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American Made Series: Will Lisak

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Will Lisak is the Maker behind ETWAS bags. The ETWAS project combines artisanal leather design, low impact business, and consistent design values.

How and when did you start the company?          
I founded ETWAS in 2009, after finishing a degree in design. I had made a leather bag and so many people that I met asked me to make them one like it. The reaction was so strong that I decided I needed to pursue it; I haven’t looked back since.

What’s the story behind the name?
Etwas is the word “something” in German. I like the name because good design is not just about having a beautiful product, but designing a beautiful process. The products we make are just “somethings”. It’s how we go about producing and employing ourselves that is important.

You take great care to explain your project statement on your site. Can you sum it up for us and tell us about the creative forces behind it?
With ETWAS, I want the product to come from a beautiful and graceful system. Every part functions well and is meaningful, from our workbenches to our windows to the tools we use.

What brought you to sustainable design?
Sustainability has always been a big part of my life. My parents were back to the land homesteaders in the 70’s and I grew up on a small organic farm. They taught us to use our hands, be creative thinkers, and to enjoy and be stewards of the land. I worked on traditional sailing ships, which utilize clean technology and offer a really beautiful way of doing things. I also worked on a larger organic farm where I would bike to work in the morning. I decided I would only work a job that would be that healthy and rewarding.

 

You call the company “light and mobile.” Where does most of your work happen?
We use mostly hand tools and traditional methods, this is what we mean by light and mobile. We don’t have a lot of heavy equipment. Our studio is a place for people to work, not a factory to house machines. We also use small tool bench/boxes that allow us to work anywhere, so a person can work from home if they want to. There’s something refreshing in that hardy, lasting things can be made with such light production.

You offer free repairs for life (!). What are other key elements that set an ETWAS bag apart?
Quality materials and quality workmanship. We use the best domestic vegetable tanned leather and we use time-honored methods to assemble. We use two-needle saddle stitching in a recessed groove for our seams, which is nearly indestructible. Our products are made to stand the test of time and it’s important to me that we stand behind that with a warranty like the ones companies used to offer.

How long does it take to craft a bag from start to finish?
It depends greatly on who is sewing it! For me, it takes five hours.

You ask customers to email you directly, since “anonymity is over-rated.” Has this approach reaped any interesting results?
Oh, yes. We’re going to launch an e-cart option soon, but I hope people will still write to us. We’ve heard from people in every corner of the globe, and have sold to all kinds of customers  – from award-winning actors to men working the ranches of Australia.

Has your vision for the company grown or morphed over time?
Yes and no. I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I started out with an overly idealistic mindset, and I’ve had a crash course in business over the last few years. Now that I’ve hit my stride, I’m seeing that the best way forward is not so different from what I first imagined.

Who are makers that inspire you?
I’m really inspired by traditional craftsmen like George Nakashima as well as by digital craftspeople, the coders and designers that make this whole craft revival possible. They allow small-scale makers to compete with large companies and share their stories with the world. I’m also inspired by other new makers, like John Neeman, a great blacksmith in rural Estonia, who is equally adept with hammer and anvil as with a camera and laptop to share his craft.

Have you received any key pieces of advice along the way?
Yes, a successful businessperson once told me that the key to success at anything is to always be in love. No matter what you’re pursuing, be in love with it.

What do you consider your biggest success so far?
That I’ve made this all work! Every day things are getting better, our product is more refined, our production more efficient. I love that I’m able to wake up and do this every day.

Your toughest challenge?
Making careful choices. We’re often presented with opportunities, collaborations, special projects, some things that would make us grow too quickly. We have to keep walking rather than try to sprint over unknown and unsteady terrain and risk falling.

Certain albums, a morning coffee ritual … what gets you in the creative mood while you work?
We are really blessed that we work with hand tools. Our work is largely quiet and focused, which is perfect for listening to audiobooks, podcasts, and radio programs. I love that my body can be at work and my mind can be learning or enveloped in a novel.

What do you hope the future brings?
We are working on launching the first in a series of new designs that are scalable; the customer will be able to change the dimensions to match his/her needs. This is really exciting to me, because no two people are alike, and no two people carry the same things. In the old days, a craftsperson would make every product for the exact needs of the user, and now, thanks to digital technology, we’re going to be able to bring that back in a viable way.

Maeve Nicholson is a contributing editor at Martha Stewart Living. Follow her on Instagram.com @maeverz.

(photos: Hazel Kiesewetter, Steven Gerlich)

 

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