Copper in the Arts

August 2010

Native Trails: Elevating the Functional to High Art

By Janie Franz

Working on a copper bowl. Forming a copper sink.

Photograph courtesy of Native Trails

Often the choices in kitchen and bathroom décor err to the ornamental side—countertops, cabinetry, flooring, or tile, leaving homeowners with few artistic choices for sinks, tubs, and vanities. The owners of Native Trails in California transcend this traditional view, offering fresh new looks for these functional pieces that are featured in more than 1200 showrooms across the country, all made with natural materials, using age-old techniques.

“There is a history in the copper, the material itself,” says Naomi Neilson Howard, CEO. “All of the copper that we work with is recycled. None of it is being mined directly for our products. It’s all living its second, third, or fourth life so there’s a lot of history in each piece that we produce.”

The majority of Native Trail’s copper uses comes from very modest sources.

“When I started the business in 1996, copper was one of many different materials and different types of artisans that we worked with,” Howard says. “Little by little, we started focusing more on one medium, and now we work primarily with copper. However, we also work with artisans in other products as well.”

The warm appeal of copper not only won over Howard’s heart but those of her customers. “Copper is just such a great material. The longevity of copper is one of the things I love about it,” she says. “The copper has been around the block a few times and it keeps its integrity over time...It’ll last longer than the house your living in probably.”

Howard still works with some of the same artisan families she began with fourteen years ago.

A completed copper sink. A finished copper sink.

Photograph courtesy of Native Trails
“For the most part, our design team creates the designs, and we go back and forth with the artisans because we’re always pushing the limits of what they are comfortable with. That’s a great thing for them, too, because it helps them to grow and to expand their techniques,” Howard says. “We’re bringing these handcrafted products to the public here and making things available that are really beautiful to look at and have a rich history and warmth. For the artisans themselves, it is taking a craft that they are very proud of and helping them create products that are in demand here, where there is a real market for them.”

Though the copper products have different finishes, one of the most popular is their tempered finish that doesn’t use acid washes. “The unique patina is created by taking the hot copper bowl when it’s finished and dunking it in cold water. The combination of heat and water, hot and cold, fire and water—that’s what creates the coloration on the Maestro vessels,” she says

Native Trails pushes the limits of their artisans. They have created unique bar sinks that are long and slim slits in a counter such as the Rio Grande or the Rio Chico or moon shaped like the Luna. They have also created a squared-edge sink for the bath called Tantra and an angled apron farmhouse sink called Zuma for the kitchen. They also make large freestanding copper bathtubs. All of these items are unique and not easy to produce with handcrafted techniques such as hammering using tools that the artisans often make themselves. 

“Our products tend to be the focal point of whatever room they’re used in,” Howard says. And with good reason. Their products are works of art that have been finely handcrafted. Their hammered bathroom vessel bowls, in particular, are stunning.

“Our Maestro vessels are really outstanding. It takes about 30,000 hammer hits to make one of those bowls,” Howard says.  The texture of the closely spaced hammer hits are so precise customers have challenged that they were made by hand. “People have tried to replicate that with machines, and it’s not at all the same look. So far it’s been impossible to recreate this with machines. It’s pretty amazing what our artisans are capable of.”

Resources:

Native Trails, 4173 Santa Fe Rd, Ste. A, San Luis Obispo, CA, (800) 786-0862

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