Erik Holmberg's feet straddle two worlds. Trained in computer science, he's been building websites for the last 12 years. But along the way, he started craving something more tactile, more lasting. Namely, an existence that wasn't relegated to cyberspace. That's when he became hell-bent for leather.
"All my things start with a purpose," explains Holmberg, who handcrafts leather wallets, iPad cases, belts, watch straps, bags, tie totems, and an expanding portfolio of goods and materials under the moniker J. Stark, a nod to the iconic James Dean character in Rebel Without a Cause. Holmberg says, "My things aren't necessarily fashion oriented, not decorative, but I find them aesthetically pleasing because they capture a purpose."
In other words, J. Stark is where form meets function. Call it rugged, modern minimalism. Holmberg calls it "defiantly unisex." And here again, he is straddling two worlds, creating products that appeal to both men and women — a utilitarian blend of durability and design, strength and beauty.
Hand stitching leather takes skill, strength, and practice, but, most importantly, time. A single tote can require 12 hours of stitching. Add this to Holmberg's day job, and you've got an entrepreneur who works around the clock to achieve his dreams.
A giant American flag flanks a wall in Holmberg's studio near Colonial Lake. Rolls of subtly hued leather tuck neatly beneath a large hickory work table. An old French letterpress tile drawer holds tools and hardware. Photographs and artwork hang side by side with a mounted tack hammer. Threaded needles (big, fat needles capable of piercing a cow's hide) lie on a rustic coffee table, ready for use. A sleek, large monitor stands ready as a blank canvas for product design and as a portal to the world wide web of potential customers.
"I've always enjoyed manual labor, creating things with my hands," says Holmberg as his five-month-old puppy dances around him. "Then when I saw something that I wanted to buy, I thought, 'I think I'll just try to make that, try my hand at it.'"
He did some web sleuthing to pinpoint the sources for finer materials, which led him to Chicago's Horween Leather Company, a family-run operation more than a century old. Horween ships him custom orders with rich, oily sheens. He rolls one out for me to admire. It smells of spent tobacco and earthy musk. Its shape is, quite literally, the side of a cow. From this, he scores designs with razors, and plays with the natural "pull-up" of the leather (i.e., the lighter hue achieved by gently bending the material).
"When I made my first wallet, there was trial and error," laughs Holmberg. "Honestly, you can't be afraid to fail. The first two or three attempts at a new design get thrown out because they're not good. You learn. By the fourth or fifth, I get to the point where I'm really proud of it and want to sell it."
To handle one of Holmberg's leather creations is a visceral experience. The leather smells great. No bones about it. (If you've never buried your nose in a cherished old catcher's mitt, you're missing out on one of life's simple pleasures.) The material is seductive, made to last, with edges of burnished beeswax. Unlike the questionable craftsmanship of most leather goods flooding our market, J. Stark products are meant to hold up over time. Holmberg digs this fact, knowing that his creations will be used over and over again. It makes him feel connected to the recipients of his products.
Even though Holmberg's handcrafted products are a physical rebellion against his cyber alter ego, the cyber world plays an essential role in the success of his business. It was via Instagram that Sean Brock caught sight of some J. Stark creations, leading to a commission for a portable chef's knife roll. Twitter and Pinterest are alive with J. Stark prototypes and musings. Holmberg just shipped off an item to a fan in Japan. The internet, though not tactile, is a powerful tool for this budding artisan.
What's next in the J. Stark line? "I'm working on a messenger bag," says Holmberg. "And frankly, wallets might not be a thing at some point in the near future. People could be using their cell phones to pay for everything. So I need to be versatile, ready for change."
But for now, when Holmberg is out with his friends for dinner or drinks, and the check arrives, multiple people reach into their pockets. "There will be J. Stark wallets all around," smiles Holmberg. "I feel weird about it, but at the same time, it's kind of cool."
To see Holmberg's creations, check out starkmade.com.