In the Bag

In the Bag

Wendy Stevens La Camisa

La Camisa, 2012; etched stainless steel in red finish, leather; 8 x 14 x 1.25 in. Photo: Kate Lacey

Wendy Stevens’ metal purses – some whimsical, some dainty, some sleek and classic – are all exquisitely designed and crafted. But her original spark wasn’t Calder, Chanel, or some other fashion or art-world icon; it was the muscular, industrial world of manhole covers, construction zones, and subway cars.

Stevens, 56, grew up in Cleveland, home of U.S. Steel, and then worked as a teacher on the West Coast. She moved to New York with friends in the 1980s, stepping into the wide-open East Village art scene. There she began noticing sheet metal all around her.

In the spirit of the times, without a day of training, she started putting things together. “I sat down in my apartment and literally took a hammer and a nail and put a hole in a piece of copper,” says the soft-spoken artist. “I put a snap on it, and I wrapped it around a railing and I thought, wow, cool. I can make something like this.”

She describes her first pieces as crooked, awkward constructions. “I started going to the hardware store and asking lots of questions. My landlord had a plumbing contracting service, so when I would run into the guys, sometimes I would ask, ‘Hey, can you show me how to solder this?’”

Her first big break came within a few years, when a buyer at Henri Bendel’s saw her sheet metal purses at an open vendor day. “She said, ‘I want three of each’; it took me all summer to make them.” It was a great start, though she had many uphill years after that. She sold through small shops in the East Village; later, designer Lewis Dolin noticed her work and became a true believer – and her sales rep. (He also introduced her to her husband, a furniture designer, who, she says, “has been at my side the whole time.”)

She has since gone on to exhibit at craft shows, including ACC, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Smithsonian events. Her work is in galleries and museum stores, including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In 2010 the Tassenmuseum in Amsterdam (the English translation is “Museum of Bags and Purses”) mounted a solo exhibition of her full collection. She also sells through design shops and boutiques, since her work is sui generis. “There’s no reference point for it, in a way,” she says. “It’s design, fashion, craft. It crosses borders – like I like to do.”

She’s also been able to turn adversity to her advantage. Stevens and her husband, a Pennsylvania native, moved to his home state in the 1990s, eventually settling about 45 miles from Philadelphia. She had been working out of a converted stone barn for several years when, in 2004, a fire swept through her studio.

It was a total loss – equipment, years of work, everything. As Stevens began to rebuild, it proved to be a turning point. Starting from scratch gave her the chance to explore new methods, learning to etch the metal rather than sending it out for custom perforated patterns. That opened up more design possibilities, such as a wider range of shapes.

“If I hadn’t lost my whole studio, I probably never would have had time to learn something new,” she says.

She continues to cull inspiration from anywhere she finds it. Sometimes, she seeks to meet a need, as with her new Pocket piece that fits the iPhone. Other items find their genesis in more unexpected sources. The inspiration for her Fan bag, for example: “Hot flashes,” she says with a laugh. 

She’s also excited about her recent forays into color, both in the metal itself and the leather inserts, and is thrilled with recent media recognition; her pieces have been featured in Spanish Vogue and in W Magazine.

“It comes from being in the right place at the right time,” she says modestly. “I’ve got some good things going. The best thing is a table full of orders to do.”
 

Watch a video interview with Wendy Stevens. Judy Arginteanu is a freelance writer and American Craft’s copy editor.