h1 I make what I can, and find brands or artists with integrity that I can buy when I can't.
Chris Gardner, ManMade
There's a lot of joy for DIY in an increasingly digital world, especially when it involves power tools and some ingenuity – a fact not lost on Chris Gardner founder of ManMade, a DIY site devoted to the manly art of making and doing stuff by hand. This is where you'll find roll-up-your sleeves projects like 5 Easy DIY Bike Tuneups, How Make Your Own Portable Camp Kitchen, and How to Make a Simple Rustic Bench - as well as useful lost skills primers including 10 Highball Recipes Every Man Should Know and How to Make Your Haircut Last 2 Weeks Longer.
We caught up with Chris from his home base in the Mighty Midwest to find out what things men love to create and the essence of the handmade life, things that are worth buying vs. making, and what roles brands can play in the current DIY renaissance among upscale consumers.
The tagline of your site is "Creativity and the Handmade Life for the Postmodern Male." Deconstruct that for us - what does that mean to you? I'll admit, when we were first designing the site, I spent a couple weeks coming up with the balance on this one. But, I still think it's the right fit for ManMade, three years later.
"Creativity" comes from my belief that all men (and all people) are creative, that is, able to make things of value. Children make stuff all the time - stories, jokes, art, pillow forts; they can't help but just produce stuff. Then, something happens when we get older, and I think something in particular happens to many men in the United States - we start to lose the breadth of where it's appropriate to express that creativity, or which of our multiple intelligences are worth nurturing. I want ManMade to be a site for guys who are interested in expressing who they are, even their masculinity, through their desire and ability to make the things they use everyday.
"The Handmade Life" is the soul of ManMade. I love featuring all kinds of projects and stories about folks who weave in crafting, cooking, creativity, fiddling with things in their life. To me, "the handmade life" communicates a sense of activity, of looking for inspiration everywhere, and a genuine curiosity to connect with the things that surround us. It encompasses everything I publish - from original tutorials, to product guides, to share the cool work of other artists and makers that inspire me.
"The Postmodern Male" indicates a shift, to me. I've actually received some feedback on this from other men's publishers and readers, who claim that most men don't want to be called "postmodern." "The modern male" doesn't go far enough for me; it just indicates anyone who's living now and happens to be a guy. The postmodern male is someone who approaches life from a "hands on" perspective - a guy who can synthesize what he's learned - in school, at work, from books and friends - with the knowledge from our parents and grandparents, and apply it to his contemporary circumstances to make meaning. ManMade isn't a general men's interest site, and I wanted to distinguish that so readers would pick up on that.
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Have you been surprised by how popular the DIY movement is? Not a bit. I think for many of my age group and generation, we grew up disconnected from the things we used everyday - the food we ate, the clothes we work, the toys we played with. We were the first generation to grow up eating fast food regularly, to have most of what we owned intended to be replaceable. My family comes from farming communities, and I understand why they were eager to embrace those things - their work was backbreaking, their days long. Supermarkets and toy stores and happy meals were a gift, a treat ... a way to say, "I want you to enjoy things." But, when we became adults, we realized we were disconnected to those items and products ... they were designed to be disposable. So, those in the DIY movement decided to do something about it, and find ways to embrace "the handmade life," as in the ManMade tagline.
You also do some roundups of stylish things for me to buy/own. What's your philosophy about when to make things vs. when to buy? I say make when it adds a layer of meaning to an object. I always advocate for making gifts for those you love, especially when you have the skills that allow you to own something handmade without having to pay someone else for their time. I vote for buying when it involves tools or materials that require a huge investment to get started. Wood, paper, and fabric products are easy for me, but I don't have a proper space or tools for metal working or smithing (yet), so I make what I can, and try to find brands or artists with integrity that I can buy when I can't.
What are you most popular how-tos? My most popular how-tos have been a mix of smaller, more personalize-able pieces and larger in-depth builds. During ManMade's first Christmas, I came up with this customizable, type-based gift wrap project that has been the biggest ManMade post of all time. Readers also continue to come back to my DIY fingerprint art (made with out actual prints) and the typographic string art project. On the more substantial side, my mid-century inspired outdoor slat bench and these colorful succulent shelves have also been big hits. Our audience also seems to dig tip-based posts, such as 3 Ways to Punch a Hole in a Leather Belt, or 10 Cocktail Recipes Every Guy Should Know.
What are some crafts you recommend guys try if they're new to the handmade movement? I recommend that every guy should have five high-quality tools and know how to use them: a sewing machine, a powerful cordless drill/driver, a sturdy chef's knife, some sort of means to cut wood (circular saw, hand saw), and a craft knife/self-healing mat/plenty of blades. Those can cover everything from fabric projects to paper and printmaking to building furniture and home decor. I recommend starting with projects that answer an immediate need: are your pants too long? Learn how to hem them with a sewing machine. Do you need a workbench for projects? Make one from construction lumber and plywood.
You're also editor-in-chief of Curbly – how do the 2 sites relate and feed each other? ManMade was born out of my experience working with Curbly. They're very interconnected, though distinct, and my work with each helps influence the other. Curbly is a place that focuses on the home, and has a largely feminine audience. ManMade is more of lifestyle site for creative men. So a project that is influenced by graphic design, or uses more industrial materials works well on ManMade, as well as the personal stuff that comes from my own life. These days, most of my time spent on Curbly is as an editor: planning the content, working with our large team of writers, interacting with brands and sponsors, and then bigger home decor projects.
How do you like to work with brands? I love working with brands. I'm a big believer that limitations force you to be more creative. I could spin my wheels all day and try to come up with a unique project, but if you asked me to come up with something that uses, say, spray paint, I could come up with ten ideas on the spot. So, working with brands helps me to focus and come up with better solutions and designs than a totally blank slate. Whenever possible, I like to collaborate with brands on original how-to projects and instructional content. That's the bread-and-butter of both Curbly and ManMade, so any chance to do that more with the help of a brand is the best case scenario.
Where do you go for crafting and DIY inspiration? I'm influenced a lot by graphic design, typography, and product design, as you can see from the projects I mentioned above. I still love to read paper magazines, and look for ideas in films and T.V. shows. I also love to create project that solve a need, in my own life or in a friend or family's. There's nothing better than a handmade gift that emerges from a close relationship with someone you love. I love reading fine art and high-end design sites, and translating that inspiration into more practical solutions.
What are some other craft and DIY publishers you admire? Who else is doing it right? I really love Serious Eats. I love to cook and try new things, and I think they do an amazing job at translating what restaurant chefs are doing to the home kitchen. I don't really cover a lot of food stuff on either Curbly or ManMade, so it's nice to have a creative area where I don't have to take step-by-step photos while my dinner gets cold. I think A Beautiful Mess is a really great craft/DIY site. It's very feminine, but everything they do has a cohesive vibe, and really defines what a DIY lifestyle brand can be. I think there are all kinds of great books being published right now, and I still spend whole days in the bookstore checking out new titles and reading magazines. For men's content, I think Andrew from Primer really nails the spectrum of what being a guy in 2013 is like, and for men's style, I love reading A Continuous Lean and Valet.
ManMade is a Say Media partner. Follow Chris on Twitter @ManMadeDIY.