We’re kicking off a new Makers Series on the blog, where we’ll share stories from a few of our vendors and the ways they nurture their craft. First up: Steele Canvas, who has been making high quality canvas products in Massachusetts for over a century.
We were first introduced to Steele Canvas when Jo started using one of their baskets in her home a few years ago. The quality, craftsmanship, and unique style convinced us to reach out and ask if we could bring their products into the market. We’ve been carrying their trucks and baskets ever since. But it’s not just the products that set Steele Canvas apart—it’s how they have maintained their values decade after decade, proving that sometimes that old way is still the best way.
We sat down with second-generation owner Paul Lordan (who co-owns Steele Canvas with his brother, John) and Manager of Marketing, P. Franklin Geffken, to talk about the company’s history and values.
Magnolia: Can you walk through Steele Canvas’ history and how the company got started?
Paul Lordan: My father started here in 1960. It was founded in 1921 in Cambridge as a very small shop that dealt mostly with local industries. They made fishing baskets for fishermen. They did coal bags for carrying coal, they did bags and baskets for hauling ice. So definitely times have changed. But the family owned it into the 60s. That’s when my dad started working there, and he and the owner got along great—it was like a father-son relationship. And my dad started taking my brother and I to work when we were kids. To this day, we have some guys who have been here since the mid-70s or early 80s. So although we don't make baskets for carrying ice anymore, we still make very similar baskets, and fortunately, the world has found other uses for them.
P. Franklin Geffken: We've evolved as industries change. I’d describe our product as kind of a chameleon.
PL: Steele Canvas has been great over the past 100 years at adapting to different customers' needs in different industries. We had baskets going out for Magnolia to homeowners. I have a set of baskets that we're putting together for a college football team. We have baskets for the Post Office. So we have our hands in every industry, which is kind of interesting. But everybody has their own set of demands and their own needs, and we do our best as a Steele Canvas family to cater to them on a personal level.
Steele Canvas recently celebrated its 100 year anniversary—watch the video below to see how the company has evolved. We hope it inspires you the same way it inspired our team!
You seem to have this sort of “back to the basics” idea with your products. You’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but you’ve also had to adapt. What’s the importance of that for your company—the balance between these values and the heart that you don’t want to compromise, but also the need to evolve as industries change?
PL: I don't know if it's so much that we’re back to the basics… I think we never left the basics. We started basic and it worked. My father still says, “If it works, why would you ever want to change it?” As far as the production goes, some of the machinery is definitely older than me. We’ve tried to make our process more efficient, but it hasn't changed all that much. Part of it is that it’s what we know, so that's what we do. But it's also that it has worked for 100 years.
Every once in a while, people come in and walk through the shop and say, “This is what you need to do, you need to change this, and you can get this machine to do that.” For a number of reasons, that goes against everything that we stand for. Most of these guys [who work here] I've known for 20 or 30 years. I do need them. They've helped us grow. Why would we ditch anybody just because somebody thinks a new machine might help us? We like what we do, and we like the growth that we have. It's steady, and we do it as a team.
That speaks so highly of the community that's within your company, and you probably feel that sense of community with the roots you have in Chelsea, Massachusetts too.
PL: The community has been great. We've been here since 1986, so most of my memories of Steele Canvas are from Chelsea. I definitely have some from when I was a kid and ran around the old shop [in Cambridge], which was definitely an old-school place. But we’ve got roots with the restaurants up the street, the grocer down the street. Even today, we donated baskets to the local Salvation Army. It’s just that type of community—it feels like home to us. It's a terrific spot to come to work.
FG: We have a good time here. And it is remarkable that if I'm working on a project, I can literally walk out in the factory, talk to three different people, and they can say, “Frank, it's going to ship on Friday,” or “this is where it is in production.” We can work closely with our coworkers to figure out, why can't you sew it this way? How can we help you be more efficient?
PL: I thought I knew what the company was back [when I was a kid], but it was only when I grew up that I realized how much heart [my dad] put into it and how much the people that he worked with actually cared about the place as well as the family. I don't think you'll find that anywhere else.
photo credits—steele canvas
Is there anything specific about the production process that you think would surprise people?
PL: When you open the door into the shop, it's like another world. I think just to see manufacturing up close like that is a surprise to most people. As far as something specific, the stencil that we put on the baskets—we still hand-brush it on every basket, every bag. It’s not printed. It's not done by a machine. If I see “Steele” on a basket, I know there are only five people that probably stenciled it, and I know their names. I think that’s pretty special. Same thing with the Magnolia exclusive baskets, "Magnolia" is also hand-stenciled like that.
This is just for fun, but what is your favorite way to use the iconic Steele Canvas truck?
PL: For years I've been using the basket with a matching lid as a chair. I'm sitting on one now. They're fantastic for storage, but I use it as a chair when we have meetings or I eat my lunch… Everything we make is made to be used. For better or worse, we make our small baskets with the same steel, with the same canvas, and in some cases, the same casters we use to make our industrial baskets, which get 500 pounds pushed in them daily. We use them out in our shop. I know that the average homeowner isn't going to do 200 pounds of laundry a day, but the basket is made to handle it, because that's what we do. Or if you put your kid in it, it'll be just as safe, or if you use it on a job site—it’s going to hold up, day in, day out, rain or shine. And to me that's a great feeling that I never have to worry about poor product going out into the world.
Are there values that you feel like Steele Canvas and Magnolia share?
PL: We are a very family-oriented business, just like Magnolia. A number of my nieces and nephews have worked here after school or during the summer as they have gotten older. My brother’s kids come to the shop sometimes when he has to work on a Saturday. They run around and do the exact same thing we did when we were kids. I'd love to see 10, 15 years from now, one of my nieces or nephews joining the family tradition.
We went down to Waco a year and a half ago, and you can definitely feel the presence of Magnolia in Waco. We’ve tried to do something similar here, where we’re very connected to the community. I don't think one could be as successful without the other. I know this place would be fine without me, but it wouldn't be fine without the crew, and it wouldn't be the place it is without the community that it's in. That's why, although we've been trying to expand our capacity, we will always be a local shop. I don't see the appeal of being anything else.
note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity