Zack Harold

freelance journalist

Stay Cozy

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Blink, and you might miss Kin Ship Goods’ new headquarters on Lee Street.

The company recently relocated from Louisville, Ky., to a tiny two-story building sandwiched between the former Stone & Thomas department store and the AT&T building.

It’s a little reminiscent of the house from the Stuart Little movies. But it’s the perfect home for a company whose unofficial motto is “Stay cozy.”

Kin Ship Goods produces a line of light-hearted home goods and apparel that have been featured in Country Living Magazine and websites like Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge and ModCloth.

Their most popular item is a T-shirt featuring a silhouette of a cat’s head, overlaid with the slogan “Ask me about my cat.”

“That’s what pays the rent, co-owner Hillary Harrison said.

The company’s other products are similarly ebullient. The second-most popular design depicts a kitten reading a book. Another design features a mountain sunrise, and another sports the faux-profane catchphrase “What the Cuss?”

There’s a baby romper that boasts “Too young for coffee but still going strong.”

Co-founders Dan Davis, 30, and Harrison, 33, started Kin Ship Goods in 2009, while they were both working at an art gallery. Davis was a longtime screen printer and Harrison worked as the gallery’s purchasing agent.

“We said ’Let’s just make our own stuff,'” Davis said.

The operation started small, with Davis printing shirts in a spare bedroom. But then Kin Ship Goods was featured on the front page of Etsy, an online marketplace for crafters and artists.

Orders came flooding in, and the business eventually became steady enough for Davis and Harrison to quit their other jobs and devote their full attention to Kin Ship.

The couple began talking about moving to West Virginia three years ago.

“The timing felt right,” Harrison said.

She was raised in Sissonville but moved away as soon as she graduated from high school.

“I knew the whole time I grew up here I was going to leave when I turned 18,” she said.

But the mountains kept calling her home.

Davis, who was born in Germany but raised in Louisville, visited Charleston with Harrison and found he liked the area, too.

“I like that it’s big, but it doesn’t feel big,” he said.

They began looking for a commercial space around the area to house Kin Ship’s new headquarters, but it wasn’t easy.

The couple found some places they could afford, but were not big enough to accommodate their growing screenprinting operation. They found places that could accommodate their business, but those spaces were far too expensive.

Then, while visiting the Mountain State last Thanksgiving, they noticed a “For Rent” sign on the little building on Lee St.

“I’d never noticed it before, and I grew up here,” Harrison said. “It just looked kind of abandoned.”

It was abandoned.

Davis and Harrison don’t know much about the history of their new building, but they have been told it formerly housed a dress shop and a cafe. At some point, Stone & Thomas might have used the space to store its Christmas decorations.

“We haven’t been able to find any solid information,” Harrison said.

Davis heard a tailor tried to set up shop in the space several years ago but it didn’t work out. The space has been vacant ever since.

The space was perfect for what Harrison and Davis wanted to do, however. They moved into their new headquarters in January.

It was hardly a smooth transition. First, a chemical spill that left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without potable water. Then, a water line burst and flooded the downstairs of Kin Ship’s new home, ruining lots of merchandise and destroying several of Davis’s printing screens.

They weren’t able to begin filling orders again until early April, but are now in full operation.

Davis set up his large screen printing presses in the back of the shop. He plans to build an even bigger press in the near future, that will allow him to screen print textiles.

Harrison works from a desk in the middle of the room, where she stuffs hand-printed boxes with t-shirts, sweat shirts, pillow cases, tote bags and coffee cups from a nearby shelf.

The couple plans to open a small store at the front of the building on June 26, in time for the city’s annual FestivALL celebration.

The shop will offer Kin Ship Goods merchandise along with other locally-made products and other unique items. Davis and Harrison also plan to host art exhibits in the space.

Derecho Damage to Decor

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, June 27, 2014.

LEON — Retired Washington Post photo editor Joseph Elbert didn’t have to go looking for inspiration when he decided to start building furniture.

It nearly fell on him.

When a derecho swept across West Virginia on June 29, 2012, strong winds damaged buildings, uprooted trees and took down power lines across the state. Elbert’s Mason County community did not escape the damage.

“There were just trees everywhere and you heard the sound of chainsaws going, Elbert said.

That gave him an idea.

He decided to gather the downed hardwoods from his neighbors and get them milled into lumber.

His neighbors liked the idea, too, often using their tractors and bulldozers to drag the trees to Elbert’s property.

He then found a portable sawmill that would process the trees for $200 per thousand board feet.

Elbert soon had 4,000 board feet of green sawn hardwood on his hands, but then realized he had no way to dry it.

Professional lumberyards use huge kilns to dry their lumber, and while air-drying is an option, it takes a really long time.

Elbert began researching his problem on the Internet and soon found plans for a solar-powered kiln designed by Virginia Tech in the 1970s for use in third-world countries.

The big, insulated box lets in sunlight from the top, heating the space to 140 degrees. As moisture leaves the wood, it rises to the top of the kiln where it escapes through vents.

Elbert said while oak would take a year to air-dry, his kiln cuts the process down to just a month.

Now, his shop is filled with piles of boards ready to be turned into lamps, chairs and tables.

It’s not the kind of stuff you find at the local lumber yard. Elbert likes wood with knots, holes and other blemishes. He even cuts the boards to showcase these imperfections.

“It’s part of its character, he said. “Most wood workers, it goes into the burn pile.

Elbert’s work is a combination of rustic and modern.

He might use knotty, blemished wood, but his furniture is inspired by architecture and the mid-century design of the Mad Men era.

His chairs have high backs made up of long wooden slats, cut individually and glued together.

The strong vertical lines mimic those of the Empire State Building. In fact, a large poster of the iconic building hangs on the wall of Elbert’s shop.

His lamps continue the motif, as does the base of his triangle-shaped coffee table, which was originally inspired by an old Mechanics Illustrated magazine article about outdoor furniture.

“All music has one simple little theme that repeats. That’s what I was trying to accomplish here.

The furniture is similar in other ways, too. Every piece Elbert makes is collapsible, except the lamps.

His table’s legs unbolt from the top and fold together for easy transport. The chairs’ backs and legs detach just as easily. All the pieces use the same 7/16-inch bolts and Elbert even throws in a wrench with every purchase.

It’s like high-end Ikea furniture.

“It just seemed like the natural thing to do, he said.

Elbert said it’s one thing to design a pretty piece of furniture, “but to design something with form and function and comes apart, that takes it to another level.

His design process is more like improvisation than composition, however.

Elbert comes up with the designs in his head, then starts cutting out pieces of wood and fitting them together.

He said his abundance of building materials has given him courage to experiment with his pieces.

“When you’ve got 4,000 board feet of hardwood sitting around, you can take some risks.

He’s never been adverse to risk.

Elbert graduated from Indiana University with a degree in music. But he had also fallen in love with photography and decided to take a job as a newspaper photographer in Bloomington.

He spent the next several years bouncing between publications – shooting for four different papers in five years – before landing in Miami, Fla.

Elbert would spend the next 15 years at the Miami Herald, first as a photographer shooting everything from Super Bowls to a revolution in Nicaragua before moving behind the photo editor’s desk.

He joined The Washington Post in 1988 as assistant managing editor of photography, hired by the paper’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee.

The Post’s photography staff won more awards under Elbert’s direction than any other newspaper in history, including four Pulitzer Prizes, two Best World Picture of the Year awards from the World Press Photo organization, six Photographer of the Year awards from the National Press Photographers’ Association and 17 Photographer of the Year awards from the White House Press Photographers’ Association.

Elbert was named the National Press Photographers’ Association’s Editor of the Year in 1995 and the Joseph A. Sprague award, the organization’s highest honor, in 2003.

But that wasn’t the biggest prize Elbert received during his 20 years at the Post.

He met his wife, Kathy, when she was an art director at the newspaper.

“I would go in and complain to him all the time, she said. “He was attracted to that for some reason.

Kathy also introduced Elbert to West Virginia.

She was raised on the farm where they now reside – the property’s been in her family for a century – and the couple decided to relocate there after Elbert left The Washington Post in 2008.

They still keep an apartment in the city and spend about three months there each year, but Elbert is most happy among the West Virginia hills.

“When I’m in D.C. there’s nothing to do, he said.

Elbert said he feels lucky his furniture has received such a positive response. His work was accepted into Tamarack earlier this year and will make his first showing at the Capitol Street Art Fair this Saturday and Sunday.

“I couldn’t have done this anywhere else, he said. “West Virginia has a commitment to arts and culture.