Wednesday, March 14, 2018

How it's Made: Handcrafted Leather Chicago Map Mementos

While we travel the world to bring you unique and beautiful objects, sometimes there's nothing we want more than a perfect piece of home.  Enter the talented leather smiths of Tactile Craftworks, our neighbors to the north based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Our handcrafted leather Chicago accessories are part of their Atlas design series, inspired by a reoccurring conversation regarding the concept of place. Specifically, designers Sarah and Anna are interested in the paradoxical pull many of us feel towards travel and adventure, while we also crave continuity and community. Read on to learn how this concept manifested in maps, in this edition of "How it's Made."

With backgrounds as theatrical craftspeople, both Anna and Sarah have a keen interest in historical artifacts and ephemera. Their maps felt like a natural fusion of their conversations and interests. The Chicago map is a Rand McNally design, honoring the work of Sarah's grandfather at the Chicago company where he worked for 40 years. 

Sarah and Anna begin the production process by laser etching designs on unfinished crust-side leather. As certified 80/20 US company, 80% of their materials are made in the USA, and their leather is tanned in Milwaukee and Pennsylvania.

The ashed design is then sealed with a custom coating and left to dry. When the drying process is complete, the leather is hand glued, stitched and dyed. 

The final step entails finishing the leather edges with a beeswax sealant. While they strive to create the most durable product possible, Sarah and Anna love to see their items well-used, with a visible patina demonstrating someone has taken Tactile's work and made it their own.

Like the terrific team at Tactile Craftworks, we love hearing our customer's stories about how our items become treasured keepsakes.  Please drop us a line anytime and tell us how you're using your Chicago map mementos or any of our unique, handmade gifts!

To view our entire assortment, visit the Museum Shop online:

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Heritage Handcrafted: "How it's Made" With a Mission

It is possible to look great and do even better. Our Navy Suede Farida Shopper and companion Navy Ines Wallet are created in collaboration with indigenous artisans using traditional hand-weaving and leather-working techniques. Each piece is entirely unique, literally weaving a narrative of the individual artisans, their heritage, traditions, and skills. Take a quick trip with us to learn more about the who, where, and how of these high-quality, handcrafted pieces!

 Situated between three volcanoes in the Guatemalan highlands is a beautiful village called Zunil. While Zunil's primary industry is agriculture, there is also a cooperative of indigenous people based there utilizing traditional Mayan weaving techniques to create vibrant, geometric designs on straps known as "fajas." The designs are entirely up to the individual artisan's creative interpretation; elements are repeated but color combinations are practically endless!

Navy Ines Wallet

The leather is sourced from a tannery in the nearby town of Quetzaltenango and assembled by a family of leather smiths. The juxtaposition of dazzling woven design and chic Nubuck leather generates textural tension that gets the glances!

Choose from our shopper tote or wallet styling with the knowledge that the earnings are being invested back in artisan partners. They receive training and support that facilitates growth and development, and opens pathways to economic empowerment. Your purchase supports the Art Institute and creative artisans, and who wouldn't feel good about that?

To view our entire collection of unique gifts, visit the Museum Shop online:

Monday, March 12, 2018

Breen is Back!

The newest collector's ornaments from our long-time collaborator Patricia Breen have arrived! We have three brand new, exclusive ornaments and quantities are very limited so get them before they're gone!

Artist Patricia Breen designs and creates original museum-quality collectible ornaments. Produced in limited quantities, each glass ornament is mouth blown, hand-silvered and exquisitely hand-painted in Breen’s studio in Krakow, Poland. Patricia is involved with every step in the creation and production of her designs, which is immediately apparent in the quality and detail of every single Patricia Breen ornament.

Over the years, we have proudly sold Patricia Breen ornaments made for the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Our spring 2018 exclusive Breen ornaments:

Breen Woman and Child Egg Ornament / Breen Chrysanthemums Egg Ornament /
 Breen Cliffwalk Egg Ornament

To view our entire collection of unique gifts, visit the Museum Shop online:

Proceeds from all purchases support the Art Institute of Chicago's many programs.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

We're Sitting on a Jade Mine!

You can put a price on gold, but jade is priceless.  -Ancient Chinese Proverb

We're sitting on a jade mine!  

In support of our exhibition Mirroring China's Past: Emperors and Their Bronzes, we're introducing a collection of jewelry made of gorgeous, green jade. Regarded as the most precious material in Chinese culture, its value is analogous to that of gold in the West.  

Due to its density, jade is extremely difficult to work with. Only the finest craftspeople were adept at carving it, which amplified its worth. Subsequently, ownership of jade was a symbol of wealth and social status and was common in Imperial contexts. Though the green variety is best-known; white jade, or nephrite, is less common and more valuable.

Known as the "Stone of Heaven," jade is a symbol of purity and protection. Historically, it was worn as jewelry and used in ritual contexts, where it was believed to connect heaven and earth and ward off evil. Jade was also used in the construction of opium pipe mouthpieces, as it was thought to bequeath longevity upon smokers.

 Natural Jade Double Dragon Necklace

Whether you're inspired by the spiritual significance of this stone, or if green's just your color,  we hope you've learned a little!

Need more green in your life?

To view our entire collection of unique gifts, visit the Museum Shop online:

Proceeds from all purchases support the Art Institute of Chicago's many programs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

How it's Made: The Magical Minimalism of Argaman & Defiance Textiles

Lydia Crespo in her Argaman & Defiance Studio

Discover magic in minimal design. Our mesmerizing, monochrome Silk Speckle Shawls from Argaman & Defiance are the perfect transition pieces. Super sophisticated and very versatile, they are handmade of 100% silk right here in Chicago.  In this edition of "How it's Made," we visit the studio of School of the Art Institute of Chicago alumna Lydia Crespo to learn about her process and intriguing inspiration.

It all began with a trip to the planetarium. A projection of a starry sky was inverted such that the stars turned black against a white sky, and visions of surface design danced in Lydia's head. The following weekend entailed a trip to the farmer's market where the artist observed a similar pattern on speckled eggs. It conjured organized chaos destined for realization fabric form. 

Organic ingredients are the perfect potion for putting her designs on textiles. Natural dyes responsibly collected from onion skins, tree bark, roots and leaves are applied to silk then screen printed, using techniques Lydia learned at the School of the Art Institue.

 Once peppered with paint, the fabric is cut and sewn by hand.  Caution: the results will leave you a little star-struck.

This spring, be enchanting!  Cast a sartorial spell with a shawl that is simultaneously organic and cosmic. Less is more with the magical minimalism of our Silk Speckle Shawls.

To view our entire collection of unique gifts, visit the Museum Shop online:

Proceeds from all purchases support the Art Institute of Chicago's many programs.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Color Your World with Cloisonné

Hey, cloisonné: you're looking fine after all these years. What's your secret?

In support of our exhibition Mirroring China's Past: Emperors and Their Bronzes, we're introducing a resplendent range of colorful product in this timeless technique.

Cloisonné is a process of enameling a metal form, whereby fine wires are used to delineate decorative areas (cloisons in French, hence cloisonné) into which enamel paste is applied. Finally, the piece is kiln-fired and polished to enhance its vibrancy.

Smaller cloisonné objects such as jewelry were found in the tombs of Pharaohs, but the introduction of enamel around the 12th century B.C. immensely enhanced the possibilities of coloration and level of sophistication.  Over subsequent centuries, the practice expanded to decorative objects displaying increasingly intricate detail.

The first instances of Chinese cloisonné appeared around the mid-15th century, preceding the establishment of 18th-century imperial workshops. Eventually, the heavy bronze or brass base bodies were exchanged for significantly lighter copper vessels. Authentic examples of the former can be spotted in our exhibition.  Our line is executed in copper, resulting in a more lightweight and versatile object.

This updated iteration is perfect for jewelry and flexible decorating, yet retains the authenticity of individual craftsmanship. Our assortment interprets time-tested ingenuity for modern life. It is ancient artistry with longevity. Get your own instant heirloom today:

To view our entire collection of unique gifts, visit the Museum Shop online:

Proceeds from all purchases support the Art Institute of Chicago's many programs.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

How it's Made: Handcrafted Glacial Glass Jewelry

Roues Glass Threader Earrings  / Glass Hoop Earrings - Yellow/Green
Glacial Glass Circle Earrings - Moss / Glacial Glass Threader Earrings - Steel Blue

We know you crave substance with your style, and we're here to help. Welcome to the West Coast, land of luminous light, where good things come in pairs (of earrings). Today we are in the Los Angeles, California, studio of designer Jess Panza to learn more about the artistry, philosophy, and technology involved in creating her delicate glass jewelry designs. You're in for some inspiration and education in this edition of "How it's Made."

Jess Panza's ethereal earrings are inspired by the interconnections between all things. Her pieces are first conceived on the basis of this philosophy, and then fabricated in her studio.  Consistent with the designer's beliefs, the process is always environmentally friendly, using traditional lampworking techniques. Glass and gold meet in an elegant material melange.

First, colorful glass rods are heated and melted onto findings of 14k gold. The glass-to-gold bond is a perfect pairing where atoms fuse on a molecular level with unparalleled ease. This bonding creates energy, which creates matter. The accessories that result from this process may look simple, but they represent universal generative processes and the cyclical nature of life.

Exemplifying the aesthetic approach "less is more," these delicate droplets suspended on gold are an elegant breath of fresh air.  However, as we've learned today, they are not as straightforward as they might appear; in fact containing multitudes. Everything is interconnected in ways we cannot always see, and some things were simply meant to be. 

Wear any of our Glacial Glass Earrings and embody this philosophy wherever you are.

To view our entire collection of unique gifts, visit the Museum Shop online:

Proceeds from all purchases support the Art Institute of Chicago's many programs.