Two Is Better Than One

Fort Makers Wants To Turn The Art World Into A Playground

An interview with the dynamic duo that make this New York design studio possible.

By Gutes Guterman

Photos by Caroline Safran


Fort Makers wants the world to be a bit more unpredictable.

In an era where sharpness distinguishes work from play and art from utility, Fort Makes playfully blurs these boundaries. Founded by Nana Spears, Noah Spencer, and Naomi Clark in 2008 (Nana and Noah now operate Fort Makers), Fort Makers crafts a world where imagination reigns supreme, and spaces and objects are transformed into vessels for creativity. As the name suggests, Fort Makers, a design-art duo, is not just about the objects or spaces but about evoking a sense of wonder and whimsy reminiscent of childhood fort-building. Experimental and inviting, Fort Makers treats the art world as a playground, challenging conventional design paradigms and prompting us to reconsider our definitions of both.

I talked to Nana and Noah about Fort Makers’ origin story, why having a buddy is better than doing it alone, and the importance of collaboration.

Gutes: How would you describe Fort Makers to someone who doesn't know what it is?

Nana Spears: The easiest way is that it's an art and design studio, and we work with a lot of different artists. So we collaborate, but Noah and I have designed together to have our own collection for Fort Makers.

Noah Spencer: Maybe like an art and design studio that sort of focuses on collaborative projects with a range of artists in different mediums. We really like to explore similar forms, whether it's form or shapes and ideas, but just executed by different artists' hands and the same language but through our Fort Makers.

“Experimental and inviting, Fort Makers treats the art world as a playground, challenging conventional design paradigms and prompting us to reconsider our definitions of both.”

How did you two meet?

Nana: I was living in Fort Greene, I still live in the area, and I was consistently going to this wine bar, and Noah's best friend was working there. So, I became good friends with him, Aaron Fox, and he's from Boulder, Colorado, and that's where Noah's from.

How did it go from you guys meeting at a bar to you realizing you wanted to work on something together? What was it that sparked that?

Nana: I became friends with Naomi Clark (an original founder of Fort Makers), who is also an artist from Boulder. She was at Pratt getting her Master's in fine art and had her thesis show coming up. And so she asked me to help curate it with her.

It was really interesting and fun to play with her painted sculptures like she was really trying to break out of the simple showing of a painting on a wall. There were sculptures and works on the wall that felt like another world you were entering. After that, I was just totally hooked on curating.

When I was going to the wine bar all the time, I was an assistant buyer at Barneys, and I realized I didn't want to do that. And I thought I was going to become a teacher. But Naomi really shined the light on art and the amazing things that can come from collaboration. I thought I wanted to open a store before, but that always felt kind of simple. Then when I met Naomi and Noah, it just fit. I was so excited about the art that they were making.

What was your first work together as Fort Makers?

Nana: After the curation of the show, we started making these quilt paintings, which I bought all these camp blankets off of eBay. We bought a hundred of them, actually, so we had a lot of this work. They're like applique, embroidery, painting all on these old wool camp blankets. That was the first thing that we did with Fort Makers. And I knew I wanted to work with him, so that was our next project.

Noah: Part of how I chimed in with the blankets and the body of work that Nana and Naomi had just created together was we wanted to show the work in different contexts, specifically in the context of nature.

So we went on a handful of adventures to capture that. We once went to New Jersey, where Nana’s from. Eventually, we decided to bring it to Marfa, Texas. We basically packed up all the blankets and flew to El Paso, and then drove from El Paso to Marfa, and in that process, we went through little ghost towns and photographed the blankets there. It was a fun adventure. And the act of involving your physical body in showing the work was kind of part of it. The collaborative endeavor of thinking about how we can use this material. And how many different sorts of iterations or ideas can we sort of glean from this material and show it in these different ways, rather than just the context of white walls in a gallery? So that sort of started that. That's still something that we've evolved a lot over the years.

It sounds a lot like play.

Nana: It is, and doing it on the fly; no one's gonna do it tomorrow. And I have some ideas, but I haven't totally planned everything out. It's like, we're gonna go and play at this location, and that's beautiful. We sort of see it; it's like a landscape painting, but with, like, an action quality.

You guys are obviously a very collaboration-heavy studio, and you love to work with each other and other people. What is it about bringing other people that excites you so much?

Nana: So I got a master's in media studies, and I studied filmmaking. One of the things about filmmaking that's so impressive is that it's a team of talent. It's not just one person. That's something that we really embrace, that more brains are better than just one. And we also believe that, like, that's, that's the future. I'm tired of all these, like, CEOs that are kind of Trumpy, taking all of the company's control and not allowing others to participate. I feel like that's not going to produce the best outcome.

Noah: As I've been on both sides of the equation, making work without feedback and making it collaboratively with Nana, it’s just so interesting; it’s such a different process. I think if you allow yourself not to be the sole author of a work, something inspiring can form.

We also want to highlight the artists’ hand and that form of authorship, voice, and recognizable character. Those things are important. What I hope artists get from working with us is that we push them to look at their work differently. And hopefully, be a little more whimsical and give up holding on to certain ideas. It’s productive to see yourself grow and see your work move.

Nana: Yeah, it's kind of the opposite of the Gagosian model, which is about making what’s been selling and being told, "Oh, please make the same work over and over again." We always want to try to push the envelope and try something new in the way we think about things. And it's an inspiring process. It feels like we're always striving for that: a new idea. Not what you've made before, exactly, but more of a let's try this, let's try that approach. So I think it's experimental.

“It feels like we're always striving for that: a new idea.”

It seems very experimental with a thoughtful sense of whimsy, which I think is kind of rare to stumble upon these days. You guys just did a collaboration with the Ace Hotel, right? Can you tell me about that?

Nana: It's a partnership with their new program AIR (Artist In Residence). They just launched this program across all of their hotels, where every hotel has a gallery, and they are partnering with different organizations like ours that are creative and can bring in other artists. In this situation, we’re the gallery. For a year, we will be putting on four different shows with the theme New York Craft. It's definitely a realm that we've always loved.

We were really inspired by Bauhaus, and working in mediums that are not always considered an art medium, like the way craft is perceived. So there's, that's very familiar for us. The first artist we’re working with is Shino Takeda, for an exhibition called Green House. We loved the space because of the huge skylight on top of the gallery. When we saw that skylight, we immediately thought of planters. There’s a connection between the sky and the life of plants in this space, and so we combined different elements to create the Green House.

The reason I brought that up is because I wanted to segue into your old storefront that was on the Lower East Side. What do you miss or not miss about having a physical gallery?

Nana: Well, there's a lot of pressure to have to make work constantly. And it led us away from making work for ourselves or making our own collections. It was more about doing these conceptual shows, which we love. But it got really intense, like wrangling all of that work. Not having a space with physical constraints is a chance for us to get back to making our own work where we really don't have any limitations at all.

“Not having a space with physical constraints is a chance for us to get back to making our own work where we really don't have any limitations at all.”

As soon as you said it was pressure to make work constantly, I felt like that was the antithesis to the Fort Makers philosophy. Which is about experimentation rather than cyclical creation. It's interesting; sometimes, the thing you think will be the successful moment is actually a detractor from what you really want to be doing.

Noah: I think something that was kind of interesting from those three years that we did that, especially with them being right around the pandemic. I'm not saying it would have been a completely different experience to run a gallery without that, but it did put additional sort of complications around everything. It became exponentially harder to coordinate with the reality of living in a pandemic.

Something that also is interesting about the endeavor is that we sort of were initially thinking about a space, not just a showroom. And then I think we just got excited about the idea of putting on more conceptual shows and being more of a gallery than a showroom. It was a big experiment in the Fort Makers universe. Playing and creating together under particular themes, but trying to it differently, be more unpredictable than the average gallery.

We aren't, and still aren’t, afraid to put our hands into an idea that is completely different aesthetically and schematically from previous work just because it will read as incohesive. We thrive on working freely in that regard. It doesn't work for everybody. But I think it keeps things fresh for us. And also, hopefully, people that appreciate the quirkiness of our brand are sort of more excited about not knowing what’s coming next.

Nana: We want to be unpredictable. We want to grow. And we don't want to stay in the same place. And so that gallery was amazing. It led to the Ace, which never would have happened otherwise. They never would have asked us to apply to the AIR program as a partner without having seen that space. So I feel like it was really saying no, we're part of the art world. Not design--art, art, art. And that's a really hard world to break into. But we've been trying to do it for a long time and trying to do something unique, experimental, different. These are all things we thrive on.

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