Studio Quirks & Favourite Trees: An Interview with Rural Kind

 

Interview led by: Walter Cabal  |  cabalcrafted.com

FEATURED ARTISTS:
Mike and Nia of Rural Kind

Rural Kind are designers and makers of simple, functional and gently rugged waxed canvas and leather carry goods, made for everyday adventuring and built to last. At the core of our designs is a love of simple clean lines, considered detailing, and functionality. Everything is made entirely by our hands, from the first stitch to the last hand hammered copper rivet from carefully and ethically sourced predominantly British materials, in our workshop in rural Wales.

Follow Rural Kind's journey:
www.ruralkind.com   |  @ruralkind

Wow! I get to actually chat with you. Rural Kind is one of my faves, and I’ve been following your operation for a year or two now. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and and familiarize our readers with both your educational background and Nia’s and how it influences your work in Rural Kind.

Hi Walter - really good to be able to chat to you too and thanks so much for inviting us to take part in this interview. I (Mike) am going to be answering most of these questions, so when I say 'I' it's me - Mike, I find it so hard to write in the third person. Nia will be just Nia and she's ok that I talk about her here - they're mostly joint answers, but it's easiest if this comes from one of us.

So as a brief introduction, we are Mike & Nia, husband and wife, 'parents' to a couple of scruffy dogs and a couple of years ago we started Rural Kind. I (Mike) am a trained architect but have always been interested in making things - I think it's a family trait passed down from my Dad. Watching and helping him make just about anything when I was young obviously rubbed off on me. I think my architectural background, and general involvement in the field of design, has helped to grow and refine a love of simple clean lines, elegant construction details and an interest in the relationships between built structures and nature. This all sounds a bit too modernist, so I should also say that I have a love for traditional and humble Welsh vernacular architecture. Small, ancient cottages built of stone, slate, timber and thatch and built by local craftsman are perhaps my favourite!

Nia studied archaeology (quite a while ago now), and I'm not sure that her archaeology roots have had much influence on the years since. She still digs quite a bit in the garden, but for vegetables instead of gold and bones! What she does share though is a mutual love of the outdoors and simple, functional design. And, although she would refute this (it's in her nature), she's a driving force behind Rural Kind. Rural Kind wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her fearlessness of being self-employed, and her 'have a go' attitude.

A favourite tree.

A favourite tree.

Architect + Archaeologist – sounds like an iconic team. I get the impression that both of you are very inspired by nature. The Welsh hills where you make your waxed canvas backpacks, and entirely leather accessories seem very tied to the land. The picturesque landscape can be really impressive outlays of hills, and undulating fields from the pictures that I've seen. It’s easy to see how those things can be inspiring - as people who value details, I'm sure you've come across the notion that not all beauty is found in impressive things, and that there are many things also full of beauty, and inspiration that are small, overlooked, and even deemed as "ordinary". Can you tell us about some of these things in your lives? Things that only you would notice either in the outdoor landscape because you're so familiar with the land, or in your workshop because you're so intimate with it? Perhaps focusing on the overlooked things will allow for a more personal insight on the breadth of beauty that inspires Rural Kind.

Interesting, this one. Actually, although we regularly post photos of the rural Welsh countryside; we are most often drawn towards the smaller details of the landscape. Maybe we don't post photos of these observations, or even capture them at all, as they're a bit obscure, harder to capture and a lot of the time maybe the mood or personal relationship to the detail might not be conveyed so well. But it is very much this rich assortment of small and ordinary details that define the character of a place for us, and draw us to the outdoors over and over again. It might be a pattern of lichen on a lump of stone built up over decades, or a rusty but elegant gate, made by the hand of a local blacksmith a century ago, or the way the early morning light catches a dewy spiders web. We have favourite local trees too! Ones that have a bit more character than others, or that define a turning point on regular walking routes.

There are small details and stories that could be told about the workshop too. Furniture that used to belong to a grandparent, old tools passed down from parents that have found a new use on our workbench. A window that used to be a doorway, through which a horse used to pass on it's way into it's stable. You wouldn't know it unless you were told, but to us they all bring character and warmth to a space that might otherwise be cold and uninteresting.

I’m intrigued. Can you tell me the story about this these?

In the workshop we have a couple of pieces of furniture that have been passed down from Nia's grandparents. The first is an old kitchen table, which we now use as a leatherworking bench.  It used to sit in Nia's Gran's kitchen in a small 1920's bungalow in North London. It was only a small kitchen, but it was always warm and homely and very much the heart of the house. The table's really nothing special in terms of it's design or heritage (I would guess it's early to mid 20th century), and it has a thin sheet of light blue melamine, tacked to its surface by Nia's Granddad to protect the wood. When Nia's Gran died in 2014 and the bungalow was sold, we welcomed the table into the workshop - I think it may have even been our first piece of workshop furniture! I've strengthened it with a plywood brace to stop it wobbling around quite so much, but otherwise it's completely unchanged.

Sitting on top of the table and perhaps more alluring than the table itself is a set of small wooden drawers with cast iron handles. These were up in the attic space of Nia's grandparents bungalow and sat next to her Granddad's wood working bench. He would often go and spend time up there, nestled beneath the rafters, sat at his workbench carving a candlestick, or an elephant, or making himself a guitar. The set of drawers housed a few of his tools, together with nails, screws and rivets. The drawers were probably salvaged from an old London shop and you'd imagine that they used to hold loose leaf tea, or something similar. We use the drawers to hold our brass hardware and open and close them on a daily basis, their past uses and users never that far from our minds.

As for the tools, alongside the tools that we've purchased over the past couple of years (some new, some vintage), we have a handful of metal wad punches passed down from Nia's Dad. He was a metal worker, welder, fabricator and general fixer of farm machinery, and now spends quite a bit of his retirement renovating vintage tractors. He no longer had a use for the punches (he has a life-longs accumulation of tools - really anything you could imagine), and they were just what we needed for punching out leather washers and other small holes in leather and canvas.


In your bio you mention that you want to be closer to the objects in your everyday life and that you want:

"To return to a more sustainable time when quality and craftsmanship were valued over the mass produced and poorly constructed. To know the person who creates the everyday object, and the care and time that is involved in that process."

It's refreshing to hear that you're not reaching for an overall blurry notion that things were better "back then" in a time where essentially everything was perfect but instead of specific things to reach back to. I like that you're interested in reaching back specifically for a revaluing of quality workmanship and back to literally knowing your maker, your artisan, more than we do now. I want to explore this a little bit. Can you give us some examples so that our readers can latch images onto the ideas?

I don't think there is any particular thing or tale to tell - just a gradual change in our feelings towards the mass-produced, disposable, plastic and undependable; a shift towards wanting things to last for a long time, for quality and individuality; and at the same time a shift towards a less cluttered lifestyle, both physically and mentally (although we'll be the first to admit we're by no means there yet!). Through all of this, a leaning, or growth towards valuing the fewer things we own or use in our daily lives. Having a closer relationship with these functional objects allows us to appreciate them more, to think about how they were made and who made them.

Simple things like a hand carved walnut scoop we use daily to measure out ground coffee. Just holding it connects you with the hands of the maker and their making process - it's so much more pleasurable and fulfilling to feel that connection. Feeling a few light grooves, or undulations on the surface that relate directly to the tools used to carve it.

Another example, that always comes to mind, is that of a traditional welsh cottage, with thick stone walls, a slate roof, and timber windows (not that we have one yet - but we've visited plenty and we're working on it!) - Simple materials, chosen for their ease of availability and durability. Built by local craftsman and even the farmers themselves, with care, thought and purpose, nothing unnecessary except for maybe a date carved into an old oak beam. Each cottage largely similar in function, but adapted to suit its individual setting or what materials were the most available on or around the land it was built on. We admire these buildings for their honesty of materials, simple construction, humble nature and charm, a lot of which comes from the craftspeople that built them. We'd love it if we could just channel a small part of that into our bag and leather making.


Can you tell us a little bit about the studio where you work? Is it part of your home, or is it away? Here's something fun that I'd love to start doing - I'm going to close my minds eyes right now (you can join in if you'd like) and imagine walking through your studio. Can you describe it to me? Where do the windows face, what time of day is it, what would I probably smell, and hear, and what are some objects that I might overlook?  Feel free to go into the kind of detail you want to. My hope is to be able to see the studio from your eyes.

This is fun! We're going to try and walk you through the workshop, it's not big so it shouldn't take long. Our workshop is in a partly converted stone barn that - as referred to earlier - used to be a stable for the horses that worked the land. There is a small, unconverted part of the barn that is used as a garden store that still has its cobbled floor, but we have painted concrete in our half. The barn belongs to Nia's parents and was converted into a sewing room roughly 30 years ago for Nia's mum. The barn sits across a farmyard from the old farmhouse where we lodge with Nia's parents. It's not a permanent arrangement, but allows us time and some financial flexibility to build the business whilst searching for a small place of our own. So it's about a 30 second walk to work, but long enough to get drenched if it's raining hard, and long enough to say hello to the ducks or to watch the swallows darting around the stone and slate buildings.

We enter the workshop through an unassuming timber door. Visitors tell us that as soon as you walk in you are confronted with the deep, earthy smell of our oak bark tanned leather, but unfortunately as we've grown used to it the smell is much less obvious. On your right is my architecture desk and drawing board a space that also houses a spare sewing machine, a couple of underused surfboards and piles of cardboard packaging boxes - it's definitely a multi functional space. The workshop is long and thin, with a concrete floor, rough rendered walls and three west-facing windows. When you come in the door you see straight ahead through the first of these windows through to a grass lawn beyond with a small willow tree and beyond that a vegetable garden.

We use the area in front of this first window for taking product photos as it has the best light and the most space in front of it, although later in the day when the sun swings round it can get a bit bright. There isn't a whole lot of spare room so if you turn left a little you walk straight into the sewing area, partly in front of the second window. We have three old industrial sewing machines. A regular walking foot machine, our first machine and where we spend most of our time sewing. A cylinder arm walking foot machine which allows us to sew some of the more intricate parts of a bag, and lastly an industrial serger picked up for free from the other side of the country. All the machines are a bit old and battered, but they made them good and strong way back when!

On the opposite side of the room to the sewing machines is our leatherworking bench, where most of our tools, templates and brass hardware is kept. It's an old repurposed kitchen table from Nia's Gran and next to that, still on the left, the dark side of the room,  is a super heavy duty fly press which we use for stamping leather.

Beyond the sewing machines and leather workbench is our cutting table with rolls of fabric and leather stored beneath. It's about as big a table as we could fit in the space, but nearly all our projects revolve around this table. We can walk around three sides of the table, with the far edge of the table being up against the end wall of the workshop. Standing at the cutting table we can look out of the last of the three windows with the same, but somehow slightly different view of trees, lawn and vegetables. Sometimes we get a Blue Tit that pecks at the window (or maybe it's after the spiders that seem to inhabit the external window reveal). On summer days it's this window that we open wide to bring the smells and sounds of summer right into the workshop.  


As a Filipino / Japanese, American immigrant - my grandparents were always waking up early gardening, and my father always planting, and tilling soil - and the integration of nature within my own life has been directly influenced by this. Since, I'm deeply interested in different cultures and ways of seeing the world, can you tell me a little about the historical Welsh culture and if any of those attitudes, stories, or traditions toward nature influence your relationship with the landscape around you? Do you find any spiritual solace in nature?

Wales has a distinct culture with it's own language, still spoken in large parts of the country, with a strong tradition of music and poetry (not to mention the fierce battles, castles, druids and dragons!). The culture has always been closely tied to the land and many of the poems and songs written and sung relate to the beauty of its hills and mountains and its farming traditions.

It's a passionate nation too, formed in tight working class communities from an industrial past of coal mining in the south (where we are), and slate mining in the north. Industries that dominated the country, from the 1800's right up until the second half of the 20th century.

To an extent this culture and connection to the landscape is largely still present in the rural, predominantly farming community where we live, but it is a little more beneath the surface than perhaps it once was. I think our love of the outdoors, nature and the welsh landscape probably comes more from our own upbringings, and from our search for quiet, remote, peaceful space (we'll talk a bit more about that later). Nia's grandparents and parents farmed the land surrounding the house and workshop, so as a child Nia would spend most of the time outside surrounded by animals and nature. As a child, I would spend most of my spare time outside, whether that be up a tree, in the sea or on camping trips.

So the outdoors and nature have always been a constant in our lives. Being out in the wider welsh landscape, or even just walking the sheep fields surrounding the house, brings us a sense of calm. It's where we relax, clear our minds and chat about new ideas. And we come back to the workshop with a more focused frame of mind.


Here's something I don't want to assume ha, are you in a relationship or are you strictly a design/craft business pair? In any case, my interviews in the past are mostly with single person artisans, or makers, I’ve only done one other interview with a tag team par. In which ways do you compliment each other, and in which ways do you contrast each other?

So - yes we are married and have been for 7 years but we first met and got together about 17 years ago, so the marriage thing was more a formality (not that we're cynical about marriage, it's just we don't feel that it's that necessary for us). We have always worked on different projects and jobs in the past and had wanted for a number of years to work on something together - and Rural Kind was our first opportunity to do this. Broadly speaking, I do the leatherwork, Nia sews the canvas.  I do the design work, and Nia does the computer stuff - marketing, emails, accounts etc. However in reality we combine for most things, in particular when we're working on a new bag, working on a batch of bags in the workshop, (or trying to think of an overall marketing strategy - which we're really not that good at).

It's not always plain sailing though - I will admit to not sharing ideas floating around my head when I probably should and I can be pretty rubbish at communicating these with Nia. But on the whole we bounce ideas back and forth and it works in some kind of productive union.


It's difficult making a living as a small manufacturer. There can be a disjoint between how awesome everything looks in presentation versus how practical it is to sustain the project. To give some insight to our readers (and me included) do you find more of your income resulting from direct online sales, or elsewhere e.g.: wholesale relationships, drop ship, craft fairs etc? It's most likely some kind of combination, but where is Rural Kind focusing its energy at the moment? Do you juggle other endeavours for supplemental income? Are there any fruits of wisdom that you'd care to give to our readers who may be interested in continuing their own small manufacturing business that you wish someone might've given to you?

So at the moment we, probably have a 50 / 50 split between income from collaborative projects and sales direct through our website. We've collaborated on designs for a few carefully chosen businesses (like The Future Kept and Another Escape), which have allowed our goods and brand to be seen by a much greater audience than we could have achieved on our own. We don't sell any of our goods straight wholesale as we just can't get the margins to work, so these collaborations due to their nature as a shared objective, offer a better and maybe fairer split of the profit margin (in our eyes anyway).

Our day-to-day focus is on direct sales from our website. It's where we really plan on most of our sales coming from in the future. We do attend the occasional craft fair or show (maybe a couple a year), but more just as an experiment and a way of getting out there a bit.

Although our objective is that Rural Kind will be a full-time business for the both of us, we're not there yet. At present we both work part-time with additional income coming from architecture projects and Nia's part-time seasonal job at the National Trust. We're quite happy to have a mixed income and it's likely that in the future we'll always have some kind of side project going on at the same time as Rural Kind, it's how we've always been.

Honestly we feel that we're way too new in this world of self-employment and bag / leather making to be qualified for giving any advice, but we know one thing that is more important than most, and that is to just give it a go. You just don't know if something will work until you give it a try. Financially it maybe a bit uncertain, but really, if it's fulfilling, gives you an opportunity to be creative and there's just a chance that it could work long-term, then just give it a go.

I'm going to fanboy, a little here, ha! From what I have seen on your website and Instagram, Rural Kind exemplifies a way of living that I'm personally very passionate about - it's a way of living that's overall slower, and less cluttered than perhaps what the modern world suggests is "normal". Can you tell me about some of the hurdles and challenges you come across as you strive for this simpler way of living? Who are some of your inspirations that help you ground your ideas, and remind you this way of living is valuable, and feasible and doable? (family, friends, other designers and non-designers, etc...). My hope is that our readers are able to sense that living at a different rhythm is realistic.

Ah, that's really kind of you to say. I think as we're both quite introverted people we naturally seek out quieter, simpler and less busy places. So it almost comes directly from that that we crave a less cluttered space and way of living.  We both read quite a lot and enjoy walking too, both activities (for want of a better word) that are quiet, slow and give time for thought and reflection. They can both be really good times for creative thinking too.

So although we don't read up about the philosophy behind a slower way of living, or even look that much to others for inspiration, it's more about just finding out what works for us, mentally and creatively. Valuing quiet time, appreciating the small and simple things in life, not feeling the need to fill our lives, time and space, with unnecessary clutter. As I think I said earlier -  we're not all the way there yet though. We still have a certain amount of clutter, and still get worked up about deadlines, and we have times of feeling uncertain or unfulfilled too like anyone else, but we're learning to be ok with that.


What a pleasure to uncover all this treasure with you. Please continue what you and Nia are doing with Rural Kind and your lives, and know that there are many (like myself) who are pretty inspired by not just what you do but by how you live - my hope is that people are able to know that living slowly and simply is a realistic way to live. Thank you guys so much for foraging that way. I'm leaving inspired.

Really glad to hear that our words were well received by you, it was really good fun to delve a little deeper than usual, and to share it with you was a pleasure!


AUTHOR

Walter Cabal, Writer & Content Specialist

Walter gravitates toward the deep end of the pool. Many times he finds that depth in his conversations with people and many other times he finds it in the long silences at work as the product designer for Cabal Crafted. 

He tends to drive in the slow lane, talks to trees and animals, and frequently finds poetry in ordinary life. He earned his BA in philosophy from the University of California, Riverside. Walter and his wife Alicia live near the arts district in pomona, CA.

Follow Walter at: @cabalcrafted & @waltercabal


Interested in an interview with Maker’s Movement? We love hearing your stories!

Drop Walter an email with some details about you and your craft: hello@makersmovement.ca

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