I’m really excited to share this month’s Man Crafts interview, courtesy of the team at the Belgium-based startup MannKraft. Aside from the similarity in name, I was super psyched to be working with the team because their mission statement is so similar to my own. The team run craft and DIY retreats, aimed at getting more people (men included!) into the world of crafting. So of course, I was very eager to talk to them to learn a little more…
Man Crafts: Interview with the MannKraft team
Hi guys! Before we get started, tell me a little bit about yourselves – where are you from and how did you all meet?
Miles: Hey Mike! I’m Miles, I’m originally from San Francisco and work as a primary school teacher. Twelve years ago my husband Joe (hear from him below!) and I left the U.S., spending one year living and traveling in New Zealand, Australian and South East Asia before moving to Brussels in 2005. I love cooking, traveling and exploring new places. Most recently, I’ve moved to Berlin where I began studying psychology and working at the Berlin Metropolitan School.
Joe: I’m originally from Connecticut but lived in San Francisco for many years. I’m a landscape architect and worked in the SF Bay Area managing the design and construction of urban parks and gardens. Since moving to Brussels in 2005 with my husband, Miles, I’ve started my own business – Urban Gardens – where I design and install terraces, rooftops and small gardens. One of my biggest passions is reusing and upcycling materials in new ways.
Clinton: I grew up in South Africa, but moved to Brussels to study contemporary dance. I then went on to perform with the international dance company Rosas. After 8 years of touring I went back to school, this time to study graphic design. Since graduating, I’ve been freelancing as a graphic designer and dance teacher. I’ve always had a fascination for making and constantly have a project on the go! Paper, cutting, folding and scoring has become an obsession – I use it sometimes in my graphic work, building paper sculptures and illustrations, and sometimes as more of a hobby, making lamps, tessellations and modular constructions.
Melanio: I studied illustration and graphics at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I lived in New York and worked as a product designer, art director, and eventually became the Home Editor at Martha Stewart Living magazine. 8 years ago, I relocated to Brussels with my partner and began freelancing as a prop & set stylist for commercial photography. I have always been inspired by how things are designed and made. Learning to demystify a technique or process and creating a utilitarian object is what really appeals to me.
Sounds like you guys have a lot of experience across the creative industries!
Miles: Absolutely! We each bring a particular creative skill or strength to the team. For example, Melanio is incredibly creative and talented. After 15 years working as a prop and set stylist, he has an amazing eye for design, creation and construction. He is always discovering objects and saying “I could make that, and do it even better” …and then he does! He’s often our “idea” man.
Once Melanio has an inspiration, Joe is incredible at sourcing it. His practicality and know-how about how to logically plan the projects helps us to consider the “nuts and bolts” of the craft – for example, how much concrete, how many meters of piping and the logical steps of creation. He also brings his design eye and his contacts for his business to collect resources needed.
Clinton is a graphic designer and expert paper artist. His online design skills are essential for everything from creating our logo, website and images to the design and aesthetics of each craft. Plus, his creativity with paper is unmatched.
Finally, Miles brings his pedagogical knowledge and experience to the group – considering how best to teach adults, how to create step-by-step instructions and how people learn. Additionally, he brings his love of traveling and exploring new places to help us find great locations for our craft retreats.
You’ve recently launched a new business venture; Mannkraft. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Miles: Mannkraft is a crafting retreat experience where participants enjoy discovering a new location and learn how to make a beautiful, useful object or a new crafting skill. Simply put, Mannkraft aspires to provide engaging workshops where people can experience the joy of designing, creating and constructing their own beautiful, useful objects. It is about helping people find their own moments of “flow” – getting lost in the moment of creation, where their ideas are materialised through their own actual handiwork.
Mannkraft is also about creating a community and helping people connect with others who enjoy crafting. By working in a retreat format (where people are removed from their normal, everyday lives), people are able to “switch off” and learn from others, whilst sharing their knowledge and expertise. We really make an effort to find peaceful, beautiful and rustic locations which rejuvenate both the body and mind.
We also aspire to organize and lead one-day workshops in a variety of European cities where people interested in learning how to create useful everyday objects can do so. Finally, we would love to offer crafting as a form of community or team-building for businesses or companies seeking to do with their staff. We think the joy and sense of well-being that working creatively together fosters is just right for this type of experiences.
What first inspired you to join forces and create Mannkraft?
Miles: Melanio had a friend in Minneapolis who organised weekend craft workshops for friends, which initially inspired us to do the same here in Brussels. Between him and Joe, they planned our first weekend retreat which involved finding a beautiful, rustic house, collecting all of the materials and planning the crafts. Ten of us all came together for that first weekend, bringing food and drinks and having an amazing time – sharing the cooking, learning from and teaching each other and leaving with denim and leather tote bags, paper lampshades and leather wallets (oh, and pickles!).
Between pictures posted on Facebook and using our bags daily, other people seemed to be interested, saying “I’d LOVE to do that” or “Wow, I want to come next time”. And it grew from there!
What can attendees expect from a typical Mannkraft weekend retreat?
Miles: All of our retreats are set in a beautiful location with inspirational surroundings, with a variety of sleeping options for couples, friends or singles. Across the weekend, we will provide 6 amazing meals (2 dinners, 2 breakfast and 2 lunches). The key idea behind the meals is sharing the joy of cooking together, therefore everyone works together to prepare a meal for the group (this is also a great way to learn new recipes and cooking techniques!).
Each retreat offers at least one larger, more time-intensive project and at least one optional smaller crafting project. For example, after breakfast on Saturday, we begin working all together, stopping for lunch and possible personal time for walks, reading, and general relaxing. This is followed by an additional crafting session in the afternoon. We will repeat this on Sunday until midday. Depending on the craft, we also might choose to begin the project on the Friday evening. In all craft sessions, we will offer explicit instruction in making the object and then participants work together, in one space, with all of us supporting as needed.
You can read more about the agenda for our first retreat here.
You guys obviously love DIY. When did you first discover this passion?
Clinton: All through school I would spend far too much time making elaborate books, folders, display stands and models for my projects, rather than doing actual research. Christmas was also a great excuse for some paper folding. One Christmas, each member of my family received an elaborately wrapped gift – it was all about the wrapping!
Melanio: For me, DIY was economic and began when I was young. Back then, I couldn’t afford the beautifully designed objects I saw in shops and magazines. Making art, furniture, and upholstery myself was my answer. As a child, I discovered my mom’s sewing machine and was so intrigued by its mechanics and how it worked. I fed everything through it; paper, fabric, leather… just to see what would happen!
Joe: I grew up on a plant nursery so there were always things hanging around just waiting to be reused. I started off making my own shelves, tables, and chairs for my bedroom. This has continued throughout my life, because I hate to see things go to waste and love being able to turn “waste” into something useful.
Miles: If I am honest, I have to admit that I discovered my passion for DIY through Mannkraft. I never really considered myself very crafty or handy at all – I always relied on Joe to do these things. So, when I went to the first Mannkraft retreat, I was hesitant. However, with the support and enthusiasm from the other participants, I found that I actually loved it! Walking away with an amazing bag and lampshade that I had made myself got me hooked. Recently, I constructed a wooden bench and shoe holder all by myself!
What’s your favourite DIY technique or material to work with – and why?
Clinton: Well, I’m the paper guy, so I take great pleasure in discovering new techniques for scoring, folding and cutting. The material is so flexible yet strong at the same time. I love how folded paper has a memory and will fall back into those folds when manipulated just so.
Melanio: I have a tendency to like industrial materials; anything that’s durable and utilitarian. Leather, denim, raw brass, heavy linen, wood, and cement. I also love working with tools, new and old, electric or manual.
Joe: Maybe it’s obvious, but I like working with plants and soil. My latest objects are making kokedamas: where you remove the plants roots from their container and then surround it with a ball of soil wrapped in moss. I also like making succulent frames and terrariums because once made, they require little looking after.
Miles: I think my favourite technique would have to be sewing – or rather, learning how to sew! I love the idea of being able to make clothes and accessories myself. I particularly enjoy working with denim and leather, as I find these materials sturdy and durable, yet elegant. They require particular sewing techniques and tools, which I continue to learn more about.
What’s the best thing about running Mannkraft retreats?
Miles: There’s a great pleasure to be had from watching the concentration on people’s faces when they are lost in what they’re doing. I love how even the self-proclaimed “non-crafters” will really get into a project, sometimes waking up earlier than the others to finish off finer details on their creations!
What advice can you offer any readers who are hoping to start their own creative business?
We think that it’s very important to be true to your vision. When we were setting up Mannkraft, we brainstormed many possibilities of how we could organise a crafting workshop experience: a weekly evening class; a luxury weekend away; even hiring a professional chef to cook our meals for us! But we decided to focus on the experience that we had fallen in love with: coming together in a beautiful rustic home to learn, make, eat and enjoy together.
And finally, let’s end on something fun – tell us one interesting fact about yourself or your business!
Clinton: Originally our weekends were men-only events, hence the name Mannkraft. Each time we finished a weekend and female friends saw our photos or creations, we would get into discussions about “becoming an honorary man for the weekend”! Eventually we decided to open up our weekends for everyone, but keeping our name because we craft with “manly” materials – no doilies and lace for us!
Joe: As a forty+ year old man, I began synchronised swimming several years ago and then transitioned into doing pole dancing (which is somewhat like synchronised swimming, just without the water). I love it!
Miles: About me? I’ve broken both my nose and my toe on the dance-floor. About Mannkraft? I’ve been searching regularly online for other, similar ventures which combine crafting, travel/retreats, food and community and haven’t found anything. It feels like we’ve found an original concept that we’re excited to develop.
A massive thank you to the Mannkraft team for chatting to me about their new venture. If you want to learn more, check out their website (make sure you also check out the guest post that the guys wrote for The Crafty Gentleman!).
As always, you can check out previous editions of my Man Crafts interviews here.
Until next time! – Mike.