"The things that inspire me are buildings, architecture, the industrial essence of a city,” says Wendy Stevens. Never mind that we’re seated inside a converted barn deep in the pastoral landscape of rural Pennsylvania, the evidence of this inspiration is all around us. It’s in the machinery, the hammers and rivets, the rolls of leather and sheet metal, and especially in the products themselves: the gleaming purses, handbags and other wearable items whose delicate patterns both embody and belie their industrial materials.
The blue-gray Vespa parked outside the studio hints at a more cosmopolitan outlook, and indeed the origins of Stevens’s aesthetic can be traced to New York’s Lower East Side. When she arrived there in the early 1980s, the area still held many remnants of its gritty industrial past. “There was scrap metal on Canal Street,” she recalls. “SoHo had machine shops where they sold tools for working on sheet metal.” Walking around the city, she saw many elements—from buildings, bridges and subways right on down to manhole covers—that would come to inspire her imaginative designs.
Stevens was no stranger to industrial landscapes. She grew up in Cleveland, home of U.S. Steel, at a time when the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it briefly, and famously, caught fire. After living in Spain in 1977–78, she returned to the States to study bilingual education at the University of Arizona, focusing on Spanish and Italian. Upon completing her degree she relocated to San Francisco and found work as an elementary school teacher.
Disillusioned with teaching, she decided to move to New York, where a number of her friends had gone to pursue careers in the arts. She landed in the East Village, which in the early 1980s was still a relatively affordable, if dangerous, place to live. Drugs and crime were rampant, but the neighborhood was also on the cusp of becoming a major center of artistic activity. “The galleries in the East Village were just beginning,” she says. “I got there at an ideal time.”
A defining aspect of Stevens’s career is that her creativity has worked in tandem with a very practical approach to solving problems. “Moving to a city like New York, I was fascinated with what people carried throughout a whole day. You’re walking all over the city and on subways, and you see all sorts of different things that people carry.”
At the time, she was working as a bartender at a Tribeca club called Area. “Women would come into the nightclub carrying these enormous bags,” she recalls. “We’d have to put them behind the bar. I thought, ‘Why not just get a little durable wallet to wear cross-body? You can dance with it; it has your ID and just what you need.’ So that was one of the first pieces I made.”
This functional piece of wearable art became the template for many projects to follow. Her earliest creations were handcrafted in copper, brass and monel (a nickel alloy), but she soon discovered lightweight, durable stainless steel, after which “there was no turning back,” she says. “Sheet metal was great. I didn’t sew much growing up. I hated the fact that nothing ever kept its shape. With the sheet metal, I took a hammer and a nail, put a hole in a piece of copper, set a snap in it, wrapped it around the steel railing outside my building, and said, ‘Wow, this is pretty great!’ ” She would bring the pieces to her co-workers to try out. “All the bartenders, they were my tests, to see how it felt, how it held up.”
Dubbing her business Accessories in Metal, Stevens began fashioning bags, belts, desk accessories, “and even a pair of sandals, made of monel, for my father.” Her years in the cash-starved public school system had given her an important skill that now came into play. “With teaching you learn how to resource things,” she says. “I was able to start pulling things together. I found a company in Brooklyn that sold sheet metal, and they had tons of scrap that they just threw away. My landlord had a plumbing contracting service with all these guys. Every morning they’d be loading their truck and I’d pull them in and say, ‘How do I solder this, anyway?’ They showed me how to use a TurboTorch. So everything was kind of aligned in the right way for me to start what I’m doing.”
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Her first big break came at an open vendor day at Henri Bendel, the New York design emporium that helped launch the careers of such luminaries as Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren and Andy Warhol. “First in line, I was ready to show a buyer my three little, very crooked handbags,” she recalls. “So I laid out a piece of leather, put them out. She comes in and says, ‘I love them, I’m going to take three of each.’ I was thrilled. At that point, I had a soldering iron, a tin snip and a file. She asked, ‘How long will it take you to make nine bags?’ I said, ‘All summer.’ She said, ‘OK, deliver at the end of summer.’ ”
Another early buyer was Clodagh Ross & Williams, the high-end furniture and accessories shop opened by three women designers on St. Marks Place in 1986. “They loved what I was doing, that I was using an alternative material for a handbag,” says Stevens. “They ended up publishing a book and put my work in it.”
Several years later, when she approached Lewis Dolin, who had a showroom at Broadway and Houston, he already knew her work from the Clodagh Ross & Williams publication. Dolin invited her to participate in the prestigious Accent on Design show in 1988, bringing wider exposure to her growing line of bags and accessories. He also introduced Stevens to her future husband, the furniture-maker Will Stone, who was another of Dolin’s featured artisans.
“When I first met Will, he was doing tables, and really doing well with it. He had a major operation out in State College, Pennsylvania,” she recalls. “He would come and visit me in his studio. I’d be sitting there doing something, and he’d say, ‘What are you doing? Do you know that there’s a tool for that?’ And I’d say, ‘Really, what is it?’ ” While a relationship between two artisans could easily have turned competitive, she appreciated that Will didn’t “step in boldly, because it wasn’t his thing. He was already respectful of the fact that it was my thing.”
As her business continued to expand, Stevens found that she needed more space, which meant leaving the East Village behind. Around 1990, friends helped her find a suitable location in East Kingston, New York, a small town along the Hudson some hundred miles north of the city. “It was a great building,” she recalls. “An old sewing factory with huge wooden floors. It was perfect. I built a little apartment at one end of it.”
Stevens remained in East Kingston for two years, continuing her long-distance relationship with Stone, who was then living in a log cabin in central Pennsylvania. When the couple decided to get married in 1992, they moved onto an old farm near Boyertown, Pennsylvania, some forty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia, converting the barn into a two-thousand-square-foot studio in which they both could work.
In 2004, after two decades of steadily building up her brand, Stevens’s career took a sudden, devastating turn. On a cold day in January, she received a call from a neighbor to alert her that smoke was coming from the roof of their barn. More than a hundred firefighters battled the blaze throughout the day and into the night, but by the time it was over all that remained were two stone walls and a foundation.
“They couldn’t really figure out what started it,” she says. “It was a barn, so the roof was open and exposed to birds, mice, whatever, so they could have just chewed through the wires in the winter. It was absolutely freezing cold. They sprayed foam into the building. My studio fell in on top of my husband’s. It was so depressing. It was such a mess.”
Despite the shock of losing her work space, her tools and her inventory in the space of twenty-four hours, Stevens came to see the forced hiatus as a chance to reimagine her way of doing things. “It was career-changing for me,” she says. “I had started with nothing—no tools, just hand-punching holes, just really primitive ways of working with sheet metal. It had been a long process. But the fire gave me the opportunity to completely start over again with everything I knew.”
She took an online course in computer-aided design (CAD) and began focusing on how to draw her pieces. This was new territory for Stevens. “I never drew anything. I went right to the sheet metal and cut it out. All of a sudden I realized as I sat down to draw a pattern, ‘I don’t draw.’ ” She enlisted the help of a drawing instructor from Lehigh University, who “would come and sit with me. He was a big help.”
She also began learning the etching process, which allows her to create her own intricate designs in the metal, rather than working with commercially produced patterns. “The etching process is totally amazing,” she says. “It really took a whole year, and I’m still learning what I can do with this process. I’m constantly pushing it to an uncomfortable edge for my etcher.”
Up until the fire, her line had still included desk accessories such as lamps, picture frames and letter holders, in addition to the bags for which she was best known. She now chose to focus exclusively on bags and began drawing new designs in AutoCAD. “I have to take into consideration a lot of things when doing these drawings: Where the fold is. What the radius of the fold is. Is it too close to the pattern? Is it going to distort the pattern?”
Her drawings are converted to film, then photo-etched into stainless steel by a company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A clean sheet of stainless is cut to size and coated with a chemical resist of dry film. The sheet is exposed to ultraviolet light, then placed in an acid bath for about thirty minutes. When the photoresist is removed, the pattern is etched into the surface.
In the studio Stevens uses a deburring wheel to soften any sharp edges, and then belt sands one side of the sheet to “make the top of the piece super uniform and silky with a matte finish,” she says. The result is a light, textured metallic surface that resembles a piece of satin or lace fabric. The sheets are then joined to the leather trim by rivets and outfitted with hardware designed by Stevens and produced in Italy. Most bags have hinges at the bottom and use magnetic clasps. Thanks to the resilient stainless steel, the resulting pieces are both durable and surprisingly light.
The first model she produced after the fire was appropriately titled Phoenix Bag, after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes. Others have taken their names from the fabric-like quality of her patterns, such as the Lace Clutch and Houndstooth Bag. The perforated La Camisa is shaped after the shoulders and neck of a woman’s blouse and comes in powder-coated finishes of red, graphite or black.
Stevens’s line currently includes about fifty pieces. Their whimsical titles often derive from her love of travel and Romance languages. Her series of pasta-themed bags, for example, includes the Bucatini, Penne Purse and Capellini Clutch. The French connection comes across in her Baguette and La Pochette, while the Flamenco and El Dia reference her love for Spanish. Others take their names from the world’s great design capitals, including her London and Paris bags.
While Stevens’s designs continue to reflect the industrial aesthetic she developed in New York in the 1980s, her twenty-five years in bucolic Berks County, Pennsylvania, have not been without an impact on her work, as evidenced by the Seed Pod Purse, with its concentric, onion-like layers, as well as the Fiddlehead Fern Bag, Chestnut Bag, and a series featuring an intricate pattern of overlapping roses—all referencing plants found outside her studio. Other bags take their names from the shapes they emulate, such as the Pinwheel and Accordion.
Stevens’s work has garnered an international following and has been featured in Elle, Mademoiselle, Bazaar, and Vogue magazines. In 2010 she was honored by a solo exhibition at the Tassenmuseum (Museum of Bags and Purses) in Amsterdam. “I was the first American to be invited to do that. I went to Amsterdam and saw the collection in the museum, which was really amazing,” she says. “It’s a beautiful, big old brownstone right on a canal. You start at the top and there’s a case with one of the very first bags from the 1600s, and it’s a man bag! It’s a big huge pouch that slid on the belt with a padlock, insanely heavy.” She also saw precursors to her own work in the museum’s collection of aluminum bags from the Art Deco era. “My bags felt like they belonged there in a historical sense,” she says. “After doing something so alternative, and never feeling like I fit in anywhere, it was just great to have that experience. They ended up acquiring four pieces for their permanent collection.”
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In the States, she has shown her work at many prestigious craft shows, including the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., the American Craft Council show in Baltimore, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, where she was honored in 2016 with the Ornament Award for Excellence in Art to Wear. On receiving the latter, she says, “I was surprised, shocked and thrilled! Part of the enormous challenge in designing and making my bags in stainless steel has always been to ensure they’re wearable; that they drape well across the body or over one shoulder, or fit comfortably when clutched in the hand; and that they don’t feel cumbersome or awkward, but rather become part of the person using them. So to have that interpretation honored by Ornament was a very personal success for me.”
The longevity of Stevens’s success can be attributed in large part to her ability to continue adapting and extending her work in new directions while remaining true to her particular vision. A more recent (and very profitable) extension of her line, for example, has been a series of iPhone holders that drape over the shoulder and are worn cross-body.
Her newest venture is a foray into the wedding and bridal market. “My daughter gave me this suggestion. She has friends getting married now. She told me, ‘There are shows that my friends go to, where they can see wedding dressing and meet wedding photographers.’ I’m going to develop a whole collection of wedding bags, which I’m well on my way with.” Her bridal line made its debut at a show in Philadelphia in December.
“It’s very exciting for me,” says Stevens, “because one thing leads to another. I’m thirty-two years into it and still I have so many ideas that I want to do.”
Arginteanu, Judy. “Product Placement: In the Bag.” American Craft, June/July 2012, pp. 16–17.
DiNoto, Andrea. “Wendy Stevens: Industrial Chic.” Metalsmith, Vol. 35, No. 1, 2015, pp. 28–35.
Stevens, Wendy (as told to Brandi Stewart). “Blazing Recovery: A Fire Destroyed My Manufacturing Firm—and Ignited My Entrepreneurial Spirit.” Fortune Small Business, November 2008, pp. 71–72.
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David Updike is an editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where his most recent projects include books on the art of the Mexican Revolution, the Peale family and Marcel Duchamp. His profile of Rochester-based jewelry artist Barbara Heinrich appeared in Ornament Volume 39, No. 4. For this issue, he visited the designer Wendy Stevens at her studio in rural Pennsylvania. “I took my daughter with me because she’s very interested in fashion and design, and she was totally inspired by Wendy’s work and by the idea that you could build a career around creating beautiful things for people to wear.”