March 28, 2020

Design counts at Haystack seminar Entrepreneurs seek Maine twist at retreat

John Wentworth likes to say his grandfather founded Moosehead Manufacturing in 1947 with a “glimmer in his eye.” He opened a furniture-making factory in Monson and was so successful he eventually opened a second plant in Dover-Foxcroft.

“Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he wanted to work for himself,” said Wentworth, who is now president of Moosehead Manufacturing.

In the early years, the company employed 40 workers. Four years ago, Wentworth had 254 employees. Now he has 130. But he is determined that the design and construction of his Maine-made beds and dressers, desks and bookcases will continue to compete in the face of mass marketing and outsourcing to China and other countries.

“No longer can we compete in manufacturing in price,” said Wentworth. “It has to be based on something else. Price is no longer the dominating factor. It’s design.”

That’s one of the reasons Wentworth developed a line of antique recreation furniture under Moosehead’s newest division J. Wentworth.

Wentworth’s insight and commitment to development were echoed by many other Maine-based business owners and designers who attended “Creating in Maine: Makers, Manufacturers and Materials,” a two-day invitational retreat held Sept. 25-26 at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle. Funding for the event came from an anonymous foundation that awarded the school $50,000 each year for four years to hold retreats and symposia. “Creating in Maine” is the fifth gathering. A sixth one, “Craft and Community: Sustaining Place,” took place over the weekend, and more are planned for the next two years.

Stuart Kestenbaum, director at Haystack, came up with the idea for the events in 2006 after attending a Blaine House Conference in Lewiston on Maine’s Creative Economy.

“I wondered what we could do that would serve as a catalyst,” said Kestenbaum, who was recently elected an honorary fellow of the American Craft Council. “We’re a materials-based place. Ingenuity is implicit in what goes on with everybody who works with their hands. I wondered what our responsibility was to the state economy. We don’t want to be an engine for economic development. But the important role we can play is to be a think tank for ways to look at making. An arts institution can play a role in that. So I think it’s most appropriate for us to do what we do best: Convene people, bring the best minds together and give them the way and the time to work together.”

More than 60 leaders in the fields of design, craft and manufacturing attended the mini-conference. Many of them were meeting for the first time. Their offices, studios and assembly centers range from Fort Kent Mills to Southwest Harbor to Portland. Yacht builders talked with blanket makers who met with architects who listened to book illustrators who chatted with jewelers.

“Haystack provides a wonderful example of the power of creativity and of the creative force that we have in abundance in Maine,” said first lady Karen Baldacci, who welcomed participants. “The economic engines that create opportunity are our people – our youth, our creative workers and our creative entrepreneurs – and we must provide them with resources and support to be able to succeed. This is about sharing a creative conversation. What inspires you often times is what others are doing, and you can share the process. It’s linking and coming together to grow the artist community in Maine.”

The state’s arts and cultural sectors generated $1.5 billion in sales in 2003, said Baldacci. Earlier this fall, she announced the formation of a crafts organization consortium, including Haystack, which will work to bring world-class artisans together.

Although attendees were quiet and focused during presentations by Baldacci and Wentworth and others, including Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center at the University of Maine in Orono, they were eager at breaks, meals and other sessions to interact with other designers.

Dan Buchner, vice president at Design Continuum, international design consultants, told stories about design problems, solutions and business implications in El Salvador, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

“In all three cases, there was no new infrastructure, techniques or materials,” said Buchner, who is based in Boston. “It was about using design in a different way. You have to demonstrate the power of design. When you do, manufacturers then pay attention. The state of Maine may be an exception, but governments don’t get [design], and manufacturers don’t appreciate it. The way to convince people in positions of producing things is to demonstrate success.”

It’s not enough to achieve self-expression or proliferation of cultural traditions, added Buchner. To be effective, you have to design things other people want.

“Take what is unique here and find a way that applies to a broader audience – a Maine twist on an everyday thing as opposed to exporting something historically unique,” he said. “It’s the same in Maine as in El Salvador: How do we take something intrinsically interesting and apply it in a way that has mass appeal?”

Buchner showed slides of a frilly kitchen apron worn by Salvadoran housewives. It wouldn’t sell in a mass market in the U.S., he said. So Salvadoran designers extracted elements and came up with nine other apron designs sellable to a larger market.

“I came away from Haystack feeling there’s a lot of similarity in the needs of creators and manufacturers and a lot of similarity of problems, too,” said Stephen Hammann, owner of The BedWorks of Maine, which is based in Bangor and has a showroom in Brewer. The company has about two dozen employees and sells about 3,000 or more pieces of furniture a year to stores as close as L. L. Bean in Freeport and as far away as Washington State.

“Mostly, the time at Haystack was about finding out that there are people around the state who are design professionals,” he said. “It reinforced the concept that there are a lot of creative people in Maine, and how important that is to little manufacturers and what we do. Whether the others were making furniture, weaving or making jewelry, you saw how good people were at creating.”

Hammann, a native of New Jersey, graduated from UM with an art degree and immediately started applying lifelong carpentry skills to building bed frames and futon frames. Eventually he designed a camp bed, which became the company’s most popular product. It remains what designers call a “bread and butter” product to this day. Hammann said Maine branding is important to the identity of his products, all of which are built from Maine materials. As a designer, he also values the quiet, beauty and the space his adopted state offers.

“What designers do might want to leave the state,” Hammann said, “but the world is anxious for new design and insatiable for new design, and you can do that here.” For the next generation of young entrepreneurs, he quickly added: “You’ve got to keep to it. Even for Bill Gates, it was hard at times. But you have to press on if design is really in your blood.”

The day after the retreat, Kestenbaum put the same thought this way: “What these people shared was a belief in the thing they’re doing. They are people who wanted to go after something and did.”

Alicia Anstead can be reached at 990-8266 and

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