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Specialty Shops' Rule: Just So It's Handmade

July 22, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Orange County stores that feature folk art and handmade articles are a study in contrasts On one end of the scale is the tiny nonprofit Orange boutique called Third World Handarts; on the other is the burgeoning design and retail operation called Artisans. And scattered in the middle are stores and catalogue companies that sell an assortment of international crafts. What they all have in common is the emphasis on handmade merchandise.

Third World Handarts seems an unlikely neighbor to the warehouses and commercial buildings of North Anaheim Boulevard alongside the Santa Ana Freeway. Inside, the smell of jute from Bangladesh and wood crafts from El Salvador take the visitor far from the exhaust fumes and congestion of Southern California.

A nonprofit group, Third World Handarts works with other groups to help low-income villagers sell their handiwork, usually articles that these cultures have been creating for centuries. The craftsmen have been organized into cooperatives, generally by missionaries, Peace Corps workers or other volunteers, which sell to Third World Handarts. Working with more than 40 cooperatives in 17 countries, the group asks the cooperatives to set their own prices, to which Third World Handarts usually adds the cost of shipping plus one-third markup.

Director Lorie Mitzel says that more than half of the money earned is returned to the villagers. Last year, the group rang up $160,000 in sales, and $100,000 was returned to Third World artisans.

The merchandise consists of the villagers' everyday articles: woven Mayan handbags from Guatemala ($2.85 and $4); jute baskets from Bangladesh ($2 to $6); tablecloths from South Africa ($34), and alpaca sweaters from Bolivia ($63). Most of the items range from $5 to $25.

The brilliant threads of the Hmong (Laotian) wall hangings in the shop compete with the bright weaves of the ministers' stoles made by Guatemalans. One corner is filled with baskets and jute trays, another with dolls and children's clothes, and a small room holds greeting cards and literature about Third World programs and cooperatives.

"We are marketing for their benefit, not ours," Mitzel says. "We are helping them establish a trade rather than giving them handouts, and enabling the people to find dignity through employment."

On the other side of the retail coin is a chic operation called Artisans, which this month will open its fourth store. (The new store is in Palos Verdes; the others are in Corona del Mar, Santa Ana and Laguna Hills.) Launched 15 months ago by Herb Wilson and David Bober, Artisans features handmade articles from all over the world, with an emphasis on the works of professional artists and craftsmen. Wilson and Bober went into the imported crafts business when they found it difficult to find handwrought articles to furnish homes that they had purchased a few years ago.

"I'd go down to Mexico and South America to find things, and people kept asking me to bring back some for them," says Bober, who is a former fashion designer. "It became a hard act to continue, so we thought we'd go into business."

With its own staff of designers and artists, Artisans sells individual pieces or can coordinate entire homes or offices. The merchandise sources stretch around the globe: Spain, Morocco, Africa, Greece, South America, Mexico and the Philippines. Along with international handcrafts, the stores take custom orders on just about anything that their artists will create.

"The comment I hear most from the customers is, 'I didn't know I could get it custom-made,' " Bober says. "But it doesn't cost any more to get custom work done in Mexico or South America. That is the way they work. The hard part is getting six of the exact same thing."

Much of Artisans' custom work involves hand-carved stone table bases made by artists in Guadalajara, Mexico. The bases are usually topped with glass to make dining room or coffee tables. Pottery, urns and furniture can be custom ordered as well.

The Artisans shops are cluttered, museum-like collections of masks, copper platters, brilliant rugs and wall hangings, stone tables and statues, huge pots and primitive figures, with prices ranging from $1 to $3,000. The owners recently added two more partners, Karen and Ken Cook, and are continuing to expand and diversify. Along with its international ethnic art, the group is now selling whimsical Southwestern furniture, beds designed by Bober and custom pottery with metallic accents by Lygia Dubin.

A few miles from the Artisans shop in Corona del Mar is A Touch of Latin in Laguna Beach, which specializes in folk art from Central America, South America and Mexico. Owned by Carol Doremus, the Forest Avenue shop carries a large selection of woven fabrics and clothing but also has masks, mirrors, jewelry, figures and glasswear.

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