This piece is a part of our Craft in Conversation Series. Other installments include a conversation with the beloved craftsman who makes our Stump and Trunk Collection, an exploration of sustainable forestry practices in Maine, and a deep dive into furniture production in our home city of Los Angeles.
By now, we all know that “Made in America” is rare — but made in America, by hand, and at scale, is virtually extinct. Today, it is the perfection of form, the steady hand of generational knowledge, and the conscious selection of materials and production practices that feels most novel, even sometimes verging on radical.
Within the world of American craft traditions, Mennonite design is often overlooked or relegated to a folk art categorization. Mennonites are a modest people who tend to prefer to let their work speak for them. The history of craftsmanship and furniture-making within this community, here in the United States, dates to the late 17th and early 18th centuries when Mennonites began migrating from Eastern Europe to rural Pennsylvania and Ohio. They settled in agrarian enclaves, bringing with them strong traditions of craftsmanship that flowed from their religious beliefs that emphasized simplicity, community, pacifism, and a strong work ethic. They built their homes and furniture by hand using local materials like oak, cherry, and walnut hardwoods.
Over the course of some three hundred years, Mennonite craft has become synonymous with quality, holding true to its core tenets. Steadfastly functional, with a preference for practicality and durability rather than adornment, Mennonite craftsmanship transcends time and place. Today, precision machining is allowed (Mennonites are widely considered more ‘modern’ than the Amish), though hand tools are frequently used.
About a decade ago, we crossed paths with this community while searching for production partners who met Kalon’s exacting standards of craft and who we felt could bring our designs to life with care. These types of decisions are part of our broader ecosystem of impact, and finding production partners is the most challenging thing we do. These relationships are incredibly special and hard won.
Eric, one of the craftsmen we work with in Lancaster County, PA says that the success of a design hinges on whether the piece is equal parts functional, practical, durable, and beautiful. “I really can’t feel good about what I am building if any of these four traits are missing,” he tells us. This is furniture made with the utmost intention, to be long-lasting and well-loved. “I want to be able to produce pieces that are carefully crafted and built in such a way that they can be truly enjoyed—not particularly precious pieces that cannot be touched for fear of smudging them, but pieces that wear well and get better with time and age,” Eric shares. He especially loves looking at a finished piece and feeling confident that it “will be enjoyed by others for many years, and hopefully generations to come.”
Mennonite woodworking and furniture craft itself is a generational pursuit. Pieces are made by small groups of master craftsmen working out of dedicated community woodworking shops. Children are allowed to spend time in these workshops, often perched at the end of workbenches belonging to family members. Fathers teach their sons some of the skills, handing off more significant tasks as time goes on.
“Woodworking is so interwoven into the fabric of life,” Eric tells us. “I was often in the shop while I was still in a stroller, and as a little boy spent many an afternoon on the end of his work bench watching. As the years went by, there was more and more that I could help with. Everything I have learned, I have [my father] to thank.” He continues, “As the years went by, I loved the feel of sawdust on my hands, the hum of a router, and the fluffy shavings flying.”
Another craftsman, Levi, can’t help but see Mennonite craft as a fitting ambassador for his community: “The solid wood and high quality craftsmanship is parallel to the solid ethics and moral values that our community represents,” he shares. It is precisely this fusion that makes him optimistic: “There is a future in manufacturing both beautiful and durable furniture.”
In the right hands, we know that simple can be sublime and that intention can be transformative. Mennonite skill and artisanry is in a class of its own, but beyond that, our partnership helps preserve a uniquely American craft tradition. The fact that this tradition is one that champions quality, focuses on the careful use of local materials, and supports multi generational knowledge, makes it all the more special.