Fanning the Flames
Fair-trade and local goods mingle at Ember, the latest collaboration between Campfire Studios and Mulxiply
Not all Valentine’s Day stories have romance at their core. For Tanja Cesh of Mulxiply and Kristen Camp of Campfire Studios, a Valentine’s Day encounter a few years ago led them to enduring friendship, fruitful collaboration, and now a retail venture, Ember. As Cesh tells the story, she had recently relocated to Portland, and her then-boyfriend, now-husband was out of town, so she decided to treat herself to a “Tanja Day” on February 14th: “I’m going to go to Anthropologie and spend this gift card, and then I am going to go buy myself a croissant!” Camp had a pop-up shop at Anthropologie for the holiday, and Cesh was thrilled to meet a fellow local female artist/entrepreneur. Camp smiles as she recalls, “She said, ‘Hey, we should get coffee and I can pick your brain about business.’ I said, ‘We can have coffee, but I don’t know what you’re going to gain from this!’” As they tell this story, laughing and overlapping each other’s words as they sit in the middle of their beautiful new store stocked with handmade wares, it’s easy to see how much each of them gained from that chance meeting on a cold February day.
Trained as an artist and graphic designer, Cesh says she sought out meaning in her work: “I was doing a lot of reading, a lot of work, on human trafficking and the root cause of it. Because I am an artist, I didn’t feel I could start up a big humanitarian project, but I did feel that I could go in and create work for artists and artisans.” Drawn to Nepal and its traditional arts, she began Mulxiply by hiring Nepali artisans to make durable bags for carrying laptops and other items. “Felt is the oldest textile known to man, and it’s deeply rooted in Nepal, where they have the best felters in the world,” she explains. “People love felt—it’s super durable.” Having found other artisans to make metal hardware for her bags, she expanded their mandate to include jewelry after the Nepal earthquake devastated Kathmandu in 2015. She designs the jewelry here in Maine and collaborates with her Nepali partners on her frequent trips to central Asia. Recently, Mulxiply has expanded into women’s apparel, with a line of clean-lined basics (think shirtdresses and tunics) that feel both timeless and perfectly of-the- moment. Cesh is passionate about combining fair-trade ethics with a more modern design sensibility: “A lot of people who have a modern style would love to buy more sustainable and more fair-trade items if they could find them. It’s only sustainable if people actually wear it or use it!”
Camp studied art in college, and upon taking her first ceramics class, she recalls, “I really fell in love with this medium.” Most important to her was the sense that pottery is truly useful art: “It speaks to a love for community, bringing people together around the table. We want to create pieces that are a part of the story of people’s gatherings with their loved ones.” Her husband Joe joined her to form Campfire Studios soon after they moved to Maine in 2014, and he remains an integral part of the business behind the scenes: “He builds all our displays, he handles all of our finances, he helps with all of the processes,” she notes. All of Campfire’s pieces are made by hand in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, where they have just expanded into additional space. Camp says, “We’ve hired three more people—in the middle of the pandemic, no less—and that’s really helped us ramp up production.” Still, she touches every piece of Campfire pottery at some point in its journey from raw clay to finished object, especially the raku pieces that make up the vases and planters. “It’s one of my favorite techniques, because it’s a surprise every time you pull the pieces out,” she says.
A couple of years after that fateful Valentine’s Day meeting, Campfire Studios and Mulxiply opened a shared shop in the Black Box incubator space on Portland’s up-and-coming Washington Avenue. “Putting that together was really fun,” recalls Cesh. “It was just so great to see our products synergistically work so beautifully together, even though they’re so different.” Just as they began to outgrow the space, they had to close and adjust their operations in March 2020 as the pandemic shuttered businesses. But out of that anxious time came a new opportunity: the retail space formerly occupied by South Street Linen opened up, and the entrepreneurs knew it was too good a chance to pass up. Ember conjures up gatherings around a fire, filled with good food and easy camaraderie. It suggests hope and persistence as well: as the quote from Karen Hesse that they have adopted as their motto reads in part, “Sometimes a flame refuses to go out. It flares up from the faintest ember to illuminate the darkness.”
While the joint venture is named for the warmth and promise of the fires that both the kiln and the forge require, when I visited on a warm summer’s day, the space felt more like a cool oasis. Filtered light from high windows glinted off Tanja’s jewelry and brought a warm glow to Kristen’s raku pots. The shop never feels crowded, yet treasures abound everywhere, from the sleek cottons of dresses and shirts to the hand-forged pie servers to the sashiko-style totes hand-stitched in India. Soft table linens from Cultiver fan across a table, punctuated by gleaming wooden utensils from Treeline Floral. There’s a children’s corner stocked with organic cotton onesies in shades of gray and oatmeal, guarded by a large assortment of Mulxiply felted dogs, deer, and sheep. Flowers spill from vases made by Camp in collaboration with Jenny Bravo, a Maine-based food photographer and recipe developer, and if you buy one of their elegant tumblers, you’ll get a recipe card for a cocktail to go in it. Everywhere one looks, it seems, there is a story about cooperation, about collaboration, about community. Cesh reflects, “When Lynn from South Street Linen approached me about this space, I would never have dreamed that something so good could have come out of 2020. It was so nice to be able to dream it up and have it really come true.”
Bringing Handmade Home
“I love the thrill of discovery, of finding new hand-crafted items,” says Tanja of her trips to Nepal, and Kristen echoes that: “When everything is handmade and responsibly sourced, it’s just the most luxurious feeling.” Here are some ideas for how to incorporate some artisanal goodness
Upgrade your to-go style: Campfire makes portable coffee mugs in muted tones that elevate even the most mundane of morning beverages. Or choose a handled mug from their core collection to enjoy hot beverages at home.
Feel a chill in the morning air now that fall is almost here? Slip your feet into a pair of Mulxiply’s cozy felted wool slippers; their whimsical flower pom-poms will make you smile every time you glance down.
Mix and match Campfire’s charcoal, cream, and cocoa-colored handmade bowls for an elegant dessert presentation; they can transform even supermarket ice cream into a gourmet treat.
Prolong those almost-autumn evenings by the firepit by layering with a wrap sweater from Mulxiply. Made by hand in Nepal from non-mulesed merino wool, they can be tied either in the front or in the back for added versatility.
Add sparkle to your wrist with the Earth and Ore bangle that exemplifies Ember’s collaborative spirit: a crackly raku bead (no two are identical!) made by Campfire adorns a solid brass bracelet handmade by Mulxiply artisans in Nepal.