Material Things Artisan Market: A Journey of Handmade Excellence

How do you run a successful business fueled by passion? The answer has always been art and education for this Woodstock Square favorite.

Ken West, owner of Material Things Artisan Market in Woodstock, has blended his passion for art and education as he fosters a welcoming sanctuary for artisans from the local, regional and national spheres.

Ken West hates the word “addictive.” In his eyes, making art is something he enjoys doing every day.

Back in his youth, like the other children in school, he was interested in gym, lunch and recess. But West was mostly drawn to art.

“I just always enjoyed art,” says West. “I can do art and a ton of time will go by and I won’t even know it. The younger Ken would not be surprised at what I’m doing today.”

No surprise, indeed, that West’s Material Things Artisan Market, 103 E. Van Buren St., on the Historic Woodstock Square, has become a vibrant hub for handmade crafts and creative exploration. What started as a passion for glass art and education has transformed into a unique retail space, with exclusive, locally crafted items and a fostered sense of community through art.

A majority of the handcrafted items West carries are sold only at Material Things Artisan Market, making them truly one-of-a-kind finds.

The Wilmette native’s journey into the world of art and craftsmanship took a unique turn during his last semester at the University of Oklahoma when he got a taste for working with glass. While his degree in fine arts and education prepared him for teaching, his love for glass art and the desire to share it led him to establish a store that goes beyond the conventional.

“This is like a miniature studio up here,” he says, showing off the colorful gallery space of his storefront, “and downstairs we have a classroom. We offer fused glass classes down there. That’s what my employees and I make up here and sell.”

Material Things carries West’s handmade glass pieces, but it also showcases the work of more than 100 local artisans. From telephone wire baskets to jewelry, wood, pottery, clothing accessories and more, Material Things is a treasure trove of unique, handcrafted items that continuously evolve as new artisans join the community and current artisans create new work.

West started his art career with glass-blowing and selling his art at regional and national juried art fairs before he opened his own stained-glass studio, The Artful Glazier, on the Woodstock Square in 1979. He closed the store in 1995 and spent more than a decade on a detour that involved a management position at a Crystal Lake car dealership. His desire for regular hours and a return to his artistic roots led him back to Woodstock’s Square in July 2013 when he opened Material Things.

“When I was in the car business, I was still making art in a studio at my home,” says West. “After 14 years, I grew tired of the car business and longed to be creative full-time again. I knew it was time to return to being a shop owner.”

Material Things thrives not only as a retail space but also as a hub for community engagement. West’s commitment to supporting local social service organizations is evident in annual events like the Ride/Walk to Leave a Light On, a lighted bike ride that raises funds for local causes.

“We do that every year to raise money for eight local social service organizations,” says West. “There’s a beginning program with a spoken-word performance. Each organization has a booth where the community can learn about their mission. Then, once it gets dark, we go for a ride all lit up. It’s fun and the community loves it.”

Community engagement doesn’t stop there for West. His store partners with Community Connections for Youth (CCY), a nonprofit West founded in 2002 with several community members. The organization provides positive outlets for young people during their free time.

Among those outlets, West uses his art to help young people channel their time and energy. A youth group from the BREAK Teen Center in Crystal Lake, led by West in the shop’s classroom, sells their art at Material Things, with proceeds benefiting CCY and the center.

This community engagement is infectious for West and other business owners on the Square.

“I’d say three out of four retailers here are always open for running a special that sends some proceeds back to local social service organizations,” says West. “That’s all part of the shop small, shop local mentality. When you spend money at a huge box store, the money goes to a corporate headquarters eight states from here. So, we don’t just want people to shop with us locally, but to partner with us as we do positive things locally.”

Material Things stands out in the retail landscape due to its emphasis on the handmade. This helps to ensure that the items customers find in the store are totally unlike any other gift shop.

The curated selection, from glass and wood to clothing accessories, paints a vivid picture of the talents of local and national artisans. An additional emphasis on fair trade adds an ethical dimension to the store’s offerings to create a space where customers can connect with the stories behind each product.

West offers a range of classes throughout the year in his basement classroom. From fused glass workshops to seasonal glass ornament-making sessions, the store provides a platform for individuals to explore their creative potential.

The commitment to education extends beyond classes, because West grants open studio privileges to his students. This unique approach fosters an ongoing connection between the store and its customers and students.

Small-business ownership has its challenges, West says, but success is buoyed by one’s ability to adapt and capitalize on unique strengths.

West leverages the tactile nature of handmade crafts and provides an experience that online platforms cannot replicate. This approach has allowed the store to maintain its presence in a world increasingly dominated by digital transactions.

“What’s hurt a lot of brick-and-mortar shops is obviously online sales,” says West. “We’re lucky and unlucky at the same time when it comes to that, because handmade crafts are something people want to touch and feel.”

The basement classroom at Material Things allows aspiring artisans to create all sorts of glass wonders, including plates, jewelry, suncatchers and platters.

In dispensing advice to aspiring business owners, West draws upon his wealth of experience and offers valuable insights from his own journey. He emphasizes the importance of thorough research and advocates for understanding market dynamics, potential competition and trends before embarking on a business venture.

“They need to research,” says West. “Any business you’re going to open, you have to research. Talk to people who are potential artisans or customers to get a feel for how much demand there will be.”

West’s advice extends to the delicate balance of adapting to market changes while staying true to the core identity of the business. He stresses the essence of his journey through the spirit of entrepreneurship as a dynamic interplay between passion, adaptability and community engagement.

As Material Things celebrates 11 years in business, West envisions a future that stays true to his roots. The focus remains on offering something unique, expanding the store’s artisanal repertoire and continuing community involvement.

“To be honest, I want to keep doing what I’m doing better, but no big changes,” he says. “I want to keep getting some new artisans in and I want to make new things here on our own line, Material Things Crafts.”