couple of exhibitions and collaborations. You exhibited the honeycombs at, collaborated with Heavy Pedal, and are currently showing at Cartel Coffee Lab in Old Town Scottsdale. Nicole: The Palabra show was put on to celebrate that we've been able to do this for a year. Since it was our one-year anniversary, we wanted to bring together talented people to make it more collaborative in celebration of being able to be supported by the community. We had a bunch of artist friends illustrate the inside of our shelves for that show. The show at Cartel was set up in collaboration with the Heavy Pedal right before they opened up their flagship store. We were going to need bikes to display on our bike shelves, and it coincided because they were starting a line of bicycle frames at the same time that we needed bicycle frames.

Our bikes weren't going to work for it. They are too ratty. We asked the Heavy Pedal guys, and it worked out perfectly because they said they were looking to offer some type of bike shelf. We weren't expecting anything other than bikes, so it serendipitously came together.

Do both of you still work at Lux? Is this where the influence for the V60 pour over came from? Nicole: I work there on Friday nights. Both of us work together and live together, since we work out of our house. Friday night is my fun night away. Lux has been a big part of what we do. They've always supported us. James has made a few pieces for them. We are going to do a mini bathroom makeover for them and have these hexagons, but oversized and heavy duty for storage. Lux is a central hub of the community. I've been able to connect to a lot of people, so I don't want to let that go if I don't have to, because it keeps us connected to the people around us. We are always at home; we need that outlet.

The V60 pour-over was inspired from the event we had at Cartel. We are both so connected to coffee. James talks about roasting all the time and he hasn't roasted in two years. It's been such a big part of our lives and we wanted to integrate that connection into our line of design. We used to brew coffee exclusively using the Chemex, so we wanted to give the V60 a chance, and then we realized how amazing a cup of coffee it brews, so we were like, "Goodbye Chemex!"

James: It's amazing. We are totally sold on the Hario Company. We love them. The other part of making the pour over stand is that we buy these sheets of plywood that are 5-by-5 just for the honeycomb. We have it measured out, so its cut into strips and there's always two leftover parts that weren't being used. I don't throw them away. I keep them. I'm always looking for something else to make with them, so I can get a good use out of them. The bike shelf is reclaimed from those cutoffs and then from the even skinnier cutoff of making the bike shelf. I started turning it on its side and pulling them all together, and that became the pour over station. It's fun to repurpose the wood, and make it into a functional object, instead of throwing it away.

Do you have a lot of scraps at your house? Where do you get your wood exactly?Nicole: It depends on the project. The Honeycomb shelves are our bread and butter. It's how we make our living for the most part. We buy that wood specifically from woodworker stores. We like to use them because they have the baltic birch plywood, which is considered sustainable wood, and it doesn't have any formaldehyde, thus it meets all LEED certifications.

James: The cool thing about that product is that its made to be completely flat, straight, and clean. When you go buy a piece of plywood at Home Depot, for example, it will have a bunch of gaps in the ply, whereas the product we buy is mostly used to build straight framing molds such as perfect flat surfaces. It just makes these beautiful clean lines, and if you use it right, the intersecting of the ply's all becomes aesthetically pleasing.

Nicole: For other projects, we use Porter Barn woods. They bring in reclaimed stuff from back east and we've used their stuff for a few projects. We did the tables for the Clever Koi and when they were gutting out that building to redesign it, they had a bunch of stuff they were going to send to the dump, so we rented a U-Haul trailer and scavenged gutted out frames, and we've used that for two different projects now.

When you were commissioned by Clever Koi to design their tables, did they have a specific idea in mind, or did you create your own design? Nicole: It was a combination of the two. They told us they were looking for a warm, cozy San Francisco-style restaurant. They originally said they wanted to burn the tops of the wood, so we set up a couple of samples to see how the different grains burned to check out which wood gave the best look that they wanted. They wanted pine, but it's a soft and porous wood, so it wouldn't do well for an industrial table use unless we put a bunch of heavy, nasty chemical sealants over the top. It reminded me of my nana's house in the '70s because of the warm burned-wood style, which could be cool, but it wasn't working. James did some research online and it turns out there's a Japanese preservation method for the sides of housing where they'll torch the entire thing completely charcoal black and then throw water over it and let it sit. It cannot be penetrated by any outside elements after that.

James: Pine burns easily. The preservation method for the siding of houses is natural, so they take two pieces of giant pines and stick them together, then light the fire inside of it. They get it going and they take it apart and put it out with water.

Nicole: This is similar to the technique we used for their tables. We said to them, "Okay, we'll burn your tables, but we're going to torch the shit out of them. We're not going to give you that nice little marked burned look," and they were satisfied with it. It fit the aesthetic better. It's completely charcoal, so its all black, and we put a clean modern strip in the middle so it looks like clean lines, but you still have that burning method.

Talk to me about your studio space. James: We have two spaces. The house came with a good-sized barn, and we just started in that, but then it became so dusty and hard to maintain because it was so small. We have this covered patio that we enclosed, so now we do all the assembling and finishing out in the little barn. It's a really cool barn and whoever lived there before insulated it and put an air conditioner in, so it's really convenient during the extreme weather. It can still be unbearable to assemble and stain, but the patio's cool. It's this big, open brick [space] and I just hung up a bunch of old windows to give myself shade and a wall, but I literally work outside, so that's the cool thing about Arizona. I can get away with it because it's so close to the house, but the dust gets in the old windows and it creeps into the house through the kitchen.

Nicole: We don't have a house anymore. It's all a workspace. We package everything in the living room before it's shipped off. Maybe the bedroom is still a sanctuary from the workspace, but the whole house is a workspace.

He has the patio and I have the barn area. He starts with his sheets of wood and he cuts them down on the table saw and then sands them and then sends them over to me and then I build the shelves and then send them back and sand some more and then stain and then finish and there are multiple steps in the process and we try not to skip any of those and compromise.

When an artist is based out of Arizona, many people automatically draw comparisons to the desert as an influence, even if that artist isn't making allusion to it in their work. Do you believe Arizona has had an influence on the way you create? Nicole: I believe there are some elements in our work that would make people think of the southwest or the desert, but I don't think we have done that intentionally.

James: I don't see us falling into that. If it weren't for San Francisco, we would not be a company, honestly. We send everything out there. We've had a really hard time getting Phoenix people interested in the honeycombs.

The honeycombs are a popular product in other cities, but not here in Phoenix? Nicole: Only in the last couple of months has it become something here in Phoenix, and I see that mostly because of Instagram. The past year and a half, New York and San Francisco have been the two big cities we ship out to. Maybe people in Phoenix just need to see it a few more times.

We don't have a strong influence, at least not yet, in the desert specifically, but I love Arizona. I was born and raised here. I am not sure how many generations I am but I am Native American to this land, while James is from Ohio, and he hates it here. I don't know at what point our collaborative design will reflect the desert.

How did you come up with the name Handmade Riot? Nicole: It was a process. We tossed around ideas. James hated all of my ideas. He really wanted to have "handmade" in the name somewhere. He suggested something like "handmade goods," but that sounded too much like Bed, Bath, and Beyond to me. We definitely do not want to be associated with that. I wanted something powerful that made a statement and reflected standing for something more. Sometimes people associate handmade with DIY and they think they're synonymous, whereas we want handmade to reflect craft and quality, so having the word "riot" felt representative of that.

James: We want every little piece to be well made like you would expect to buy at a giant furniture store. The quality, the care, and the time. I definitely don't want any of my customers to receive a product and to get splinters. I take all of the splinters for everybody.

What are the future plans for Handmade Riot? James: We have the Renegade Craft Fair at SXSW in Austin coming up. It will be a fun big step for us because that is synonymous with people like us making things that are made really well with a high standard for quality.

Nicole: We are excited to be taking our stuff into another city and seeing how people will respond to it.

James: It's like a local band finally going on the road. More of the focus now is having a few different products and really getting them out there and being with them consistently and selling them. Having a solid line of products will help us get our work out more. For example, our slat benches are finally going somewhere. It's taken us a long time to get people interested in buying them, instead of simply admiring them.

You can catch Handmade Riot's honeycombs on exhibition at Cartel Coffee Lab in Old Town Scottsdale. The duo will be in Austin for SXSW's Renegade Craft Fair from March 13 through 15.

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