The Rise of the Rootless Economy

Increasingly, people are selling everything from everywhere. It’s given hope to communities once shut out of the global economy.
August 2017
(Alex Marshall)
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

The fair, the market, the bazaar -- all have a long and rich history, stretching back thousands of years and featuring prominently in the life of a community.

Governments have always been integral to such markets, designating where they happen, who can sell there and what the rules of exchange should be. In the old days, it was a king or baron. Now it’s a mayor or city council.

Until not too long ago, just about every city had a market, a publicly built structure where local sellers of vegetables, fish and meat peddled their wares. Some still survive and thrive, like Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Washington, D.C.’s Eastern Market. Just about every city also has a more specialized type of bazaar: the trade show, with its own long history that includes the medieval craft guilds. Today often held in city-owned convention centers, these events provide an opportunity for makers and dealers to show off their wares.

Such thoughts were on my mind this spring as I wandered around the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. I go to this high-end trade show every year, and it’s always stimulating to see how the things we sit on, look at and generally use in our homes and offices are being continually reworked and reshaped. The 700-plus participants from more than 30 countries ranged from huge global firms, with fancy pavilions showcasing their products, to booths set up by just a person or two. These small firms might be from Bushwick, one of Brooklyn’s hip ’hoods for artists and craftspeople, or they might be from places like Lawrence, Kan.

That’s where Jennifer Hunt and Ben Koehn hail from. The couple were there to showcase their chief product: wallpaper, which Hunt designs and both of them then make and sell to retailers and designers. This was their first time at the furniture fair; earlier, they had been at one in Los Angeles. As I spoke with them, I realized that the couple might be an example of how individuals and the towns and cities they call home can thrive in parts of the country left out of the largely bicoastal, big-city boom. The trick is to make the rootless nature of the contemporary economy work in one’s favor.

Hunt and Koehn’s Lawrence-based company, Poppy Print Studio, is competitive, they say, with businesses from Milan, New York and Paris. While Lawrence may not have the cachet of those centers of art and creative commerce, its real estate is by comparison outrageously cheap. Hunt and Koehn can afford to own a 2,800-square-foot shop and their own home. “I can have the life I want,” Hunt said. In the past, someone like her might have had to relocate to New York City, but she and Koehn seem to be doing fine in Lawrence. “The internet,” she said, “has changed everything.”

And it’s not just the internet. Although she has a background in physical textiles, Hunt draws her designs directly on a Macintosh computer using Adobe Photoshop. She and Koehn print the designs to wallpaper on a key piece of machinery that occupies a good chunk of their workshop, an industrial Hewlett-Packard latex printer. They then ship the product to distributors or customers around the country. It is these tools that have created the possibility of new jobs in what is sometimes derogatorily called “flyover country.”

Of course, Lawrence is not just any midsized city on the prairie. It’s the home of the University of Kansas, with about 30,000 students and faculty, and all the ancillary benefits a college town usually provides. While the population of most towns and cities in Kansas has stayed flat or declined, Lawrence has grown. Its county, Douglas, was one of only two of Kansas’ 105 counties that voted for Hillary Clinton last year.

So while Hunt and Koehn’s entrepreneurial skills and attitudes may have emerged from a particular local culture, there is nothing that they’re doing in Lawrence that couldn’t be done just about anywhere these days. Decades ago, the technology that enabled entrepreneurs like them to thrive just wasn’t there; today it fuels a new kind of bazaar. If small companies like Poppy Print Studio can’t save the world, or save the country, they are at least rays of light in a changing economy, examples that suggest a way forward for some people and the places where they want to live.