Erica Gordon of Steel Toe Studios didn't plan to be a blacksmith. An artist, yes: Her father is a full-time woodworker who makes spoons, her sister does ceramics, her mother is an avid supporter of the arts. Gordon's been hustling at American Craft Council shows since she was 8 years old. But it was Penland School of Crafts that turned her into a blacksmith, she says.
After earning her BFA from the University of New Mexico, Gordon received a two-week work-study scholarship to the North Carolina craft mecca in 1997. She listed jewelry as her first choice for a class; blacksmithing was second - and what she got.
It was love at first forge. She spent the next six years apprenticing, learning all she could and picking up work along the way, primarily architectural ironwork. When one of the people she was working for went on a trip, Gordon had a month alone in the studio. She made her first belt buckle. "It was one of those ‘out of desperation came a huge amount of creativity' acts," she says. Six weeks later, she had her first wholesale order.
As a one-woman Seattle-based shop (with occasional assistant help), Gordon now produces a variety of handmade buckles out of forged steel and cast pewter. She also makes lustrous dyed leather belts and has experimented with steel housewares. Her designs are urban but refined, hard-edged but whimsical. Blacksmiths are renegades, she says, accustomed to mixing it up; working in a field where you can make your tools and improvise your methods is what keeps her job interesting.
Her latest line is a series of "initial buckles," blocky modern monograms with bold single letters set against patterned backgrounds. The font is Eames Century Modern from House Industries. The inspiration, she says, came from the shows she does out West, home of the personalized (and often oversized) belt buckle. Cowboys would check out her earlier stuff, but it wasn't quite their style. So she decided to design a line in honor of their storied aesthetic.
It won't be her first case of crossover appeal. In addition to participating in ACC and other high-end juried shows (including Origin in London), Gordon does indie craft events such as Seattle's Urban Craft Uprising and the Renegade Craft fairs in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Then there are the shows with designboom.com in New York and Copenhagen. She does between eight and 15 shows every year, and her buckles tend to sell well across the board.
It may seem paradoxical, but sticking to commercial production - rather than pursuing, say, architectural commissions - has given her a lot of artistic freedom, Gordon says. "It's your design; you just put it out there," she says. "If people like it, they buy it." The freedom has allowed her to hew closely to her shop's mission: using recycled and reclaimed materials and sustainable processes to create quality handmade products.
This past summer, Gordon returned again to Penland - this time as a teacher. During her week-long class "Forage and Forge," she took her students to a junkyard to collect random metal items. They returned to the classroom and figured out how to work with them. "It turned into a little bit of a free-for-all, but I wasn't teaching traditional, step-by-step blacksmithing," she says. "I wanted to show people how loose the boundaries can be, working with steel."
Julie K. Hanus is senior editor of American Craft.