DEPART-ment Interview

As craft fairs are popping up around the country this holiday season, for the last 4 years in Chicago, there’s a different way handmade goods are being sold. DEPART-ment is like one big store you can shop — where things are organized in groups by product, much like how a store is. You also pay for everything at 1 checkout area. I got a chance to talk with the organizers of the event Sarah Bortt, Laurie Freivogel, and Ariel Samara before their next big DEPART-ment event coming up this weekend November 30 – December 2.
AV-aerie (formerly Open-End)
2000 W. Fulton *310, Chicago
Friday, Nov 30: 7pm – 11pm
Saturday, December 1: 11am – 5pm
Sunday, December 2: 11am – 5pm
Nat: Please tell me about DEPART-ment and a little bit about yourselves.
DEPART-ment: DEPART-ment started in Chicago in December of 2003 as a twist on the traditional craft fair. Imagine it more like the indie store of your dreams. Instead of vendor booths, we group items into departments (get it?), with a central checkout area and helpful volunteer “staff” ready to assist you. We’ve hosted four shows a year since the beginning, to provide as many handmade alternatives for consumers as possible, including one show a year at the Pitchfork Music Festival.
Our focus is providing ethical, handmade alternatives to consumers by offering as wide a variety of goods as possible, to reconnect buyer and seller – an experience that’s lost in the modern economic model. Buyers can form relationships with the creators, learn their process, collaborate with them and order custom work – making us all “together for new economy” (our tagline). We also aim to nurture relationships between makers. Instead of having our participants trapped behind a table all weekend, we ask that they volunteer for a shift during the show, working alongside their fellow participants. This allows us to get to know each other and to better foster community.
We have seven organizers, all makers, five who sell their goods through DEPART-ment. We share a lot of common philosophies, but we’re also all very different, which makes DEPART-ment pretty well-rounded. The three of us talking here are:
Department Ladies
Sarah Bortt: Sarah is an all around organizer, educator, and maker of many things. She has been participating as a maker in DEPART-ment from it’s inception. Shortly after the first show, she realized how fabulous the organizers were and decided that she should join in their efforts. Fond of repurposing and trash-into-treasure philosophies, she often creates from items that might otherwise end up in the dump. She currently makes soap, plays the banjo, etches drinking glasses, and makes jewelry, purses, wallets out of things like used truck tire inner tubes & old game pieces.
(Sarah is pictured left on Halloween in her Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders string band (her band) outfit that she made for ALL of her bandmates.)
Ariel Samara: After creating and selling at DEPART-ment since December of 2004, Ariel liked DEPART-ment so much that she became an organizer in 2006. She keeps the website pretty and informative, designs promotional materials, handles PR related tasks, and still finds time to come up with fancy ideas for lovely objects. When she’s not working at her day job doing freelance web design, she creates elegant jewelry from translucent vinyl, designs under clothes + over clothes (and soon, travel clothes), as well as purses from fabrics picked up on her travels.
(Ariel is pictured center.)
Laurie Freivogel: Laurie has made things for fun since childhood (remember latch hook rugs?), but didn’t consider turning it into a business until she went to her first DEPART-ment in March of 2004. She was so inspired that she went and bought a kiln and taught herself how to fuse glass, and her business Kiku Handmade was born. In July of 2005, she became an organizer. It’s often joked that Laurie is DEPART-ment’s poster child. She makes fused glass jewelry, belt buckles, and when that gets old she knits, sews, makes knitting needles and crafts with her kids.
(Laurie is pictured right.)
Nat: How did the idea come about to create this? How much work goes into getting DEPART-ment together, since most of you are also running your own crafty businesses or working full time?
DEPART-ment: In the beginning, Marshall Preheim and a few others brainstormed the idea of a craft collective in a store setup that allowed for maximum participation, and that provided as many handmade goods as possible to provide for every need – from fetish to function. DEPART-ment is designed to be very low-risk to foster future makers participation. We have low barriers of entry to encourage more people to create things and try to make a living working with their hands. There is an emphasis on participating at any level — whether it’s someone just starting out with only a few pieces, or an experienced maker with a wide variety of items. We also wanted to offer up the opportunity for shoppers to buy as wide a variety of goods as possible directly from the person that made it (ok, not a car, for instance, but custom car seat covers? maybe!) instead of shopping at the local mega-chain.
Organizing roles vary from financial tasks (paying out participants, year end taxes, paying sales tax) to entering vendors and prices into our cash register database, to design (both print and website), to coordinating volunteers, to decorating. We each have a main task, and we meet together regularly to collaborate. In the months that lead up to the show, we do tend to put in a lot of hours, but still manage to find time to craft.
Nat: Do you think there is a growing market for these kinds of craft “stores” and fairs that seem to be popping up around the country? Why do you think people are flocking to buy handmade?
DEPART-ment: We talk about this a lot, and are thrilled that the crafting community has grown exponentially over the last few years. For the most part, the community is totally supportive, both online and locally, allowing people empower themselves through craft, either as a hobby or a full blown business. We feel that, in order to continue to grow, it needs to evolve to keep it interesting to makers and shoppers alike, and keep a step ahead of the chain stores, who glom onto and exploit trends like these. We have to find ways to expand the market and get people away from buying mass made items from overseas. Buying locally and buying handmade allows shoppers to have something truly unique and special, and to have a connection with the maker and the product.
Nat: Can you tell us what kind of fun products will be at DEPART-ment?
DEPART-ment: For the holiday show, we’ll have goods from over 120 local and national makers. Some of the specific things that we’ll have that we think are extra cool are coasters made from sliced and polished rocks, lighting made from delicate curls of wood, etched glasses from recycled bottles, one-of-a-kind freeform crocheted hats, every kind of jewelry ranging from cute, shrinky-dink necklaces to elegant, one-of-a-kind stones set in sterling, new + recycled fashion, amazing cloth + repurposed truck tire inner tube handbags, paintings, prints + photography, stationary, cat + dog toys (can’t forget the pets!), amazing sewn and crocheted plush and cool, vintage-inspired baby gifts and much more.
How should interested crafters who want to participate in your event for next year contact you?
DEPART-ment: Email info[at]depart-ment[dot]com and ask to be put on the makers email list — you’ll get updates about upcoming shows. We have all kinds of information on how to participate on our website, at
Nat: Are there any special plans for DEPART-ment in 2008?
DEPART-ment: Since the last three shows have happened so fast (July at the Pitchfork Music Festival, October at AV-aerie, and now December at AV-aerie), we haven’t had as much time as we’d like to talk about the future. We’ll meet in January to start planning for the year. Some ideas we’ve been considering include perhaps doing special themed shows, and reviving workshops on things that interest crafters (tax + business issues, how to photograph your work, etc.) during our Sunday morning participants brunch. We also plan on making the website more informative, adding a blog and links to our flickr account.

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