Thank god for Martha Stewart. That’s what Steele Canvas Basket co-owner Paul Lordan says – he attributes a turn-around in his Chelsea manufacturing company directly to the notorious businesswoman. The company’s sales were on the decline and like many manufacturers, Steele was struggling to stay afloat. Then in September 2009, a Steele Canvas product – they make laundry hampers, tote bags, and sling chairs – was mentioned in Martha Stewart magazine, and the response was immediate. Readers from all over the country started ordering baskets. For this longtime industrial maker, a whole new market – home goods – opened up, and Lordan scrambled to rebuild the website to handle the online orders. The tough commercial heritage of these famously tear- and water-resistant thick cotton canvas now exemplify industrial chic. The company has partnered with retailers like Crate and Barrel, J.Crew and Urban Outfitters to design custom products, and Americana-heritage is especially popular now with Asian consumers who want duffel bags and totes stamped with the iconic “Steele” brand. Lordan spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about the family-run business that has produced these iconic canvas baskets since 1921.
“First, a fun fact: Look closely at old movies with laundry room jail breaks, and you will be able to see the “Steele” stamp on the laundry hamper. Steele baskets are all hand-stenciled to identify their manufacturing origin. Maybe you don’t recognize the name, but the signature trademark, the thick duck canvas and double-needle stitching, would be familiar, all hand-made at our shop here in Chelsea. Walk into the plant, and first you’ll be welcomed by my dog, and the shop might seem like mayhem. The busy production floor is where these baskets all come together – we still make them by hand, the old-fashioned way. The fabric is cut and stitched here and steel frame is welded as well. We move 100-130 baskets out the door every day, whether it’s a small basket with leather rims or giant wood-covered baskets for New York stage shows. Steele baskets are used for store displays of flip flops to tank tops; to hold fish on docks, dollars for Brinks security guards; balloons for the Macy’s parade, and much more. If you are driving by any construction site in Boston, you’ll see guys throwing sheet rock into our 12-or 14-bushel baskets; I get a thrill when I see this and have a collection of photos showing them on the job. In peak construction season, some companies will pick up 50 baskets at a whack; every new job that comes through, they get a new basket, since they really get a beating. We are willing to do custom orders, which are maybe 10 percent of our jobs. The last recession really woke us up and we started hauling to build new business. Now we rarely say no to a project. One of the trickiest was making a ‘playground on wheels’ basket to hold foam blocks that had to be certified as child-safe. We invested a lot of time and energy, which at the time seemed nuts, but now Steele has made a thousand of these since. When my father hears about what different customers are using the baskets for, he’ll sometimes protest, ‘That’s not what we make them for!” I keep a copy of every basket we make, whether it’s five or 500, just for the record, so my office is filled with baskets. Some people ask us, ‘Why do you continue to hand-stamp your products with the Steele name?’ I know there’s probably a more efficient way to do it, but It’s just what we do. We use a brass stencil and black ink, and brush on the word ‘Steele.’ I myself have stenciled thousands of baskets and bags through the years. And you can still see Steele baskets in current movies too. We’ve made five or six baskets for film scenes where someone gets murdered by being pushed out the window and into a Steele bin. I’m not sure it’s meritorious that our baskets hold ‘dead’ bodies but it’s great for advertising.”