Handcrafting a career where art, community, and commerce meet.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
If you frequent a certain type of store in Toronto, you’ve likely already admired Kalpna Patel’s work. She creates lavish, immersive window displays for independent businesses (think Type Books, Crown Flora, or Articulations)‚ and her imaginative scenes go above and beyond the usual product display. She’s come up with science-inspired goodies for the Hamilton Supercrawl, dressed tables for the Walrus’s annual gala, and given budding crafters hands-on lessons during children’s workshops at the Harbourfront Centre.
A longtime jewellery maker and crafter under the name Old Weston, Patel started designing windows at Type Books—she’s been dreaming up elaborate and celebratory window displays for authors and their books since 2011. She’s also the event decorator at Toronto’s wildly popular City of Craft events.
But Patel isn’t resting on her handcrafted laurels. “I’d love to explore less conventional spaces. A deli or a hardware store would be amazing,” she says when asked about her plans for the future. “I also want to do city-block-length window installations in other neighbourhoods in Toronto, and get other artists on board and make it a performative experience somehow.”
Our interview with Patel—about Venus flytraps, Pinterest, and the rewards and challenges of crafting—is below.
Torontoist: Tell me about the process of designing a window display: How do you work up a theme? How do you collaborate with clients? How much time goes into it?
Kalpna Patel: Each project varies from storefront to storefront in terms of concept and process. At Type, I’m usually inspired by a particular book or collection of books, and the design and content of those titles determine how the display is going to look. Other times, I get an idea in my head for something I just feel like making or experimenting with—Hot air balloons! Paper scarves! Three-dimensional models of plant cells!—and start with that. I work with a handful of independently run small businesses that specialize in local, handmade goods, and there I’m inspired by the design, philosophy, overall aesthetic, and product selection of each shop. Last fall, Adam and Davis at Crown Flora in Parkdale posted a cute Instagram video of Venus flytraps they had just gotten in the shop, and I decided I absolutely had to make a gigantic man-eating, Little Shop of Horrors–style flytrap for their window in time for Halloween. I usually spend at least 30 hours constructing all the components that go into a display, and about six to eight hours installing it—that doesn’t include the week or so of running around gathering supplies, researching and sketching things out, making samples and prototypes, and generally messing around until I figure out exactly what I’m doing.
You have a lot of different crafting outlets—jewellery, window displays, prints, and more. Does the creative well ever run dry?
The range of stuff I work on and the frequency of the ever-changing storefronts make it a challenge to come up with something new every month, or every season. Time and space restrictions mean I can only work on a couple projects at time, which means a lot of ideas sit on the back burner for months if not years. I always feel like I’ve got something waiting to happen. When I do get stuck, it’s usually a sign of overwork and burnout, or an indication that I’m not truly excited about the project. Most of the time, I have the opposite problem: I’m so overwhelmed with things I want to do that I don’t know where to start. Too many ideas can be just as crippling as a creative slump.
I’ll never forget a tweet you posted that read, “I call dibs on an underwater/ocean/coral reef Christmas theme all you other craft bitches step off.” It made me laugh, but it also made think about how layered crafting has become: it’s got feminist implications, competitive edges, and professional outlets. Do you find this kind of work complicated?
Oh, man, so many feelings! I’m constantly wrestling with questions like: Is it wrong to want to make money doing this kind of work? Should I be collaborating more and doing more community-focused work instead of dicking around alone in my studio? Why should I expect anyone to pay any attention to what I’m doing? Should I spend more time planning events and shows that would allow others in the craft community to show and sell work instead of doing my own thing?
Craft gets weird when it becomes your main income stream. You have to constantly be doing something different, and something that cannot be easily replicated, if you want it to be rewarding as well as pay some bills. That’s what that tweet was getting at. It was also alluding to the pressure of running a small business and having to take advantage of things like Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and other occasions I don’t necessarily feel any attachment to—because that’s when you’re most likely to get or sell work. Since the craft world is so easily and quickly saturated with trendy things, you really need to step up your game if you decide this is how you’re going to support yourself by making work that is meaningful to you that doesn’t feel like Put A Bird On It–style selling out. Craft is both community and commerce, but sometimes those two things are hard to reconcile.
And then there are the class and cultural implications of doing this kind of thing for a living. I don’t come from a family of creatives or entrepreneurs; my background is very working-class and pragmatic. My folks worked long, labour-intense hours at low-paying jobs in factories, my father as a machinist and my mother doing sweatshop-style piecework. To them, and to me growing up, a job was something to be endured. So obviously, I feel like a total jerk perched in my little studio making dinky necklaces or a dozen papier-mâché bunny heads. Taking what could easily just have remained a hobby and hustling it into some kind of career was my way of justifying this kind of work. And while trying to make it financially sustainable makes me feel a bit less guilty, it also makes me feel a bit disingenuous and puts me in an awkward position in the community, where craft/art/making stuff is supposed to be its own reward.
With the rise of sites like Pinterest and Martha Stewart’s perpetual influence, I think a lot of people are starting to consider really high-end crafting the only “real” way to make things. As a person who makes a living doing what most Pinteresters can only dream of, what’s your take on that mindset?
I don’t like Pinterest. Or Martha. There, I said it. I guess it’s cool how Pinterest inspires so many people to make stuff and share ideas, but it’s “accessible” in a weird way. All those gorgeously styled photos and fixation on the final result don’t reflect the reality and pleasure of Craft: the experimenting and mucking about and process-driven nature of the work, the mess and the mistakes. Everything is made to look so easy on Pinterest, and if you can’t bang out a hot-water-bottle cozy in an afternoon, then you’re a moron. Clearly I’m projecting, but it really feels condescending! It does seem to encourage the idea that if you’re good at making something, then you should monetize it and make it your life. But beautifully photographed Sunday afternoon craft projects are one thing, and 84-hour work weeks, no drug plan, perpetually sore hands, and a work space worthy of a segment on Hoarders is another.
Demetri Martin once said that “glitter is the herpes of craft supplies,” which I tend to agree with any time I use it; it just lingers, forever. What trend or crafting supply are you just praying to go away?
I have glitter in my hair all the time. I’d love to see the scrapbooking industry meet its demise. That stuff is awful. All that 12×12 patterned cardstock and the pre-made templates and butterfly stickers and things that say “Best Friends!” on them. Burn it. Also Red Heart brand yarn needs to disappear, too. You’re better off swaddling a baby in garbage bags than crocheting a blanket and booties out of that synthetic crap.
What’s the best part of the job?
The best part about being a maker is how wholly it consumes your life. A 10-hour work day in the studio often ends with a couple more hours of making something else at home, or in the company of friends who are also craftspeople. Going a day without creating something is like going a day without eating. The best part about working on storefronts is just when you’re finishing up the installation—when you’re crouched in some awkward, contortionist style position trying to get the last thing in place and you realize that you’ve created a tiny, three-dimensional world that previously only existed in your mind or in your sketchbook. And for a moment, you feel like you’re sitting in a children’s picture book come to life. It doesn’t last long, but it’s pretty magical.