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Vail by way of Etsy

Phil Lindeman
Daily Correspondent
Kely K co-founders (left to right) Kyle Jansson and Kelly Adair with their first round of cribbage boards made from local beetle-kill pine.
Stephanie Scott | Special to the Daily |

Kyle Jansson’s first taste of maker culture began with a game of cribbage.

But first, the story. Last February, Jansson and fellow local Kelly Adair were unwinding after a skinning trip in West Vail. The friends had huffed and puffed their way past a lone fallen tree, the victim of pine beetle infestation, when Jansson’s carpentry instincts took over. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with the wood — a beautiful, surprisingly blue-tinted specimen beneath the deteriorated bark — until the two took off their skis and sat down around a cribbage board.

Since he was a child, Jansson has been infatuated with cribbage and woodwork. The two nearly go hand in hand: Old-school game boards are often made of wood, and thanks to deceptively simple rules, those boards are as wildly different as the people who craft them.

“I really enjoy working with wood, working with my hands, and making anything I can think of,” said Jansson, who grew up watching his great-grandfather pour over projects in his garage workshop. “But I have lots of ideas I never do anything with, so they just sit there.”

The game waned on and an idea began to percolate: take the dead, seemingly useless tree and turn it into a cribbage board.

Then it clicked. Although Jansson knew the beetle-kill pine would make a gorgeous cribbage board — the sort of piece only found in Colorado — he didn’t want it to become another pet project collecting dust in his garage.

And that’s where Adair came in. He added entrepreneurial know-how, setting up an LLC for the new business, KelyK, while branding the boards to stand out from a seemingly endless selection of funky, one-of-a-kind cribbage sets.

Without quite realizing it, the two had stumbled upon the world of maker culture, a relatively new subset of DIY artists and entrepreneurs driven by technology and, for better or worse, a struggling global economy.

“We both dove in without any care or concern about whether we would succeed or not,” Jansson said. “It was about creating a company and seeing if people would actually like what we made.”

But one question loomed: Where — and how — could KelyK sell its first batch of cribbage boards? Sure, they could just build partnerships with local gift stores and consignment shops, but like thousands of burgeoning artists, Jansson and Adair found the answer with a few mouse clicks — welcome to Etsy.

The Etsy appeal

Buzz words aside, Etsy is one hell of a movement. After launching in 2005, it has become a wildly popular online marketplace, where more than one million artists sell just about everything imaginable, from custom postcards to vintage hand-sewn dolls to, yes, beetle-kill cribbage boards. It now boasts more than 30 million registered users, all supporting artists who typically work out of living rooms and garages.

For first-time business owners such as Jansson and Adair, the website held immediate promise. Jansson was already a frequent visitor — he often bought Christmas gifts from like-minded entrepreneurs — and the site helped bring KelyK sales “from coast to coast,” he jokes, with buyers from Rhode Island to California. When he joined the merchant ranks, he quickly realized that Etsy shoppers are more than willing to take chances on something new, interesting or just plain unusual.

“The audience that’s on Etsy is a bit more artistic in my opinion,” Jansson said. “Folks who are on there aren’t afraid of finding something handmade, rather than going to Target and finding something wrapped in nice plastic. I think artists recognize artists on there.”

Old becomes new

Although the KelyK boards are unlike anything on Etsy — even with hundreds of custom cribbage sets, no one carves boards quite the way Jansson does — maker culture runs deep in the Colorado mountains.

Viola Studio, a Carbondale-based store owned by Polish native Viola Hale, is one of the site’s most unassuming success stories. The self-trained seamstress/designer/crochet master joined the site in 2008, and since then, she’s sold more than 1,100 dolls and other handmade creations bearing her old-world sensibility. Each piece is kid-friendly — the store made the popular website Babble’s top 50 list for baby gifts in 2012 — but the designs have also won approval in the art world, with displays at the Aspen Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design.

And the finished product isn’t Hale’s only claim to fame. Her method is equally jaw-dropping: Rather than buy brand-new fabric, she scours neighborhood thrift stores and garage sales for vintage clothing, then cuts her finds to perfectly match each design. Faithful customers even mail old sweaters for her swatch collection.

“My products are truly handmade, and a lot of people really appreciate the fact I’m the only person making them with recycled materials,” Hale said. Like Jansson, she learned her craft by watching family members, and as the youngest child, she was intimately familiar with hand-me-down clothing.

“I enjoy giving a second life to something another person has loved for years,” said Hale, who also runs a tent at the Vail Farmer’s Market. “Every time I get a new fabric, it works just a little different. To make something that’s nice and good quality, I have to change my designs all the time.”

All-in-one marketplace

Creative freedom is an Etsy hallmark, but artisans enjoy freedom of just about every kind. Jansson applauds the site for a friendly user interface — “You can be as simple or extravagant as you want,” Jansson said — and Hale sold her first product a day after registering. The site is teeming with curious, art-minded browsers.

While the majority of Etsy stores are run by hobbyists trying to make an extra buck, a healthy swath of stores are outlets for established businesses. Take Four 13 Designs, the brainchild of Eagle-based graphic designer Lauren Benson. When the former architect left Tennessee for Colorado, she slowly worked her way into the local wedding industry. Today, more than half of her business comes from industry clients — custom invitations, place cards and the like, all designed with an elegantly simple aesthetic — and she describes Etsy as a “buffer” to the more lucrative contract work.

“Basically, I’m taking stuff that I’ve done for other purposes and making the most out of it,” said Benson, who joined Etsy in 2013. “Whether it’s a friend’s baby shower or a wedding party for a bride, I can take those pieces and recycle them, if you will, and Etsy is a perfect way to do that.”

As Benson alludes to, very few Etsy stores make a killing. But that’s hardly the point.

“Every single board we sell makes us excited,” Jansson said. “We have the satisfaction of designing something someone really wants, and hopefully the boards are cherished and used for decades.”


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