In the sunlit library on the second floor of his townhouse in Redhook, Brooklyn, I glanced across at Buchanan-Smith while setting up my camera for a portrait, catching him staring out the window, arm rested on the sofa’s edge, as the early winter sun began to set. He seemed reflective; perturbed even. Not in the way one looks when asked what could have been but by what there is still left to do. As I take the picture he moves his arm and faces the camera, asks to adjust a few things in the room, and resumes his place.
Buchanan-Smith grew up in southern Ontario, Canada, in the small town of Guelph. He traveled often to Scotland where his father's family owns a farm, kept active for generations. In the late nineties he moved to New York City and began working as a designer, cultivating a career in the industry as an art director at the New York Times, creative director at Paper Magazine and, famously, the founder of the outdoor brand Best Made Company.
Buchanan-Smith left Best Made in early 2019, after a ten-year run as founder and CEO. Listening to him speak on the subject, as he prepared to pack up his Brooklyn home for a life upstate, I got the feeling he’s not yet done telling his story of the axe, and that Best Made won’t be his only brand. His new book, Buchanan-Smith’s Axe Handbook, set to be released later this October, sets out to redefine what a field manual ought to be, and when asked what excites him about living upstate, chopping wood is first on the list.
I met with Buchanan-Smith at his home in Redhook a few days before he and his girlfriend were set to move. We took in the setting sun on his rooftop and later over a beer at his local watering hole.
I’d like to start by way of an end, as it were. After twenty-five years in the city you’re packing up and heading into the wilderness known as the Catskills. What made you decide to move there full time?
My girlfriend and I have been going there for the last six years, but the first time I ever went up there was after almost twenty years in New York. I’d heard about it, of course, but I’d always gone somewhere far away with respect to leaving New York. The thing that ultimately draws me to it is the ability to go between the city and the country so quickly. That is very special to be able to do that quickly and seamlessly.
It’s quite different from your life in Brooklyn now.
It is but I love those extremes. If I think of all the amazing cities in the world, few offer this kind of access to nature so quickly.
Is it an escape for you?
It’s the opposite of an escape, whatever that is. It’s actually to be more myself. It’s an escape inward, if you will. I’m very fidgety, and I always need something to do with my hands. Working with my hands stimulates my brain, so the ability to get out was important. I couldn’t do that in the city.
But you were very creative and actively making things, especially while running your brand Best Made.
At Best Made I was doing that, in the beginning. But as we got successful my ability to do that—and my position— changed very quickly. I became less hands on in my life and work and more focused on running a business. That’s when I started looking upstate.
Do you find you need to remove yourself from a certain environment in order to work?
It’s removing myself but not completely. I would have a very hard time moving to Idaho or Montana, for example. As much as I’d love to, in the end it would be very difficult. The ability to go back and forth between two extremes at the same time is so stimulating. If I get stuck in one, even if at the time I feel like it’s the best place in the world, I’d go out of my mind.
Much of your work recently has developed while living in New York and has been influenced by the connection to the outdoors. Do you think the remoteness of the Catskills will alter that perception and creative process?
I don’t know, honestly. I can only hope it’s going to be positive. One of the great things about being a part of Best Made was the adventure program we did and the catalog. It was a chance to travel around the world and to see people thriving in rural and remote areas, and it dawned on me that I couldn’t live my life in the city and go upstate on weekends. I needed to reverse that. Maybe it will slow me down a bit more!
What do you have planned once you officially make the move?
I’ll probably end up doing a lot of what I do in the city— sitting at the computer and working—but I’m most looking forward to getting up early and going for a walk outside, and to go cut the grass or chop some wood for the fire; any number of things I have no possibility of ever doing here in the city.
Are you rigid in your daily routines?
Not at all. I need variation. Day to day I need to be able to do very different things or else I go stir crazy.
You’re a restless seeker and designer, but when you land on something you seem to hunker down and expand it until it’s fully developed. Do you find a balance between the two or do you feel they are in conflict?
I live in a constant state of friction. Like two things rubbing against each other, or many things bouncing off one another. And then there is a moment when they start to click, like a gear, and from there something begins to happen.
I’m reminded of something the writer Luc Sante said, which is that any ideas conceived in advance will never suffice. Only in the moment do ideas start to form. You seem to be very in the moment when you design.
Exactly. That is a great analogy, and I agree. No concept can do the words justice. The words are the nails and the wood and the hammer. They are the things you use to build an idea or story. And they only come about by way of working in the moment. Best Made, for example, came from a lot of points of inspiration, but was something I could never have scripted ahead of time. It just happened because of all these competing influences at a specific time—some very negative influences in my life—and I think it becomes very difficult to stay in that moment the further you are removed from the source. There are people who can direct a creative endeavor from a distance without having to be involved, but you need good people involved who understand what you want. For me, I need to be hands on and in the moment for it to work.
I’ll use that as a lead in to my next question: you’re writing a new book about the Axe. Can you share some about that project?
I am working on a book! I have done books before but I’ve never written more words for a one than with this project. And I really love the process. It’s been more frustrating than anything I’ve ever done but I think I’m suited to it because it’s me against the words. I’m in the workshop with a bunch of wood and nails and there is no one else there. It’s a solitary pursuit for me in that sense. It’s me versus the elements, not so much me versus someone else.
There are very few books available on the axe, both as a tool and as a historical instrument of industry and civilization. Does the book address this, or is it about bringing to life a piece of history in a new form?
For me it’s doing a few things: One, it’s telling the story of the axe in a way that I felt like I was never able to tell. The other thing it’s doing, which is the most ambitious, is that it’s reinventing what a field guide or a guide book to a simple object or tool can be. The book itself is going to be exciting for people to read. I’m creating something with an approach that I hope at least—and I may be proven wrong—can be replicated beyond the axe, and can be applied to other things like a bicycle, or cast iron, or a backpack; any number of things. It’s a way of looking at the world instead of reinventing the wheel.
Has the writing process taken away from your ability to see it from the viewpoint of a designer?
It’s tough. I want it to be a reference manual but it has to have that emotional appeal, it has to be beautiful. I’m at the point now where I need to design the cover, and I’m a deer in the headlights. I want to design every part of it so that it looks and functions like a single unit, and now that I have to put the outer shell to contain that, it’s very difficult. It’s a tension that needs to be worked out still
Is there a difference between designing for a brand—such as Best Made or Mizrahi—and designing for publications?
They are very different things of course. For an album or a book cover, you’re designing much more for a moment in time. You could make the argument that a writer or a band should approach their designs from a brand point of view, and some do. The Rolling Stones, they had amazing album covers, but it was never consistently the case. And Wilco, they had some great covers, but on the whole it was hit and miss. And maybe that is the way it should be. Whereas a brand, it’s much more like a religion. There needs to be rules and standards that will stand the test of time, that you can apply over and over again, across multiple formats. I’m much more interested in designing for that, for a brand.
How do you begin working on a new project?
I always start a design or project for me. I try to solve a problem I’m working through or to make something I could use. Some things inevitably are easier than others when thinking of mass producing a design. When you make physical things, with your hands, they are incredibly hard to scale. You can reproduce words to infinity, and images, but physical things are really hard to do. For example, when designing a backpack—something I have strong opinions about from my experience using them in the field all my life—I had no idea where to start. I knew it had to be practical, but it also needed to look beautiful, and ultimately needed to sell. That’s a very hard thing to get right. In the end, the best designs were always the ones that were the most satisfying to make, the things I needed in my life. If I design for utility I feel comfortable knowing it will work out, because I feel that what people want, on so many levels, is for something to just work.
Where did your focus on utility and function begin?
One of the best projects I ever did that speaks to this so well was Elements of Style, which I did with Maira Kalman. That to me embodies so much. It was a very cut and dry manual to teach you how to write: it says Here are the rules and here is how you do it. It doesn’t get more utilitarian than that. So when Maira put her spin on it, she made it into something really magical. It wasn’t the typical, boring manual for style. It transcended that, which is very hard to do, and it was a huge influence on me.
Many of your most recognized designs have a very simple quality to them on the surface, but when you drive into their history they are much more complex.
When something is reduced to its purest form, the impact of the thing becomes stronger. For example: a simple logo, an album cover, a book cover, or even an axe. These are things that imprint you immediately, but they are still emotional, there is warmth in them and humanity. Visually speaking, these things can be very simple. It’s in the context of how it’s presented or where it lives. What and object or design makes people think and feel when they see it, that is immensely powerful.
Let’s go back a bit. What did your parents do?
My dad was born in Scotland and left when he was in his early twenties to study animal science. He did a masters degree at Texas Tech Agricultural School, where he met my mother, and eventually through a sort of circuitous route he got a PhD and became a professor at the University of Guelph. They moved to a farm outside Guelph, where I was born, and they still live there. My dad had that job, literally his first job, until he retired. He was the scientist and my mom was the artist. She raised us and ran the farm and home, but she also did a lot of work with textiles. She was and still is a deeply creative soul.
Was your mother an influence on you as an artist?
Both of them were. Whether you're an artist or a painter or a dentist or an animal scientist, that curiosity, that need to express yourself through the work is entirely a creative pursuit. It’s easy to see an artist and think that person found something in the world and did something with it, and artists are generally more expressive in their work than scientists, but science is just as creative. He influenced me heavily as an artist.
You visit Scotland frequently, and it’s been a muse of yours for years. How has your time there affected your outlook, and outcome, of your process?
It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for a long time. The culture always appealed to me more than North America. The simplicity and the Scottish austerity is one thing. It’s also not as complicated as a sort of commercially driven country. It’s agrarian and rural and my family there embodies that. My father was born on a farm that is still run by my cousins, and that’s where I stay when I visit. It’s still very much a working farm. That’s where my heart is, in that kind of world.
Why not cross the pond and set roots over there?
It’s hard to say. There is something very genuine and pure about that kind of lifestyle that comes across in my work and in what I want to say to the world. The life of a Scottish shepherd: that to me is high adventure. That is everything that I aspire to. When I think of that, or any of the roles people in my family have served, that is really aspirational.
Are you nostalgic?
I have respect for things that are timeless. It’s easy to get trapped between something that is old and something that is timeless. There is a difference. I see someone who is nostalgic as someone who wants to be somewhere else, who isn’t happy with where they are right now or with the way the world is now: they want to be in the past. I’ve definitely had my moments, and even as shitty as the world is now, what we’re going through all over the world, I’ve never felt less nostalgic.
Will you miss living in the city?
I’m blown away to think that I’m moving away from a city I've been living in for twenty-five years; a place where I’ve built a career but a very strange career. And now I’m pulling up roots to move to a village of six-hundred people. That to me feels unprecedented.
Why is that?
It’s something you couldn’t have done twenty years ago. Even one generation ago things were different. Look at my dad who retired from his first job ever, which he worked his whole life. And in the last ten years I’ve been able to build and scale a successful brand, in such a small amount of time, it still blows my mind that this is possible. And I can do these sorts of things again, in a place removed from the city, and that to me is very exciting.