In southern Iceland, there exists a small ecovillage, populated with a sparse hundred or so inhabitants and accompanying guests. While its primary stated purpose is to provide a safe space for those with disabilities, it also promotes organic cultivation and reforestation efforts. One of the oldest such communities in the world, it is a magnet for ecologically-minded artists and artisans, many of whom take up temporary residence there to run workshops and create art in a beautiful environment.
They call it ‘Sólheimar’, literally translated as ‘Sun House’. After spending a semester of study there, Kellen Honey returned home to North Carolina feeling invigorated.
“It was the first place I had seen anyone gather around craft as a lifestyle,” he says. Graduating from Appalachian State University with a degree in Sustainable Development, Kellen had already set himself on a course to becoming an environmental attorney, even taking a job and studying for the LSAT to begin the arduous journey through law school. But instead of following that path as expected, he took an unexpected detour.
At a farmer’s market four years ago, Kellen had a chance encounter with Cole Avery of Cottonwood Handmade, who was selling his own handcrafted leather wallets. “I stuck around and asked him a million questions, and eventually he invited me into his shop, where he showed me how to make a simple guitar strap from thick Chromexcel. Within a few weeks, I’d blown all of my money on cheap tools and bad leather, and was in Cole’s studio every day trying to teach myself how to make bags.”
This was the point where Kellen realized his own way forward would not be as a lawyer in an office, but as one man in a workshop. As a way of paying homage to his experience in Iceland, he decided to name the new venture ‘Sunhouse Goods’.
“I never would’ve imagined this for myself,” he says. Prior to this point, Kellen had no experience with any kind of crafts. “However, something about leatherwork really clicked for me, and I was really surprised with how quickly I was able to pick it up. Every ‘passion’ that I had before this just sort of fell away and felt like a pretense.” Finding quick success selling his goods, it did not take long for leather earnings to exceed the hourly wages at his corporate day job. Within eight months of picking up his first tool, Kellen quit his job and started operating Sunhouse Goods on a full-time basis.
“It was a ‘burn your ships’ type of moment for me. I honestly didn’t expect it to work out, but didn’t really have much to lose and knew that if I didn’t at least give it a shot, I might regret it later.” In order to make it work, he pored over books, online resources, and spent hours experimenting to learn the ins and outs of his new craft. “I also barraged other makers with countless questions.”
Starting in a spare bedroom, Sunhouse’s first real dedicated location was a 1930’s schoolhouse, and resembled an idealized vision of what a workshop could be. Dust motes drift in the air, illuminated by tall industrial windows that let sunlight pour in and set the place aglow. Machines and houseplants occupy windowsills together and bring life to the space. “Even though it was definitely haunted, the light in there was just phenomenal to work in,” he muses. He would move several more times before ending up where he is now, occupying a corner in an active cobbler shop. “It turned out that the shop owner already followed me on Instagram, and shortly thereafter he invited me to move my studio into his shop. I’m now extremely blessed to have a rent-free space to be creative, as well as ample access to shoe repair machinery.”
Like many leatherworkers Kellen started off with wallets and small goods, but soon discovered his passion for bags and other three dimensional pieces. It is here that his skill as a designer and sense of aesthetics really shine. “For me, bags serve as more of a culmination of all of the techniques that I have at my disposal,” he says. The freeform, sometimes meandering design process inherent with bagmaking can be said to describe his artistic style. “In school I was always the type to edit and revise while writing rather than after, and I feel like that’s very similar to the way I make a bag. Rather than do too much planning and patterning, I just sort of freehand it. As long as I’m very present for those moments when I make aesthetic choices mid-build, things usually turn out pretty good,” he explains.
Because of this, Kellen’s work ranges wide from traditional to modern and sometimes even a little abstract, often blurring the line between product and art. Scrolling his Instagram profile you will see his unique interpretations of wallets, handbags, duffels and backpacks, but his artistic voice is at its strongest when he is given a free hand to express a concept. Perhaps the best demonstration of this is the aptly titled Lunar Backpack.
“I think that was the first project I did right after I got my bell skiver and I just got so fixated on using that machine to do something I hadn’t seen before. It was a maker’s choice, and my only instructions were ‘mini backpack, green, moon detail,’ which to me is an absolute hall pass,” he says, excitement evident in his voice even now. Its defining element is the cover flap: a vision of the moon in waning crescent, surrounded by a sea of black sky adorned with pinpricks of stars near and distant. All this is done with clever use of leather, stitches, and a keen artistic eye. “I ended up making and then re-making the front panel of the bag three separate times before I was even remotely okay with it,” Kellen admits.
All the while, environmental impact and sustainability remain the stars by which he sets his moral compass. “It has most definitely influenced the leathers that I select and the tanneries that I choose to source from,” he says. “Unless the client has a specific need for something else, I like to choose Italian veg-tans whenever possible because of the stringent regulatory oversight of their vegetable tanning industry. My general rule of thumb is that if I wouldn’t feel comfortable dropping scraps for my dog to chew on (and possibly swallow), I don’t want it.”
Although both consumers and producers are now more conscious of ecological concerns than ever before, it’s too early to tell how much of an effect it will have in the long run. Kellen is watching and waiting to see how it turns out. “I don’t know that I’ve spent enough time in the industry to have developed an appropriate level of awareness to be making predictions. I’m hoping this whole mushroom leather thing takes off.” Regardless, as makers it is our duty to be respectful of our material, not just with its origin but also its legacy. Kellen sums it up neatly: “We should really be doing our best to make quality stuff that can stand the test of time and not end up in a landfill.”
He would say that his time at Sólheimar gave him many things, but one simple concept stands above the others. “It definitely helped me understand that there are life-paths equally as good if not better than the more traditional middle class options that had been presented to me in my life thus far.” In a time when many of us are rethinking our priorities, that is a lesson worth remembering.