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Style Spotlight: SVA Alum's Peter Buchanan-Smith's Best Made Co.

Combine a range of rugged, outdoorsy products with a memorable graphic identity and you have the Best Made Co., purveyors of everything from maps and notebooks to apparel and furniture. SVA alumnus and entrepreneur Peter Buchanan-Smith (MFA 2001 Design) founded the company in 2009. Prior to starting Best Made, he had an enviable creative career that included designing books and album covers (he won a Grammy for the design of Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born), doing branding for high-wattage clients such as David Byrne and Philip Glass, and serving as art director of The New York Times’ Op-Ed page.

Today, Buchanan-Smith broke the news that he's leaving Best Made. "Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined then what this company would become," he wrote on Instagram. "I always maintained that Best Made would only be a success if it was bigger than me."

His departure may be bittersweet, but Buchanan-Smith is still looking onward and upward and working on new projects, including a new book, titled The Field Guide to the Axe, which is coming out via Abrams Books in the fall of 2020. Here's our quick chat with the entrepreneurial SVA alum from late last year.

What prompted your decision to get a master’s degree at SVA?

I really wanted to learn how to bring the components of a book together and give it shape, working with designers and editors. I signed up for the inaugural class of Steve Heller and Lita Talarico’s program, MFA Designer as Author, and had this great interview with Heller. He said, “At the end of your two years, do you want your portfolio sitting under your bed gathering dust or do you want your work out in the world as a real thing?” I hadn’t realized how entrepreneurial I was until that moment. When I completed the program, I published my thesis as a book, Speck: A Curious Collection of Uncommon Things (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001). I highlighted collections including air samples from around the world, whiskers shed by someone's pet cat and a selection of used lipsticks.

How did you come to create the axe that launched Best Made?

When I moved to South Orange, New Jersey, it was the first time since I was a kid growing up on a farm that I had this beautiful space for a workshop. I started building things. I had a fire pit and I needed something to split wood. I couldn’t find an axe that I liked, so I made my own. Then I thought, “The axe, that’s it! I’m going to build a brand of my own that starts with this one evocative, amazing tool.” I had no business plan, nothing. But Best Made was born, and although now we have hundreds of products, the axe is still the embodiment of what we stand for. Ralph Lauren started with a necktie. The axe is much cooler.

What’s next?

We’re adding to the apparel line. The goal is to combine utility, timelessness and beauty in clothing suitable for all the adventures of work and life.

A version of this article appears in the fall 2018 issue of the SVA Style magazine.

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