Peter Buchanan-Smith Interview

Text: Periscope / Peter Buchanan-Smith Portrait: Ports Bishop

The story of Best Made Co. was born out of an ax that Peter Buchanan-Smith made as an experiment.  The ax was a surprise hit.  It made it into the permanent collection of the Saatchi Gallery in London, and it was featured in media outlets all over the world.  Since then Best Made has produced many axes by teaming up with a fourth-generation ax maker in North Carolina and adding more products to their line of tools and outdoor goods. They are now about to expand that line into the world of apparel.  While we are working on a feature story about Best Made for our iPad edition, we wanted to share our initial conversation with Peter about the genesis of the first ax.

Q. How did you start making axes?
In 2009, the economy tanked. The world seemed like it was coming to an end with all the stuff like the Lehman Brothers demise and the Bernie Madoff scandal.  We had just come out of the Bush Administration. I was going through my own personal turmoil.  I experienced a divorce and the loss of a dog that was like a child to me.  I was also losing a lot of faith in my profession.  As a graphic designer working on package and identity design, the whole profession seemed like it was eroding in the collapse of the economy. I was losing clients and budgets were being cut.
   Then Andy Spade invited me to submit something for the gallery he had started.  And for a very subconscious reason, I chose an ax. I painted the handle and sent it to him, and he loved it. So I did about a dozen of them, and they sold out instantly. I realized then there was more to this ax. It was an excuse for me, obviously, to take control of the matter by starting my own business,  to gain some sort of independence, which is the reason most people start their own companies.  However, it was also a chance to dive much deeper into the world of this object and the lifestyle it affords.  In other words, living life in its most basic form by chopping wood outdoors. And at the back end of the dark doldrum of life, that is all I wanted: to be outdoors and chop wood. And I knew that there were a lot of other people who felt the same way, even if it were just people who spend too much time in front of the computer. Twelve axes led to another, and another and another.  I realized that it was a chance for me to create a whole world with a simple tool. I wanted to try and see if we could encompass other objects and other tools that involve the same feeling, fill the same space, and provide the same use.  
Q. What was your relationship with these tools before the brand?
I grew up on a farm, a small farm where we depended on simple tools. It wasn't like I was running around on a big tractor all day.   It was more about building fences, bringing hay and chopping wood. Growing up on a farm, my only other sibling was a sister, and I didn't really have anyone to play with.  My time was mostly spent on my own, out in the middle of nowhere, building things. These supposedly “adult” tools like axes, hammers, and saws, were a part of my tool bag.  I used them all the time.
Q. Do you feel like you started this business at the right time when people appreciate craftsmanship more than before?
Yes, I do, but it goes back to what I was saying. I don't know if it is a backlash or a reaction to the fact that we all sit in front of a computer all day. That's the main thing. And then, everyone now talks about returning to American manufacturing, and there's this nostalgia about American made stuff. I don't dispute that, but the way I see it is that we have been so inundated with the products that came out of nowhere and go nowhere. We don't consider how and where they were made. Because of that, they are easily disposable. There's little attachment to clothes we wear or food we eat. Maybe it started out with something as simple as the slow food movement. Then when the economy tanks, on the one hand you have less money, but on the other you are inclined to spend that money better than you did before. So, why not buy something given that you know where and how it was made, and the story behind it? It's not made at an anonymous factory. That to me is the whole movement.
Q. I'm amazed by the fact that you have built a business in New York City around an ax.  And to be honest, I’m not sure if people actually use the ax. Does that matter to you?
It does. I would love it if everyone used it. I would guess from our conversations with our customers and our outreach that maybe half of the people use it and half don't. While the use of it is, literally, to go out and chop wood, there's also some use to just hanging it on the wall. It's like a window to the wilderness. That to me is useful. The worst possible scenario is for one of our axes to sit under someone's bed and gather dust. That is horrifying. That is why we have a policy of never ever giving out axes to just anyone because how do we know they want it.
Q. Some of your products come with names and sayings like “Fortitude Ax” and “Be Optimistic Felt Badge.” Where do they come from?
They came from the fact that we are selling an ax. It is a tool that you can hurt yourself with, or in the worst case scenario, you can hurt someone else with. What makes the tool so beautiful and sexy is that it is dangerous. Rather than investing more than we could ever afford on liability insurance, I decided that it makes more sense to impart a message with every ax, one that would be this wholesome, virtuous reminder that says, "Thank you for buying the ax. You can now use this ax on the condition that you are responsible and you use it the right way." The foundation of the cornerstone is this notion of "Courage, grace, compassion and fortitude." Those four things are framing the ax. It's not something you would expect from someone who is selling axes–to be righteous about a product.  Having done that and feeling that it was a good to thing to do, I inquired, "Why can't we apply that to a lot of other things? Why can't we be a company that actually has a good message in general?"  We are constantly putting things out there that will reinforce that we should be good citizens or be optimistic.  With Ralph Lauren we may aspire to wealth and a chateau, but with Best Made, we can inspire to be courageous and content without the chateau or whatever.  
Q. I get it because I met you and know that you mean it.  But does that translate through a line of products?
We’ve just barely scratched the surface.  A lot of the people we’ve reached so far are the ones who already get it. They appreciate the virtues of optimism and courage.  The challenge going forward is being real about it.  To me, religion is kind of scary in that context.  Every brand has a religion entrenched within it. The easiest answer to that challenge is to speak in universal terms.  And you try as hard as you can to stay in the arena where those people are.  You are not speaking from somewhere else, and you are with them.  That to me is the beauty of the outdoor world, a case in point. It is huge. So many people have partaken in that. People who shop at REI, or on a much bigger scale, Cabela's, are all our audience on some level.  It’s hard for me to find reasons that someone who shops at Cabela's would not appreciate what we do.  We represent a lot of things they appreciate.


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