Asheville Is an Edgy Mountain Town Meant for Makers—and You Should Visit

One of the best ways to get a sense of the retro-urban city is to visit with the designers and artists who call it home.

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It’s easy to focus on the outdoors when visiting Asheville, North Carolina—the mountains are an inescapable part of the landscape and there’s no shortage of panoramic vistas, flowing waterfalls, and good old-fashioned mountain air in the area’s million-plus acres of protected wilderness.

But if you look a little closer, you’ll uncover a lively design scene that lies in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains—and is endemic to the city’s eclectic character.

That’s the thing about Asheville—there’s a lot more than meets the eye for a city of only about 92,000 residents. It’s a place that seems to firmly exist between two worlds: One is rooted in the past with a deep history of Appalachian craftsmanship, while the other embraces the more cutting-edge sensibilities of a modern city.

"I think it’s a place where the craft was actually part of the culture," says Rob Maddox, who is one half of the multidisciplinary design studio Shelter Collective alongside Karie Reinertson. 

Rob Maddox and Karie Reinertson run Shelter Collective, an Asheville-based design studio that focuses on interior, architectural, and product design. 

Maddox and Reinertson are two of the countless designers and artists who now call Asheville home, and they have been "really privileged to be able to participate in the entrepreneurial spirit that this town has fostered," Maddox says.

Whether walking in the River Arts District or visiting one of the city’s many locally owned boutiques, you’ll notice a Southern hospitality through line amongst the creative spirits with quips like "go see my friends at…" or "they’re doing amazing stuff at…" 

The River Arts District is a colorful neighborhood that's home to more than 200 artist spaces between 23 buildings. 

When talking with Shelter Collective, a handful of local artisans’ names like Casey Johnson, Melissa Weiss, and Stefan Daiberl were tossed around with high regard.

"Asheville has had a fair amount of artisans, historically speaking—the culture is very supportive to all different kinds of crafts and design trades," Reinertson says.

That level of regard lends itself toward the sharing of knowledge versus a more dog-eat-dog mindset, adds Maddox. (Both Maddox and Reinertson worked in other U.S. cities before meeting in Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Vermont, and eventually settling in Asheville 12 years ago to start their shop.) 

"In places that are more competitive markets, where people are trying to make their claim on something, there’s a tendency to be more standoffish or secretive about how things work, because you’re trying to protect your market share or something like that," says Maddox. "And I think in the craft world, there tends to be more of a sharing of knowledge and information because you’re keeping a thing alive. That’s part of a culture, as opposed to it just being part of commerce."

That communal spirit is evident in their storefront work in many local shops around town, like the Center for Craft nonprofit, independent designer boutique Melona, CBD lifestyle store Garden Party, and Connie Matisse’s fan-favorite East Fork Pottery.

"Truly, you can just walk in any direction in Asheville and you’re going to find somebody’s studio and be able to purchase some of the crafts that they sell," says Matisse.

Matisse is the cofounder and CEO of East Fork Pottery, a direct-to-consumer manufacturing company of about 125 people making must-have plates, bowls, mugs, and the like in the mountains of North Carolina.

Connie Matisse is the CEO of East Fork Pottery, which designs, manufactures, and sells  cult-favorite ceramic dishware out of Asheville.

Matisse, like Maddox and Reinertson, didn’t expect to end up in Asheville. She says she "wasn’t even aware of its existence" when she moved to nearby Madison County to work on a goat farm, after working for urban agriculture nonprofits in New York City. It was there that she met her now-husband, potter Alex Matisse, who was making ceramics nearby with North Carolina clay in a 36-foot, wood-burning kiln.

East Fork Pottery has a flagship store in downtown Asheville, with all of its wares being made close by at their factory. 

"I had no idea that pottery was such a thing," says Connie Matisse. "That people would literally line up for days in advance of kiln sales to be the first to get their hands on a pot. And then, finally, a year into dating and a year into setting up the pottery, we had our own kiln sale. People showed up from several counties away, several states away, and it blew my mind."

After tapping into that niche ceramic collector scene, the Matisses and John Vigeland—East Fork’s now CFO—joined forces and turned East Fork into what it is today.

All of East Fork's pottery is made with a proprietary blend of stoneware clay at a factory in downtown Asheville. 

Matisse also attributes the city’s design-forward affection to the nearby Penland School of Craft, a craft education center "dedicated to the creative life" that’s about an hour outside of Asheville.

"If you’re a design lover, you’re going to come here—and every single shop you walk into is going to have its own point of view," says Matisse. "Everyone really brings their own personality, and their own perspective into the businesses that they start. And you can really feel that in every shop. You’re not going to have the same type of high-end, clean-cut contemporary stuff, but you’re going to get things that are really made with love, and with a distinct personality."

Discover more about Asheville at exploreasheville.com.

Related Reading:

A Design Lover’s Guide to Asheville, North Carolina

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