A storied allure

There’s something quite distinctive — and compelling — about the creations of David Howell & Company.

But it’s more than the visual appeal of its popular designs, created in Bedford Hills and sold through museum shops, historic sites, botanical gardens, national parks and cultural attractions around the world.

It’s the stories. Each pair of sophisticated (and sometimes playful) earrings has its own history, as do the bookmarks, pins, pendants and custom ornaments.

Take the wrench-shaped earrings, for example, which are on the surface a quirky design. We learn, though, they are based on the story of Elizabeth Hawes, an outspoken American fashion designer who, in the 1940s, found herself working the night shift at an airplane factory. The “Wrenches for Wenches” earring design is based on Hawes’ book “Why Women Cry, or Wenches with Wrenches,” a chronicle of her unexpected wartime experience that found her serving as a union organizer, a champion of gender equality and a political activist.

The design of another pair of David Howell & Company earrings is based on intricate, 1930s wrought-iron lamps decorating St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, while another spotlights architectural elements at The Chicago Stock Exchange.

Still others depict everything from noted works of art to elk antlers, koi fish to ballerinas, birds to water lilies.

Each carries a tale of inspiration, eloquently summarized in the designs’ distinctive packaging that makes the creations meaningful purchases that have been spotted everywhere from Lyndhurst in Tarrytown to Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison to the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library in Manhattan.

It’s as the company website sums up: “All of these pieces of art have voices, and we listen to them when we design. They are our inspiration.”

These stories — along with the David Howell & Company’s own story — were brought further to life on a recent afternoon when WAG visited Howell, the company’s founder, president and artistic force. We met him at the Bedford Hills headquarters of his namesake firm, where both design and manufacturing is done onsite.

For some 40 years, the company has been creating these museum-quality gifts, now sold worldwide from the Sydney Opera House in Australia to the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy in San Francisco, from the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation in Germany to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Highlights over the years included 2015 when David Howell & Company was chosen by the White House Historical Association to create the annual Christmas ornament honoring a past president, that year Calvin Coolidge.

“We’ve done about 10,000 designs,” Howell said, giving a broad overview. “The stuff that sells well stays alive… We turn out about 100 new products a year.”

Throughout the process, Howell takes patterns or details of notable works, turning them into designs in plated brass.

Trade shows — when WAG visited he was preparing for shows first in Paris, then Manhattan — bring his work to the marketplace.

In between would be a trip to Morocco, where Howell said he was looking forward to exploring Casablanca, noting the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972) was influenced by the Moroccan design motifs — and he was ready to be inspired himself.

Indeed, a conversation with Howell might touch topics ranging from Escher to Japanese culture, Tiffany stained glass to Cubist design.

“We’ve had a lot of fun with these,” he said, as he walked us through the countless designs on display in anticipation of the New York show. 

ENDURING INSPIRATIONS

Rather than a walk down a city street, most of what sparks Howell creatively, he said, comes from works of art and architecture, “because they tend to be the original.”

He likes nothing more than to go into a museum and hear the works calling to him, “saying, ‘Look at me.’”

The availability of information online — on art, history and architecture — helps build an appreciative audience, he said, of diverse ages and backgrounds.

“I’ve been mining that in a way.”

Over the years, as his factory churns out piece after piece, Howell has seen many technological advances, with a pivotal step the ability to introduce color to the work. Keeping up with trends doesn’t mean changing the basics, though.

“I start with a pencil, and I do a little sketch, then I work on the computer,” he said of all the designs that begin with his hand.

And that hand is always at the ready: “I carry a sketchbook with me.”

It came in handy one afternoon in Oregon, when he was observing koi at the Portland Japanese Garden and sketched what would become another design.

Howell said there are regional styles and tastes to keep in mind, from the Prairie style architecture favored in the Midwest to florals, especially magnolias, popular in the South. He often works with organizations and institutions to create custom work based on their collections or clientele.

“You squeeze it the way it wants to go,” he said of the wealth of design inspirations that continue to flow.

 “Do I learn today? I still learn today.”

EARLY DAYS

Howell, who grew up in Darien, was long fascinated by “making things” and would often take things apart to see how they work. 

He studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania,  though “I knew I was never going to be an architect.”

He said not to malign the field but felt that, “Most people are cogs in a large machine.”

Going his own way, Howell would spend some years in England, coming back to America at age 27.

“I knew I wanted to make things, so I had an idea. I made these little airplane pins.”

Finding success with them proved elusive, but it started him on a path that would become clear when met Joanne Lyman, who was then handling jewelry reproductions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was, he said, a time when museum shops were “just about to explode.” He would complete her design challenge — to create a proposal for a bookmark on a whirlwind schedule — and basically never looked back.

“I got on a wave that’s been carrying me ever since.”

MOVING EVER FORWARD

Along the way, Howell kept reinvesting in his business.

He talks about a time long ago when he had $20,000 to invest. Would it be a stock that’s since proven to have soared?

“I made the mistake of investing in myself,” he said with a laugh, though you sense he knows it was the right decision.

As he continued to talk about the individual designs, he darted from one “wonderful story” to the next, sharing details of both design and inspiration.

His work with parks, for example, yielded the creation of a pair of earrings based on elk antlers that would seem, perhaps, an acquired taste.

“They’re pretty, and they’re popular,” he said. “Would I have ever thought that?”

Keeping an eye on the future allows David Howell & Company to thrive.

For the first time, the company took a booth at the recent holiday market in Bryant Park, selling directly to the public with great success. Howell manned the booth on Christmas Day, interacting with customers from around the world. 

He said he hopes those conversations and purchases will always remind the buyer or the recipient of that time in New York.

Such a scenario is reflective of what seems to be Howell’s ultimate goal, of creating and selling work that truly has meaning. It’s not simply an eye-catching design but something with a story — and a real person — behind it.

He said that it was perhaps some 150 years ago, if you had a ring, you likely not only knew who made it but had probably met and spoken with the jeweler.

Today, he noted, often that connection is lost.

But at David Howell & Company that spirit lives on.

As Howell said of those who buy and wear his work, “I hope they’ll take away what I feel.”

For more, visit davidhowell.com.

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