When adults would ask Jonathan Simons what he wanted to be when he grew up, his response was always swift and resolute. “I want to make things.”
Fifty years later, the founder of Jonathan’s Spoons is living up to that aspiration, making handcrafted wooden spoons and kitchen utensils at his workshop in rural Kempton, Pennsylvania.
He will join 224 like-minded souls March 13-15 at the American Craft Council Show, a three-day retail and wholesale event that showcases contemporary jewelry, clothing, furniture and other artisanal work.
For all his prescience as a youngster, even Simons could not foresee how his life’s work would rekindle the kinds of connections that are compromised by mass production. “The further we move away from making and valuing things made by hand, “ he explains, “the more we lose connection with the earth and our connection with purpose.”
Thankfully, the converse applies when he is designing a spoon. “A piece of my soul goes into it,” acknowledges Simons, who describes the touch point between himself and the end user as something akin to a “handshake . . . magically invisible, but real.”
Carved to fit the hand — whether righty or southpaw — balanced in weight and buffed to a satiny finish, Simons’ Pennsylvania cherry wood spoons are as easy on the eyes as they are utilitarian. Tremendous thought is given to elements like angles, shapes and torque. The bowls of ladles and larger serving spoons feature thin, sharp edges that facilitate drip-free pouring. The handles of some pieces are notched so they can perch on the rims of serving bowls, pots and pans. Spaghetti tongs are anthropomorphic and crafted to “pick up pasta the way fingers might,” according to Simons. All pieces are made to withstand heat, fire and cold. And although Simons does not endorse it, customers tell him their spoons do just fine in the dishwasher.
Priced from $6 for a butter knife to $48 for a large ladle (the former had been Simons’ best seller until Rachael Ray introduced the latter, called the “Lazy Ladle,” to Oprah Winfrey’s TV audience), every piece has an undeniable star quality when compared to their facsimiles in the kitchen utensils aisle.
“We tend to treasure and take better care of things that are handmade as opposed to machine-made,” observes Nell Mayer, the store manager at Star Provisions, Atlanta’s premier foodie emporium on the West End. She has seen Jonathan’s Spoons “fly off the shelves regardless of price point,” in part, she says, “because customers regard them as more lasting than disposable.”
Such heirloom appeal makes the collection Mayer’s number one pick when clients turn to her for guidance on purchasing a wedding gift or special gift package. But she also claims that whether or not a client walks into Star Provisions in search of a wooden spoon, “once they hold one of Jonathan’s Spoons, all of a sudden they need one of Jonathan’s Spoons!”
Looking back, Simons cannot pinpoint his inspiration for making items that inspire such loyalty and devotion. But growing up in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania — home to a cathedral and several 20th-century mansions that boast outstanding examples of wood, tile and stained glass from the American Arts and Crafts movement — certainly informed his refined aesthetic. The other major influences were his mom and dad, who limited Simons’ TV intake, placed a premium on outdoor play, encouraged him to build things and, he recalls, “taught me to look at life more deeply and see the purpose in everything.”
Seeing everything has been both a blessing and curse. “One of my weaknesses is that I try to redesign the world as I move through life,” confesses Simons, who majored in art and design at the University of Illinois. “But it makes for too much judgment . . . as my engineering mind says, ‘This doorway is created wrong,’ or ‘The roof structure of that building isn’t correct.’”
Ditto when Simons walks through kitchen supply stores, which he admits he is “unable to do like a civilian.” One of his biggest peeves is the frequency with which manufacturers cut corners to the detriment of utility and functionality. Another is plastic utensils that are fabricated to look like wood. And don’t get Simons started on the “soulless, empty” character that cheaply produced utensils telegraph upon sight and touch. I can practically hear him shaking his head over the phone as he asks, rhetorically, “Why don’t [manufacturers] just spend the extra five cents to get it right?”
If Simons’ mind-set suggests the hippie movement of the 1970s, when artisans opted out of the corporate culture, created alternative marketplaces and earned a living by making things with their hands, it also reflects contemporary values. “We are currently in a craft renaissance, from pizzas to beer,” says Pamela Diamond, director of marketing for the American Craft Council, “and the Internet, DIY movement and Etsy have brought the Arts and Craft movement to a whole new generation of fans.”
Ten thousand visitors are anticipated this weekend, including Nell Mayer. But don’t look for her near Jonathan’s Spoons, because after loading up on them in past years, she says, “I have put myself on restriction!”