One day in mid-July, I traveled to the end of the earth—or as it is known in Manhattan, 11th Avenue and 21st Street. I entered a seemingly abandoned building, where a handful of hardy souls sweat it out in an un-air-conditioned, raw space decorated with props from days gone by. One heavyset bearded man, dressed in overalls and a big straw hat, along with a natty dress shirt and tie, walked around with a huge grin on his face, handing out printed calling cards that read FUCK OFF.
They could be the defiant survivors of an apocalypse, and in a way, they are: The folks at this fashion-and-lifestyle trade-show pop-up shop called Old & New are committed to making beautiful things in the United States. Yes, America, where the neutron bombs of the global economy, cheap labor, and a consumer desire for cheap goods (and lots of them) have obliterated much of the country's manufacturing base. As May Redding of the beachwear brand Quit Mad Stop says, "It's hard to make stuff here." Yet these entrepreneurial designers, some from firms almost a century old and others who unfurled their shingle as recently as this summer, are breathing life into the venerable MADE IN THE U.S.A. tag and giving it fresh meaning.
To celebrate this rekindled frontier spirit, we found the 76 best products designed and made domestically. Our search has been a remarkable education in American pluck. Greg Benson, CEO of outdoor-furniture maker Loll, spent a year and a half trying to find a U.S.-based company that could make the assembly tool he wanted to include with his made-in-Minnesota products. "At work, it became sort of a joke, Greg's screwdriver," he says, "but it was worth it. We didn't want to take that tool for granted and just find something made in China, which is all that's out there."
Not every American product will pass this kind of purity test—though we've flagged the ones that are made with 100% locally sourced raw materials—and that's okay. To ignore the realities of today's global economy would be silly. And the more you explore the MADE IN THE U.S.A. label, the more labyrinthine the journey. The Klhip nail clipper's metal body and spring are made in California, its dowel pin comes from Illinois, and its rivet is made in Idaho. It's assembled and packaged in Idaho as well. But the small magnet that's part of its award-winning design comes from China because no one makes magnets in the United States. Is it still "Made in the U.S.A.?" Damn right.
We were disappointed to discover that many companies that once proudly made their stuff domestically—such as JanSport and Alternative Apparel—had shifted some or all of their handiwork abroad. Levi's, the brand that's arguably history's most important cultural exporter of American design and manufacturing ideals, has overwhelmingly outsourced its production to the far corners of the world. But it still makes a few products here, and its new "Water<Less" manufacturing technology is used only in San Francisco (we highlight the Trucker, a vintage-style denim jacket made with it). This bright spot is worth celebrating just as much as bigger companies whose goods have always been made in the U.S.A. (Whirlpool, Viking), as well as the upstarts that have ardently embraced American manufacturing.
More frustrating are the growing brands such as Band of Outsiders and Rag & Bone—staples on chichi "Made in America" lists—that make only a handful of their merchandise locally, typically the stuff that helped launch their brand and their reputation. (Also annoying: Falling in love with the one product made in China from a designer renowned for American manufacturing, as we did with the bias clock from Rich Brilliant Willing.) These snafus are a telling statement on both the state of American manufacturing and the enduring power of Made in the U.S.A.: Even as brands look outside the United States to grow their ambitions, they hold firm to the halo that comes from being associated with American goods. One rule of thumb: If you're shopping online and the product page does not explicitly say where it's made, it's almost always made overseas.
It can be depressing to find Made in the U.S.A. reduced to a marketing gimmick, or to realize the product categories that Americans have almost wholly abdicated to others to make for us (next time you go to Best Buy, notice the DESIGNED IN AMERICA, MADE IN CHINA tags on a multitude of consumer electronics, including the one you're reading this on). That said, it is far more inspiring to consider what we still do well. We work wonders with leather and wood, from bags to beds to chairs, long-lasting and gorgeous paeans to the tradesmen of America's frontier days. We can bend steel, though it's as likely to be for a coffee table (or a coffee filter) as it is for an automobile. We cut and sew clothing that can rival the finest Italian tailoring, even if we're making blue jeans rather than blue suits and often using imported fabric because there are exceedingly few looms in the United States. We love our leisure time, and there are still balls and gloves and bikes and boards made domestically.
The MADE IN THE U.S.A. label is not a blanket seal of quality, though the products we've assembled here are designed to be both stylish and highly functional. In fact, that pairing of the creative and practical is a hallmark of American design. You see it in such products as Objeti's Choose Your Own Adventure shelving. Designer Joseph Ribic's system is useful and evokes a magician's box trick and the children's-book series that was a source of inspiration. Or even Field Notes notebooks, whose list of practical applications on the inside back cover includes hate mail (No. 15), shady transactions (No. 22), and tall orders (No. 29).
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There are other admirable personality traits that shone through while learning more about these attractive objects. American goods are muscular, full of power and bravado, like KitchenAid stand mixers, Viking ranges, and Carrot Grant speakers.
They're obsessive in their passion for detail, from the blue steel of Baxter's straight razor to the artful flap at the bottom of Dano's Ducki bath toy that makes it easy to clean. And they're often sustainably made, whether it's the reclaimed leather that gets restitched into every reMade in the U.S.A. bag, or the FSC-certified wood in Structured Green's Apex bed, or the made-to-last aesthetic that informs most of the products on this list.
Buying well-designed American-made goods is a conscious act, akin to buying food at a farmers' market. Is it more expensive? Yes, but there's value in not only knowing the provenance of what you purchase but also in creating a connection with the maker of your goods. And that connection extends from buyers and sellers to the relationship between manufacturers and their suppliers. Keith Gehrke's search for the perfect cup of coffee led him to seek out the right steel for his coffee filter (which he found in Ohio) and then to the Connecticut welder who bent that raw material into his design for a better filter. This virtuous chain becomes complete whether you buy a cup of joe at his Portland, Oregon, shop, or buy the filter to make your own. And with Levi's or any other older brand, such as Wolverine boots, that only makes some products here, the more you buy, the more you encourage more domestic production, both from these companies and others.
The world of Made in the U.S.A. is messy, delightful, occasionally maddening, and often inspiring—in other words, quintessentially American. We hope you're as jazzed by these 76 products, and their stories, as we are.
[Illustration by Rizon Parein]
A version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.