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Shelter: Asheville's Radically Generalist Design Duo

One couple's unconventional approach to design opens up the opportunity for collaboration

For designers, there are real benefits to having a specialty—you can build up technical expertise, fine-tune operational efficiency, keep a super digestible Instagram page, and so on. But to Asheville, North Carolina-based couple Karie Reinertson and Rob Maddox, the creative opportunities are way bigger when they can design every aspect of the life they want to live, from singular objects to collaborative inhabitable spaces, all of which should be both beautiful and functional.

Since founding their multidisciplinary design studio, Shelter, in the summer of 2014, Reinertson and Maddox have created, among other things, rustic cabin homes, various leather bags and accessories, custom retail spaces, and unconventional exhibition displays. And all of this had essentially started at the tiny town of Waitsfield, Vermont, where Reinertson and Maddox first met while attending the design-build workshop Yestermorrow.

"When we met [at Yestermorrow], we both knew that we want to collaborate, in general and with each other," Reinertson recalls in a recent phone interview.

Before the 2010 Yestermorrow session where she first met Maddox, Reinertson, a BFA graduate from George Washington University in D.C., had been traveling extensively, tackling natural building projects with an environmental design non-profit. Meanwhile, Maddox, who had a masters in architecture from Tulane University in New Orleans, had been working at a Brooklyn architecture firm, focusing mostly on residential design. But at Yestermorrow, they came to know a whole new mode of designing—and living.

"Working in New York, I just worked in firms, and that was rad, but at the same time, it was like I didn’t move from a three-block radius of the Morgan Avenue L stop for three years," says Maddox.

The scene totally changed at Yestermorrow, where the pair got to know ‘70s back-to-the-land-type folks and their unique approach to life.

Before they moved to Asheville, Maddox and a friend designed this small New Hampshire cabin, and Reinertson helped build it. "It really kind of sealed the fact that we wanted to work together," says Reinertson.
Courtesy SHELTER

"It’s the way they occupy space and live in the world; passionate together, working within their own community. Everybody has a little bit of skill for this and that," he says. "They don’t just check out what’s happening and go buy the thing, they make the thing."

Maddox says that’s how they end up making "interesting, unique products, spaces, experiences" that are "kind of busted but also epically beautiful."

The playhouse they built at Yestermorrow.

"It’s like life as art practice and art practice as life, and shapes and forms come from that," Reinertson adds.

A seminal project for Shelter was a playhouse for a local school, completed at the Yestermorrow session Maddox and Reinertson led in the summer of 2013. The structure, designed by Maddox and built with workshop students, features a flat green roof and a series of plywood, view-finding "oculus barnacles." It was not only about doing something that we had done the full design for, but also working with a whole crew of people who got excited about design," says Maddox.

Shelter’s more recent work with exhibit design hints at where they’re headed. Maddox says, "Where we find ourselves evolving is the practice of being generalists."

When the pair first decided to set up Shelter, they nabbed a shopfront in Asheville and turned it into a half-studio, half-retail space. But not long after, they decided against running a traditional retail store and again turned to the idea of approaching the shop as a an "art practice."

"Rather than straight retail sale—make a product, sell a product—we’re trying to be more holistic," says Reinertson. "How are these things presented? Can it be a weirder, more interesting experience?"

Left: Made in WNC Exhibition Furniture; Right: Make Noise NAMM Trade Show Backdrop
Left: One of Shelter's displays for WNC. Right: A display Shelter made for the National Association of Music Merchants trade show.
Courtesy SHELTER

This idea is readily showcased in Made in WNC, an exhibition Shelter designed for a local contemporary arts and crafts gallery—and recently on view at WantedDesign Brooklyn, one of the major events during NYCxDesign. Inspired by the rectangular shipping container, the four displays employ a system of whitewashed pine stock fastened together to create various orientations of planes, screens, walls, and shelves. The distinct structures highlight the work of four artists and two dozen textile, ceramic, and furniture studios in Western North Carolina, in a way that transcends pure functionality and commerce.

And just earlier this month, the pair had also completed trade show booths for a ceramist and—of all things—an analog modular synthesizer company.

This summer, Maddox and Reinertson are heading back to Yestermorrow to teach another design/build workshop. Meanwhile, they’re also designing a room in northeastern Oregon’s Jennings Hotel, a historic local landmark that’s being revived after a successful Kickstarter campaign. And then there’s an experimental residency retreat they’re putting together on farm in Mendocino, CA.

Reinertson and Maddox go over plans for the Jennings Hotel in their Asheville studio.

"We’ve been lucky and grateful to get projects that we’ve been really excited about," Reinertson says.

But it all does make for an unconventional business. When asked about the challenges of being so, well, all over the place, Maddox is quick to say that anyone who went to business school would think they’re insane, since there’s no efficiency of scale and they’re truly reinventing the wheel every time.

The upside, and it’s a big one, is this: Shelter’s generalist approach really opens up the opportunity for collaboration and, as it turns out, is a perfect fit for Asheville, which historically has had a large, vibrant community of craftspeople, metalworkers, textile makers, and more.

"I might be designing some crazy cast bronze, 1970s-y Italian floor lamp, but I’m going to learn to do that not by being holed up in a studio, I’m going to find a friend who’s a sculptor who knows how to do that," Maddox explains. "And all of a sudden, a whole new door of opportunity opens." (This is a real project under development, by the way.)

"We have certain talents that are stronger than others, and we’re starting to develop and nurture a community of people that we can partner with in really meaningful ways—for them and their business, and for us and our business, and our lives as artists."

See the full list of 2016 Young Guns here

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